Intrigue and Deception Fuel Rebecca Starford’s ‘Unlikely Spy’

Lee Polevoi


An Unlikely Spy

By Rebecca Starford


341 pages


In recent years, there's been a boom in novels featuring female protagonists involved in espionage during the Second World War and the Cold War. Novels like Restless by William Boyd, Transcription by Kate Atkinson, Trapeze by Simon Mawer, and Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan bring new life to a genre sometimes in need of reinvention.


Australian writer Rebecca Starford’s debut novel, An Unlikely Spy, continues this engaging trend.


Evelyn Varley is a young woman recruited by MI5, England’s counterintelligence service, in the early days of the Second World War. The story skips between 1939, when Evelyn is just beginning her undercover work, and 1948, when a chance encounter with a one-time friend serves as a springboard for the unfolding story—and when the consequences of her secret wartime service threaten to wreck her life.



An Unlikely Spy is slow to get started, with numerous characters introduced early on in both timeframes. Among them are Sally, Evelyn’s best friend in school who comes from a family of immense wealth; Julia, Sally’s cousin, who moves in mysterious circles both in England and in pre-war Germany; and Evelyn’s various handlers within the security service.


Starford is good at delineating the finer points of class in England before the outbreak of war. Evelyn visits her friend’s family home, a vast estate of more than a thousand acres, and settles uncomfortably among the occupants. Upon hearing Sally describe her fiancé’s equally affluent clan as “filthy rich,” Evelyn “conjured the image of them scrounging for grapes on their hands and knees in the chalky earth.”


During this visit, Evelyn finds some quiet time to read in one of the estate’s many rooms. An uneasiness comes over her, perhaps a presentiment of what lies ahead—although some time will pass before Sally’s father uses his connections to help Evelyn get recruited by MI5. War with Germany looms ahead, a cause for everyone’s concern:


“And when a horn shattered the silence and the frantic baying of the hounds cut through the air, Evelyn put her book aside and went to the window. From there she had a view of the neat, empty lawn, but a moment later there came the flash of two foxes, so small and lithe they could have been cats, followed by a dozen dogs. The stage had turned eerily quiet, and Evelyn remembered wondering if this was how the final moments of life were experienced: in a cold, unnatural vacuum. She had shuddered away from the glass, but not before she saw a dog break loose from the pack, gaining on the slower of the foxes, until it launched, teeth bared, and clamped its jaws around the poor animal’s flanks.”



This is a vivid example of Starford’s prose at its best. It also serves as a natural-world corollary for the situation in which Evelyn later finds herself—perched on the brink of being uncovered as a double-agent by Nazi sympathizers, where she, “the slower of the foxes,” might be caught in the jaws of a deadly predator.  


Evelyn is charged with infiltrating the Lion Society, a group of homegrown fascists whom the authorities fear might help Hitler and the war effort. She conducts herself with maybe a little too much savoir faire, given that this is her first undercover experience, but soon enough the society’s members ask her to supply classified information from the British War Office.


Then she discovers a surprising personal connection among the Nazi sympathizers—a connection that will return to haunt her in the years after the war.


An Unlikely Spy operates as much on the level of psychological portrait as a recounting of exploits in wartime espionage. This finely textured novel will appeal to readers in search of fuller, rounder characters, rather than the generic heroes and villains that populate many conventional works of spy fiction.


Author Bio:


Lee Polevoi, Highbrow Magazine’s chief book critic, is the author of The Moon in Deep Winter and a new novel, The Confessions of Gabriel Ash, to be published in 2022.


For Highbrow Magazine


Image Sources:

--Cottonbro (Pexels, Creative Commons)                     

--Pixabay (Pexels, Creative Commons)


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