Top Secret2

Red Spy At Night – More Than A Shepherd’s Delight!…….Red Joan by Jennie Rooney

Melita Norwood - One of the KGB's top agents in the West - she's trying to blend but the collar on that shirt has GOT TO BE that of a spy!
Melita Norwood – One of the KGB’s top agents in the West – she’s trying to blend in with the grey-haired gentle lady look –  but the collar on that shirt has GOT TO BE that of a spy!

Inspired by the real-life ‘Spy Who Came In From The Co-Op’, Melitta Norwood, this is a terrific story of espionage with a difference. For Joan Stanley isn’t your archetypal spy when MI5 knock her front door and put her under house arrest – she’s in her mid-80’s!

Over the course of a week, told in part through interviews with MI5, Joan’s memories and a collection of MI5 documents collected since the 1930’s, we get to know what Joan did, and perhaps more importantly why. The story follows Joan’s life and loves from her early days as that rarest of things – a female student of sciences at Newnham in Cambridge – through her flirtation with both left-wing politics and personalities and eventually to the crossroads where she’s faced with the squaring her patriotism and her sense of fairness and equality. I wouldn’t want to give away any more of the plot than that for fear of spoiling what is a sort of whodunit and a sort of whydunit at the same time, all mixed together with an intriguing and very believable web of intrigue, lies and secrets.

Joan inconspicuous on a bike - except perhaps for the bit of a giveaway Red Coat!
Joan inconspicuous on a bike – except perhaps for the bit of a give away Red Coat!

It’s a book that really does turn the spy thriller genre on its head in some ways for unusually the thriller element isn’t woven around who the spy is, because you know it’s Joan from the start. Secondly Joan isn’t a glamorous, ultra-slick, one intellectual step ahead of everyone, super-spy. She’s a very ordinary spy and when you you think about it, that’s the genius in having a spy like Joan – you can’t see her for looking at her! This very simplicity on the surface is really what makes Joan a super-spy. To put it another way, Joan doesn’t need to take many steps to avoid suspicion or throw the authorities off her scent – they just assume she doesn’t have a scent in the first place!

It’s a  written, cleverly plotted and really well-paced story. The narrative structure works effectively so that the linkage between the interviews, the documentary evidence and Joan’s memories is seamless. Equally it isn’t woven around a forward facing story that looks for the motive, or tries to unravel who the spy’s handler is for example. Instead it really does look at what makes Joan tick,the influences around her, both for and against taking up spying for Stalin, and the how and the why of what she does and subsequently how she tries to explain and justify it to herself and subsequently when she is finally picked up years later, to her family.

In the same way that it’s a spy thriller that flips the genre on its head, it’s also in many ways as much of a love story as it is a spy story. And I thought this worked which isn’t really the norm for me for I don’t find love and romance that interesting at the best of times – and certainly not in a spy thriller. But here it fits the other parts of the narrative brilliantly because Jennie Rooney has written a wonderful leading character-cum-enigma in Joan and then surrounded her with an exceptionally strong supporting cast in her past and present. The cousins Leo and Sonya, who she meets at Cambridge in the 1930’s draw her towards left-wing activism and though I found them a little bit clichéd on the odd occasion they were still fascinating. Later on the character of Max, head of the atomic research where Joan will work is equally strong and in the present day her adopted son Nick, a leading QC is a great counter-poise to Joan’s memories and the almost detached nature of the MI5 questioning.

Jennie Rooney's research is meticulaous - here she is peeking out behind pillars and trying on a spy raincoat! And all in the name of literature!
Jennie Rooney’s research is impressive – here she is experiencing peeking out behind pillars and trying on a spy raincoat! And all in the name of literature!

The research seems to me to be meticulous in this novel – the Cambridge of the 1930’s is a strong setting and the subsequent detailing around  the work of the atomic research facility and the trials of both the war and the pre-war years is very vivid, powerful and again a great backdrop.

After I finished Red Joan, I went on to read a bit more about Melita Norwood, the real life little old lady spy. There’s a real contrast in their motives and their beliefs and in a way I think this is the cleverest part of the way Jennie Rooney portrays Red Joan. She’s full of contradictions, naiveties, uncertainties and ambiguities. It drew me as the reader into the pretty unique position for anyone who reads Cold War spy thrillers – I was absolutely on the side of the Soviet Spy! I don’t think I’ve ever been there before! Red Joan was for me one of those “can’t put it down, can’t wait to get to the end but also don’t want to get to the end” kind of books. I loved it!

Book Info

Red Joan by Jennie Rooney was published by Random House Vintage Books. I bought this with my own hard-earned dosh and am bloody glad I did.

I picked up on Red Joan in other blogs that I read. There are particularly good reviews of the book at Confessions Of An Avid Reader and at A Little Blog Of Books And Other Stuff

If you want to be visually convinced to give Red Joan a go this is a great little promo video from Vintage Books

If you’d like to find out more about the real-life inspiration for Red Joan, there’s a good article here in The Independent about Melita Norwood

Book Rating Out of 10 (you can find info on my Rating Scale here)


5 thoughts on “Red Spy At Night – More Than A Shepherd’s Delight!…….Red Joan by Jennie Rooney”

  1. Ooooh – I love the sound of this! I just read “The Spy Who Changed the World” about Klaus Fuchs and it was fascinating and very fair and even handed – I ended up sympathising with the Soviet spy too!!!

  2. Ooh! I have this book – didn’t actually realise it was a spy novel. Sounds like Joan has a lot in common with Le Carre’s Connie – although Connie didn’t spy for the other side. Nice review Col. (Would you like to do something for Shiny New Books?)

    1. I didn’t grasp it as a spy novel either when I first saw it in bookshops! It was other reviews that put me on to it. She does have a lot in common with Connie – especially the female as the kind of focal point in a male dominated world. It’s a great story – hope you enjoy it. And would of course be delighted to do something for Shiny New Books.

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