Book review: The Spy Who Loved: The Secrets And Lives Of Christine Granville by Clare Mulley

Perfect spy: Christine Granville pictured in around 1950. Picture: Getty
Perfect spy: Christine Granville pictured in around 1950. Picture: Getty
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IN 1963, Peter O’Donnell created the comic strip Modesty Blaise in which a brave, intelligent, resourceful woman who is irresistible to men routinely used her sexual allure to further her aims.

The Spy Who Loved: The Secrets And Lives Of Christine Granville

Clare Mulley

Macmillan 18.99

Few real-life characters match up to that particular male fantasy, but Christine Granville, the daughter of a Polish aristocrat who became Britain’s longest-serving female spy in the Second World War, came closer than most.

Born Krystyna Skarbek (Christine Granville was her nom de guerre from 1941 and the name she took when finally becoming a British citizen in 1947) her courage was legendary. In 1944, for example, when two British agents had been captured by the Gestapo, she approached the Germans herself and bargained for the agents’ release. For these and other feats of bravery, she was awarded the George Medal and the OBE by the British and the Croix de Guerre by the French.

There is nothing sensational about Clare Mulley’s biography of her, which scrupulously attempts to separate fact and fiction in telling the story of Granville’s life, first as a socialite in pre-war Warsaw and then in the various countries where, along with some of her many lovers, she operated as a spy.

After volunteering her services to Britain’s Special Operations Executive (SOE) in 1939, she skied from Hungary into Nazi-occupied occupied Poland as part of a network fittingly called The Musketeers, a group of dedicated Polish patriots who gathered valuable information and channelled refugees and downed British pilots to safe havens.

Granville moved on to operate from Cairo and later from London. After training amid an elite group of women with the necessary language skills, courage and dedication, she was parachuted into occupied France to liaise with the Resistance, assisting with acts of sabotage and collecting intelligence, before taking on similar missions in Poland in the closing months of the war.

The book clearly highlights that the work of an in­telligence agent is not always exciting. There were long periods of boredom when Granville was waiting to be redeployed; times when it seemed political tensions between the British government and the Polish government in exile would bring to an end her valuable contribution to the war effort.

After the war, Granville found herself virtually ignored and was reduced to working in a hotel as a chambermaid. She then found a job as a stewardess on a cruise liner, only to be murdered in 1952 by an obsessed ex-lover, who would nowadays be described as a stalker.

What one might expect to be a compelling story of an unorthodox and vibrant woman, however, is anything but. Mulley attention to detail results in a work in which every fact is examined at length.

As would be expected, there are few first-hand accounts of Granville’s work, and she herself wrote virtually nothing about operations. Mulley is therefore forced back on official documents and the memoirs of Granville’s friends and colleagues, who spent a lot of time defending her reputation. The result is a biography which, for all its undoubted accuracy, all too often loses its narrative drive. «