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Review: Spitfire, by M. L. Huie
Crooked Lane, 2020. 320 pp. $27

June 1946 marks about a year since Olivia Nash’s war ended, but peace hasn’t reached her yet, and may never. Living in a vodka bottle, behind on her rent for her London flat, Livy’s stuck in a proofreading job at a third-rate newspaper, which she’s unlikely to keep much longer. Wartime memories plague her like the Furies, but she can’t even tell anyone or share her stories, for what she did was very hush-hush: She parachuted into France as a secret agent and fought with the Resistance. The Germans nicknamed her Spitfire.

Most people would find proofreading dull after those exploits, but for Livy, it’s killing her. She’s furious and bereft, and nothing can assuage the pain. However, just when she’s at her lowest, a man with an aristocratic bearing and an air of the skirt-chaser tracks her down, offering a job in “journalism.” Livy suspects it’s an elaborate ploy of seduction, but she has nothing left to lose, so she goes to the address on the man’s business card. And when her would-be employer, Ian Fleming, pushes the Official Secrets Act form across his desk, Livy signs. She won’t be writing or reporting; she’ll be spying.

Old Admiralty Building, London, where Ian Fleming worked for Naval Intelligence during World War II, as it appeared in 2010 (courtesy Tim Gage, via Flickr and Wikimedia Commons)

Regrets follow. Fleming tells her that the Frenchman who betrayed her and their group leader, whom she loved, belongs to a network very much alive and kicking. The British want the names of agents in the network, as do the Soviets and Americans, and her assignment is to go to Paris and obtain the list. Livy wants nothing to do with the traitor, let alone aid his prospects for employment by His Majesty’s Secret Service. But she accepts the job all the same (otherwise, there wouldn’t be a novel), whereupon Fleming sends her to charm school for two weeks, to file down her sass and her Lancashire manners and accent.

Those scenes are a lot of fun. Rest assured that our heroine will learn how to drink tea properly and mingle with diplomats, but plenty of sass remains. In Paris, she meets an American agent to whom she’s attracted, but that’s a trap, so she turns down his repeated offers to work together. When he complains that they both want the same thing, so why not? Livy retorts, “Really now, me mum raised me right.”

Another pleasure of Spitfire is the story. “No — and furthermore” blooms on almost every page, it seems, and bears lasting fruit. Double-crosses (or, shall we say, shifting alliances) continually force Livy to scramble, and, as a result, she gets in and causes plenty of trouble. She makes mistakes, sometimes bad ones, but her gifts for tradecraft and her extraordinary courage carry her through. The boys may think she’s just a pretty nonentity, but a few of them wind up on their fat behinds, sometimes literally.

Huie spends little ink on scenery, just enough to give a flavor of postwar London and Paris. Sometimes I wanted specific rather than generic descriptions, but dialogue and action do the work, and Livy’s voice is irresistible:

Livy assumed [the door lock] would be of a certain quality — perhaps tougher to spring than one in an average flat. Still, burglary had been on the curriculum at the SOE camp, and she’d picked more than a few locks in her day, though never while wearing a tight satin dress in a hallway in one of the best hotels in the world — but there had to be a first time for everything.

I don’t understand why Livy likes the American agent; then again, she’s shown poor judgment in her life about men. I’m also not convinced by a particular, crucial double-cross, despite the amount of space that the narrative gives to explain it. On a pickier note, I can’t stand the word impact as a verb — it’s business-speak — and I doubt very much whether Englishmen and -women of 1946 would have used it. But pickiness aside, I enjoyed Spitfire, and I think many readers would too.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.