- - Thursday, September 7, 2017


Maggie Hope is a mathematician and code breaker who has become a spy during World War II and faces a crucial choice that could end her espionage career.

She is a Special Operations Executive, operating in England at levels that involve not only Winston Churchill but the British royal family. It was her decision to parachute into occupied France and a situation of enormous danger.

Plans are underway for the Allied invasion that will be an initial step toward ending the war, and Maggie is determined to join other SOE staff, including her own sister, in bringing this about. And there is considerable irony in the fact that her moral scruples about putting spies at risk take here far beyond previous levels of conscience.

In her work as a spy Maggie has killed and coped with the monsters of the Nazi regime including Joseph Goebbels and Hermann Goering, yet she balks at taking a position that will involve sending other espionage agent to their deaths because they are unwitting double agents under her control. She has reached a point where she will not knowingly endanger the lives of her staff, being aware of what has happened to others unaware that they were in more peril than they realized, and winding up facing torture and execution at the hands of the Gestapo.

The book takes on an intriguing and harsher tone when it moves away from a basic spy story to raise the question of whether and how many agents like Maggie Hope ultimately could not cope with a disinformation campaign as one of the ways to win the war. Susan Elia MacNeal, the book’s author, emphasizes that even now there is no full information about how tactics were used that probably killed agents.

The question “The Paris Spy” poses is the point where someone like Maggie Hope decided to rebel against the cause she was fighting for if its human cost was too high — and also too cynical.

Maggie cannot accept the philosophy of Col. Henrik Maartens, a high ranking member of the espionage group, who tells her that sending agents into a potential death trap is “a route that must be taken.” Maggie’s carefully cultivated composure cracks and she refuses to cooperate with Maartens’ description of how a disinformation campaign must work. When he acknowledges that agents will be unaware of the double nature of their work, she explodes:

“No They must be convinced the information they’re carrying is good. So if they break under torture they won’t give away the game. That when they break under torture, they’ll reveal what you want then to — and not the truth about the invasion. She sucked in a breath.

“Good God — it’s like Kipling’s tethered goats. A blood sacrifice.” And the colonel reminds her, “War is sacrifice.”

He reacts unemotionally to her uncharacteristic hysteria, warning her, “You need to grow up.” When she reiterates her response is “an unequivocal no” to what he is telling her to do, the colonel does not hesitate to react by making Maggie at least temporarily useless in the role in which she had so far been so successful. How many Maggies existed during the war perhaps no one will ever know.

Yet the author notes that the question remains whether there were triple agents working for SOE, the Gestapo and even MI-6 and that they were deliberately sacrificed to protect the all important secrets of the plans for the Allied invasion. There remained no definitive answers to those questions, she observed, “and the issue is still fraught with controversy.”

It is likely that the story of Maggie Hope as agent will continue, but it is also likely that the course she has drawn up for herself is more moral than practical in the final stages of a global war.

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

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By Susan Elia MacNeal

Bantam, $26, 320 pages

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

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