The Secret Agent
A young woman is dropped behind enemy lines where she faces unspeakable dangers and unexpected love in The Secret Agent.
Sylvie Duchene lived in France till she was fourteen, travelling with her mother’s dance troupe and thoroughly enjoying the bohemian lifestyle Angelique provided for them. Her own intention had been to join the performers once she was old enough but her mother’s death changes all her plans. Sylvie relocates to England to be with her father, where she becomes Sylvia Crichton, a mature, responsible, respectable young lady. At least on the surface.
When the opportunity comes for her to train in espionage and return to her Nazi-occupied homeland, she jumps at the chance to fight to free her people. The training for the experience is intense but exhilarating and Sylvie is excited as she lands in France under the cover of darkness, and then completes a complicated, clandestine journey to Nantes. But things go wrong once she reaches the city. Her contact fails to meet her and she spends anxious hours wondering what to do next. Eventually, with no way to know friend from foe, she heads to her final destination, the nightclub Mirabelle, where she had been told there would be a position for her as a dancer.
There is a spot open but because she has no idea how or to whom she should identify herself as an agent, she has to audition for the job. Fortunately, her skills are strong enough that she receives probationary employment and starts her new life entertaining the German clientele and hopefully, learning their secrets. But the position is fraught with peril; Felix, the pianist at the club, offers her the code phrase her contact had been meant to give her but he looks nothing like the person she was to meet. Is he a German spy who acquired the information by force or is he what he claims to be, a friend of the guy who should have met her and who is taking his place? Every decision, every movement will be a dance with danger as Sylvie works to save the country she loves from the vicious predators who have claimed it.
One of the best things about this novel is how the espionage portion of the tale is handled. I will try not to rhapsodize too much over this issue but I’ve read a string of books where the Nazis would have had to be bumbling fools to not immediately spot the ‘secret agents’ working in their cities. Not in this case. Sylvie is perfect for her role – a well-trained dancer, a native French speaker and someone who is familiar with both the world she is entering and the territory in which she is placed. She is quick witted and suspicious – excellent traits for someone who would have to outsmart the enemy. Her entire circuit is made up of similar people, which makes them all feel very believable and realistic. The way they pass information, choose targets, behave in unexpected circumstances – all of it is exquisitely true to life.
The author also does an excellent job in her portrayal of the heroine. Sylvie has spent the last several years not just longing for France but for the life she had had there. Her father and his wife are rather staid and academic, concerned with presenting a dignified, sober front to the world. The camaraderie of dancers, the exhilaration of nightclubs, the more open and accepting lifestyle, the company of people who love laughter and music and late nights are what she longs for – and finds at Mirabelle. Thanks to the strictures placed upon her when she lived with her English family, she has a tendency to be somewhat awkward and off-putting away from this environ but when she is there, she shines.
At the start of the story we are also told how Sylvie can be sexually repressive, how her SOE superiors had reservations that her “shell is so hard and your manner so cold that no one would be fooled into thinking you cared for them.” When she auditions at the Mirabelle she is advised she is technically good but, “You dance like you don’t mean it. Like you are a machine. Can you make yourself into a seductress?” As our story progresses, we learn the history that makes her this way and also watch as she, once returned to the setting she considers her real home, transitions from someone who is buried deep inside herself to a warm, enchanting woman.
Another character who is handled extremely well is that of Verwaltungs-Sekretar Dieter Bauman, a young German officer who develops a crush on Sylvie after seeing her at the club. He attributes her mild frigidity to shyness, giving him the sense that like him, she is innocent and reserved. The author wisely doesn’t make him a buffoonish bully but nor does she make him a sweet, helpless victim of the regime. The balance she brings to this character allows us to both see his humanity and how, in spite of that, he is very much a willing part of a system destroying the lives of the people around him.
The superb characterization of Dieter made it especially disappointing that the one character I found difficult to know was Sylvie’s love interest, Felix, who might (or might not) be a fellow resistance worker. While the author does, as the story progresses, provide us with background information on him, I never felt his character exceeded the gruff, handsome Frenchman stereotype. I understood why Sylvie loved the Mirabelle and the people who worked there, I just never got why she found herself so attracted to Felix.Their growing romance seems almost tepid compared to the excitement and tension of the war work and the general love Sylvie felt for France and her new life.
And while I appreciated the flashbacks which provide insight into Sylvie’s character I also felt they were overly abundant and slowed the pace of the narrative. There were moments when they jolted me from the text and disrupted the tale, and it would take a while to get back into the rhythm of the story taking place in occupied France after those forays into the past.
Those slight quibbles kept The Secret Agent from reaching DIK status but they definitely didn’t keep it from being a good read. If you love novels of WWII espionage and about brave women triumphing in adverse conditions, I believe you will enjoy this book.