Review: Madeleine’s War, by Peter Watson
Doubleday, 2015. 367 pp. $27
It’s spring 1944, and Matthew Hammond, a colonel in British intelligence, has a torrid romance with the strikingly beautiful Madeleine Dirac, a French-Canadian woman he’s training for a very dangerous assignment. To prepare for the Allied invasion of France, rumored to be imminent, Madeleine will parachute into the country to help coordinate Resistance attacks on German transport and communications. Her survival chances are fifty-fifty, at best, so Matt can only hope that he’s taught the woman he loves the skills she’ll need to make it through.
Watson, who has written social and intellectual history and a couple novels, has taken a risk here. To tell this story, he’s abandoned both the nuts-and-bolts of Allied intelligence operations in France and its historical record, of which other fictional accounts include Simon Mawer’s Trapeze, Alan Furst’s Night Soldiers, and Marge Piercy’s Gone to Soldiers. Such a departure can work, so long as the fiction feels compelling, fresh, authentic, and logical within itself. Depict deep characters whose struggles strike a chord, and it will matter less that the nuts and bolts don’t quite fit the historical template. Unfortunately, however, Madeleine’s War goes in the other direction, toward the ordinary, the predictable, the cliché.
Col. Hammond’s organization, SC2, is supposedly modeled after the Special Operations Executive, or SOE. But SC2 has peculiar ways of winning the war. Madeleine’s job interview consists of a night drop over the English countryside, which, as she soon learns, entails interrogation as a potential enemy agent, during which she’s stripped naked. (Never mind that as an untrained parachutist, she could have broken her neck, or that a soldier could have shot her, causing a security leak and a needless death.) The “mission” tells Matt all he wants to know, including her bra size, but does she resent being humiliated and turned into a sex object? No. During training in Scotland, Madeleine throws herself at him, finding further opportunities to remove her clothes. How, you may ask, does Matt have the time to train agents–only four at a crack, to boot–when he should be in London managing operations? Then again, how does anyone in SC2, let alone a senior officer, conduct an affair without getting court-martialed? Matt and Madeleine aren’t even discreet, taking a walk on a beach and a bicycle outing. Yet nobody raises an eyebrow, lending further evidence that this allegedly top-secret military operation is really a summer camp with occasional brisk exercise.
Consequently, the narrative must work overtime so that Matt and Madeleine can be together. The setup also allows Matt to narrate the rest of the novel from his office, denying the reader the chance to see Madeleine in action or even hear her own voice. It’s his war, not hers.
That pushes all the chips onto the romance, and it’s a bad bet. These people come straight out of a male fantasy in which the woman is gorgeous, undemanding, vivacious, and always willing, while (to reveal the predictable) the man has the chance to rescue her. That she’s something of a ninny–she admires Leni Riefenstahl, Hitler’s propaganda filmmaker, as “an opportunist”–doesn’t seem to matter.
Matt’s not exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer, himself. He constantly states the obvious and amazes himself and others with it, so that they come off no brighter than he is. But that’s partly because of the author’s narrative technique: In scene after scene, one character lectures another to advance the plot or reveal their past, often to say what they should both already know. And considering the security breaches that occur on virtually every page, if these people had actually led British intelligence, the Germans would have driven the Normandy invasion back into the Channel.
Which brings me to my final point, the novel’s trivial conception of espionage. To name only one example, when an ace agent of SC2 returns from two years in the field, Matt notices that he has a pock-marked face and a congenital stoop. It’s as if Matt has never seen him before–odd, if he trained the man–but it’s his reaction that matters here. The spymaster thinks, How brilliant; our agent is so obviously unathletic, unfit for military service, and that’s why the Germans thought him harmless.
But if the SOE had actually given this man a field assignment, he’d have posed an immediate risk to himself and others. An agent had to be fit, to conduct operations and stand a greater chance of escape, if necessary. His or her best–only–protection was to blend into the population. This fellow would have stuck out in any crowd, and the Gestapo would have spotted him right away. The word harmless wasn’t in their lexicon. They terrified a continent because they assumed that anyone could turn traitor, at any moment–and they’d be there when it happened.
That fear never shapes Madeleine’s War, never reaches the reader. I simply couldn’t connect with these shallow characters and their far-fetched actions and motives.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the publisher, in return for an honest review.