- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 11, 2006


By William Boyd

Bloomsbury, $24.95, 304 pages


The discovery that your well groomed, gray-haired mother used to be a World War II spy who once killed an enemy agent by stabbing him in the eye with a pencil is the kind of revelation that would get any daughter’s attention.

Especially when it also unveils an espionage operation that involved British intelligence as part of the desperate wartime effort to drag the United States into hostilities despite its strong inclination to avoid more European military entanglement. British Security Coordination in World War II was focused on the power of propaganda planted in newspapers to influence American attitudes.

Mr. Boyd has whipped up an intriguing, low-key spy thriller that neatly conveys the shock Ruth Gilmartin experienced upon discovering that the mother she knew as Sally Gilmartin is in fact Russian-born Eva Delectorskaya who, in between babysitting her grandson, is still worried that her wartime past will catch up with her.

And it was quite a past. She was lured and seduced into British intelligence work by the sleek and sinister Lucas Romer, a spymaster unimpeded by scruples, from whom she learns the dark arts of espionage that almost end her life. Eva has spent almost half a century trying to blot out her career as an agent, finding happiness in marriage to an Irishman who knew nothing of her past, raising her daughter and spending her widowhood in an idyllic English village.

But she remains haunted by the work she did during the war years and also remains convinced that even now, someone from the past is trying to kill her. Her daughter recalls that when she was misbehaving as a child, her mother would rebuke her by saying, “One day someone will come and kill me and then you’ll be sorry.”

She reflects that children don’t usually take such parental threats seriously, yet concludes that in the light of what she has learned about her mother, she understands “that bitter dark current of fear that flowed beneath the placid surface of her ordinary life … she was always frightened that someone was going to come and kill her. And she had good reason.”

That of course is one reason that Sally Gilmartin writes the story of her life as Eva, and turns it over to her astounded daughter. The other reason is that she still seeks revenge on Romer, now a peer of the realm, the spy she loved and who betrayed her.

The joint plot and counterpoint of tension between mother and daughter is skillfully done, yet what fascinates is the account of Eva’s life as a spy in what proves to be the unglamorous world of unquestioned rules and secrecy. The author captures the drudgery and the drabness of basic intelligence work where wearing a mackintosh is about as close as Eva gets to the dramatic trenchcoated existence of movie spies.

Proving she can spend a night alone in Scottish hills as part of her training, Eva buttons her mackintosh, pillows her head on her scarf, and reflects on her espionage lessons as a “kind of eccentric boarding school” where she had learned Morse code, how to shoot handguns, how to trap, skin and cook a rabbit, how to construct and break simple codes, how to tamper with documents, how to follow a suspect and how to know when she was being followed.

She also has foolishly fallen in love with her spymaster, and lives to regret it. Transferred to work in the United States, she becomes immersed in danger and deception as she struggles to master an occupation in which no one can be or should be trusted. Her training is successful in that she uses the lessons she has learned to save herself and to escape.

Eva’s story dominates the book, yet her daughter Ruth has inherited her mother’s strengths and she is swift to realize that the strange world her mother knew will always be with her. Together, they take revenge on the spymaster Romer, who proves to be a peer of the realm, and he has not forgotten Eva either.

Ruth gradually comes to realize the skill with which her mother has manipulated her. “The writing of the memoir, the sense of danger, the paranoia … all designed to make me part of the process of finding and unearthing her quarry. But I realized something else had triggered her into acting now after all these years … some sense of perceived danger.”

She notes that it was “resourceful clever Eva Delectorskaya who had engineered a little drama that had drawn her daughter — her necessary ally — into the plot against Lucas Romer.” Eva had been carefully running her daughter like a spy. Yet Ruth adds, “I couldn’t blame her and I tried to imagine what the toll had been over the decades.”

She wonders whether Eva will ever be at peace and she gets her answer after Romer’s death when she sees her mother training binoculars on the wood outside her house and realizes she can never be unguarded or at ease because in the depths of her mind, she was still a spy.

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.

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