It’s a paradox of spycraft, just as it is of some forms of editing, that the most successful acts of espionage are the ones least noticed. And sometimes spies’ accomplishments are hidden even in history.
Take the novel-worthy story of Mary Bowser, who gathered information for the Union Army by posing as a slave in the Confederate White House during the Civil War: Her identity (including, as it turns out, her real name) has been blurred in public memory thanks to archival gaps and errors that fooled even some historians. Similarly, several recent books note how little attention has been paid to the contributions of female Allied spies—who, in some cases, slipped through enemy defenses by exploiting the ways in which men underestimated them.
The strange and daring schemes dreamed up by America’s Office of Strategic Services to defeat Hitler sound like the stuff of fiction, but were in fact shaped by a pair of men with larger-than-life personalities, as the writer Sam Kean documents. A biography of John le Carré recounts how the novelist turned his troubled childhood and experience in MI6 into tales of treachery and disillusionment. And the many iterations of James Bond illustrate how his creator, Ian Fleming, made the hero an icon in part by giving him few personality traits.
Each week in the Books Briefing, we thread together Atlantic stories on books that share similar ideas. Check out past issues here.
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What We’re Reading
World War II’s female spies and their secrets
“In intelligence, as in computer science and so many other fields associated with male prowess, women have made far more important contributions than they have gotten credit for—but a recent boom in attention to their stories is remedying that.”
📚D-Day Girls: The Spies Who Armed the Resistance, Sabotaged the Nazis, and Helped Win World War II, by Sarah Rose
📚Madame Fourcade’s Secret War: The Daring Young Woman Who Led France’s Largest Spy Network Against Hitler, by Lynne Olson
📚A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II, by Sonia Purnell
📚Code Name: Lise: The True Story of the Woman Who Became WWII’s Most Highly Decorated Spy, by Larry Loftis
The bizarre ways America’s first spy agency tried to overthrow Hitler
“They crafted shoes and buttons and batteries with secret cavities to conceal documents. They invented pencils and cigarettes that shot bullets. They devised an explosive powder called Aunt Jemima with the consistency of flour that could be … baked into biscuits and nibbled on without any danger; only when ignited with a fuse did Aunt Jemima detonate.”
📚The Bastard Brigade: The True Story of the Renegade Scientists and Spies Who Sabotaged the Nazi Atomic Bomb, by Sam Kean
The case of a Civil War spy’s mistaken identity
“The photograph has been circulated by NPR, Wikipedia, libraries, history projects, and in my book, The Secrets of Mary Bowser. There’s only one problem: The woman in the photograph was no Union spy. How did we get it so wrong?”
📚The Secrets of Mary Bowser, by Lois Leveen
The inner life of James Bond
“[Bond is] a hero almost without psychology: a bleak circuit of appetites, sensations, and prejudices, driven by a mechanical imperative called ‘duty.’”
📚Solo, by William Boyd
📚Thunderball, by Ian Fleming
📚Colonel Sun, by Robert Markham a.k.a Kingsley Amis
📚 License Renewed, by John Gardner
📚 Devil May Care, by Sebastian Faulks
The double life of John le Carré
“His Cold War novels were psychic microfilms of an Establishment hollowed out by deceit, denial, and inadequacy. They outraged his fellow spies.”
📚 John le Carré: The Biography, by Adam Sisman
📚 The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, by John le Carré
This week’s question comes from Peg, who’s looking for readings and quotes appropriate for memorials, funerals, and prayer cards.
When my grandmother died a few years ago, I pulled out every poetry book on my shelf in search of a quote to reprint in her memorial program. Unexpectedly, the perfect lines to remember a woman who spent much of her 97 years in the garden turned out to be from the “Garden Song,” performed by Pete Seeger and others: a prayer to “find my way in Nature’s chain.” Every family has a different way of remembering those lost, but here are a few texts to start with.
Christina Rossetti’s “Remember” is a gentle reminder to mourners to keep on living; James Weldon Johnson’s “Go Down, Death” takes on the cadence of a sermon to imagine an old woman’s last moments and to urge her loved ones to “weep no more.” Some might find comfort in Kahlil Gibran’s “On Pain,” which reflects on the transformative power of heartbreak, or in Naomi Shihab Nye’s “Kindness,” which describes how that quality becomes more recognizable with loss. There’s also A. R. Ammons’s poem “In View of the Fact,” in which an aging speaker promises poignantly that:
until we die we will remember every
single thing, recall every word, love every
loss: then we will, as we must, leave it to
others to love.
Write to the Books Briefing team at email@example.com or reply directly to this email with any of your reading-related dilemmas. We might feature one of your questions in a future edition of the Books Briefing and offer a few books or related Atlantic pieces that might help you out.