The Life of Vera Atkins,
The Greatest Female Secret Agent
of World War Two
By William Stevenson
Arcade, 354 pages, $32
A Spy's Wife:
The Moscow Memoirs
of a Canadian Who Witnessed
the End of the Cold War
By Janice Cowan
Lorimer, 216 pages, $24.95
My Secret History in the CIA,
Watergate and Beyond
By E. Howard Hunt with Greg Aunupa
Wiley, 332 pages, $30.99
It's easy to trivialize and debase the world of espionage. So many have had a hand in such dumbing-down operations over the decades. Their legions include hack spy novelists, Hollywood film producers, popular biographers and even, on occasion, retired denizens of the secret world themselves. The tide of bad writing on espionage seems unstoppable.
William Stevenson, a journalist and popular writer, enjoys special status in the ranks of the trivializers. He is the author of A Man Called Intrepid, probably the best known account of espionage with a Canadian twist. "Intrepid" was the wartime code name for Sir William Stephenson, a man with a remarkable personal history who rose to a significant position as a linchpin of the very special intelligence alliance forged among Britain, the United States and Canada during the Second World War Two.
Stephenson headed British Security Co-ordination, the British intelligence outpost in New York. He loved the great game and proposed, when the war was over, to set up a peacetime spy service in Canada. Ever cautious, Canadian officials scotched the idea.
Intrepid was certainly worthy of a biography, but found the wrong scribe in his near namesake, William Stevenson. Stevenson had trouble sorting fact from fiction, or perhaps just didn't care. His indifference to the distinctions between truth and invention infuriated many scholars, none more so than the legendary Sir Hugh Trevor-Roper, a distinguished historian and a senior official of the British Secret Intelligence Service in the Second World War.
In one of the most excoriating reviews ever published, Trevor-Roper suggested that hoping Stevenson might function like a historian would be "like urging a jellyfish to grit its teeth and dig in its heels. The poor creature lacks the rudimentary organs for such an operation."
Thirty years later, Stevenson has returned to the fray with a biography of another legendary wartime agent. His subject this time is a woman, Vera Atkins, who served in the British Special Operations Executive, responsible for sabotage and aid to resistance movements in occupied Europe. Atkins was the senior intelligence officer for SOE's "F" section, which dropped agents into France. In that capacity, she strove to recruit the most capable operatives, keep them alive in the field and debrief them on their return so as to furnish the next agent sent by parachute, small boat or Lysander aircraft with the best possible cover and knowledge of conditions in France. It was an exacting job, carried out by an exacting woman, of whom one SOE agent said, "The woman knew she could master anyone in trousers."
At the end of the war, Atkins, who was born in Romania to a Jewish family, went on a personal (but officially condoned) mission to Europe to discover the fate of the agents from her section who had failed to return. She was particularly anguished by the fate of the women agents she had dispatched into the night, many of whom wound up in Nazi concentration camps and were executed. She took 118 names with her to Europe and, in a remarkable feat, tracked down the grim story of every one. In the process, she visited concentration camps, grilled SS camp officials and provided information to war-crimes prosecutors. She was, by all accounts, a fury.
Vera Atkins died in June, 2000, at the age of 92. She also deserves better than Stevenson. Spymistress, subtitled in part The Greatest Female Secret Agent of World War Two, is a farrago from beginning to end. It begins with a scenario in which a young Boy Scout riding his bicycle through the Blitz in London carries messages to a woman with a beguiling bosom. The young Boy Scout is William Stevenson; the bosom belongs to Vera Atkins.
The book goes downhill from there. It ends with Vera's "steely gaze" directed at an SS camp overseer whom she is interrogating. Really, the less said the better, though I think the late Trevor-Roper would not be surprised by the many jellyfish moments.
On to a happier book. Janice Cowan's A Spy's Wife offers an unusual glimpse of a lost world, the fast-unravelling Soviet Union. The unusual glimpse is afforded by Cowan's role as an intelligence gatherer who operated alongside her husband, a Canadian air force officer posted as defence attaché to Moscow in 1991.
Military attachés have long functioned on the borderline between overt collectors of information, with full protection as accredited diplomats, and black-hat spies, capable of causing not a little embarrassment to their governments if caught somewhere out of bounds with one of those nifty little Minox cameras in hand.
This hybrid function is little talked about, and no doubt some Ottawa veterans of the Cold War will wince at the details that Cowan spills of her and her husband's activities. Her account of her pre-assignment operational training, and of her various intelligence-gathering tours to Soviet hot spots is convincing.
But what threatens to drop this otherwise charming little book into the trivia basket is Cowan's incurable and self-confessed romanticism about intelligence. Better if she had read up on Somerset Maugham, who performed his own intelligence mission to the Soviet Union in its earliest days. Maugham reminded readers of his novel Ashenden that intelligence was mostly about tedium and routine, and being a very small cog in an unfeeling and maybe not very smart machine.
E. Howard Hunt learned all about being a small cog in a big machine when his long intelligence career suddenly landed him a job in the Nixon White House. Hunt's intelligence background included a starring role in the CIA's operation to overthrow the government of Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala, deemed a success at the time, and in the calamitous failure of the Bay of Pigs, which foolishly flung a CIA-trained brigade of Cuban émigrés against Castro's regime in 1961.
In recovery mode after the Bay of Pigs, Hunt stayed with the agency, but started a second career as a spy novelist, with the tacit approval of CIA director Richard Helms. He wrote under the pseudonym of David St. John, though the fastidious Library of Congress blew his cover when they listed his real name for copyright purposes.
Hunt brought three traits to the Nixon White House when he signed on in 1971: his experience in covert operations, his capacity to fantasize and his overt right-wing politics. He was a covert-action junkie with absolutely no moral compass. The White House shark tank had jobs for him to do, and he did them without qualm: forging incriminating documents to try to tarnish the image of John F. Kennedy and arranging breaks-ins in search of the medical records of Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the famous Pentagon papers. Hunt thought Ellsberg must be some kind of Soviet agent (and/or sexual pervert).
The Watergate assignment -- to keep an eye on the Democratic Party campaign headquarters in Washington and find the dirt on Nixon's rivals -- was a natural to Hunt. He was just doing his duty and, after all, the Democrats were probably receiving secret money from North Korea or even Castro's Cuba. Why else make a fuss about the Vietnam War?
Hunt was caught in the act, and soon found himself a pawn in the great drama that ended with Nixon's resignation in 1973. Hunt spent three years in jail and lost his wife in a plane crash. But its hard to feel sorry for a man so much the author of his own misfortunes.
Its also hard to like his memoir, published posthumously after his death in January. The best spy memoirs are a combination of revelation about the nature of the secret world of intelligence and confession about its turpitude. They are a tricky act, requiring honesty, willingness to confront the past and a high literary style. Hunt has none of that bag of tricks. His memoir is ultimately trivializing because it is devoid of self-knowledge or self-learning. His account of Watergate has the effect of partial anesthesia. You're awake but numb as you read this sordid tale of loonies in a White House bin.
When Hunt was first lured into the world of spy-novel production in the 1960s, his publishers suggested he could become the American Ian Fleming, and his protagonists the American James Bonds. He let that idea go to his head and it landed him in ignominy and jail. Trivializing espionage can be bad for you.
Wesley Wark has compiled an anthology of Canadian spy stories and teaches espionage history at the University of Toronto.