Book review: The Spy Who Loved by Clare Mulley

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If ever proof was needed that fate works in the strangest way, look no further than the life and death of Christine Granville, Britain’s first female spy of World War Two.

Signed up by the intelligence services long before the SOE was established, the Polish-born special agent – reputed to have inspired Ian Fleming’s Bond girls – survived mission after mission, only to be stabbed to death by an obsessed stalker in a seedy London hotel lobby seven years after the war ended.

Clare Mulley’s gripping biography captures the bizarre rise and fall of Granville, born Krystyna Skarbek in Warsaw in 1915, in all its colourful and daring complexity.

Charismatic, beautiful, quick-witted and highly sexed, Granville, the name she adopted when she fled to Britain in 1939, was addicted to adventure and danger. Her undercover work saw her skiing into occupied Poland, serving in Egypt and parachuting into occupied France.

Despite being awarded the George Medal, the OBE and the Croix de Guerre, Granville, daughter of a feckless Polish aristocrat and his Russian Jewish wife, was virtually ignored by the authorities at the end of the war and she disappeared into obscurity ... until now.

Mulley’s painstaking research and her passionate interest in Granville has given back to us this fearless, fascinating woman who once walked imperiously into a Gestapo chief’s office in France in 1944 and successfully demanded that he free a group of her fellow operatives, bluffing that she would call in Allied bombers.

Granville was promiscuous throughout her adult life and had a string of lovers including Andrzej Kowerski, a fellow Pole and one of her comrades-in-arms, who is buried at the foot of her grave in the Roman Catholic Cemetery at Kensal Green in London.

When Granville’s father died in 1930, leaving his family virtually penniless, Granville went to work in a car showroom but, worried that she had TB, she took herself off to a sanatorium in the Tatra mountains of Poland.

After a failed marriage, she literally fell into the arms of Jerzy Gizycki on a ski slope and eloped with him to Ethiopia where he served as Poland’s consul general until the outbreak of war in September 1939.

After fleeing to Britain, Granville was recruited by the intelligence services. Her resourcefulness and determination won her release from arrest more than once, and saved the lives of fellow officers on several occasions. As far as the Allies were concerned, the intelligence she smuggled to the British hidden inside her gloves was a significant contribution to the war effort.

It was Granville’s dauntless spirit, her courage and enterprising nature that made her the perfect spy. On the other hand, peace time seems to have been her nemesis. Restless and without real purpose, she took on menial work and found the boredom and loss of direction hard to handle.

Mulley’s compelling and very readable account of her life pulls no punches ... she gives credit to her subject’s extraordinary mesmeric personality without losing sight of the detachment which allowed her to cruelly use and discard admirers and which may, ultimately, have led to her death at the hands of a deranged and disgruntled former lover.

‘Christine’s defining passion,’ she concludes, ‘was for liberty: in love, in politics, and in life in its widest sense.’

(Macmillan, hardback, £18.99)