Summary and book reviews of An Unlikely Spy by Rebecca Starford

An Unlikely Spy

by Rebecca Starford

An Unlikely Spy by Rebecca Starford X
An Unlikely Spy by Rebecca Starford
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Jun 2021, 352 pages
    Paperback:
    Apr 12, 2022, 304 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Ian Muehlenhaus
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About this Book

Book Summary

A twisting, sophisticated World War II novel following a spy who goes undercover as a part of MI5 - in chasing the secrets of others, how much will she lose of herself?

Evelyn Varley has always been ambitious and clever. As a girl, she earned a scholarship to a prestigious academy well above her parents' means, gaining her a best friend from one of England's wealthiest families. In 1939, with an Oxford degree in hand and war looming, Evelyn finds herself recruited into an elite MI5 counterintelligence unit.

A ruthless secret society seeks an alliance with Germany and, posing as a Nazi sympathizer, Evelyn must build a case to expose their treachery. But as she is drawn deeper into layers of duplicity—perhaps of her own making—some of those closest to her become embroiled in her investigation. With Evelyn's loyalties placed under extraordinary pressure, she'll face an impossible choice: save her country or the people who love her. Her decision echoes for years after the war, impacting everyone who thought they knew the real Evelyn Varley.

Beguiling and dark, An Unlikely Spy is a fascinating story of deception and sacrifice, based on the history of real people within the British intelligence community.

March 1948

One

EVELYN SPOTTED STEPHEN across the busy road. He was leaning against the railing outside the Hotel Russell, a grand old building on the eastern flank of the square, reading a paperback, his collar turned high about his throat. As he pulled out his pipe and rummaged around in his pockets for a light, Evelyn felt the sluice of anticipation; it was like encountering him for the first time, though they had in fact been meeting every Friday afternoon for the past year. Walking toward him, she observed him as a stranger might, taking in his crumpled overcoat, his loosened tie, his flushed cheeks. He whipped off his trilby and gave her a lopsided smile.

"Ah, there you are, Evelyn."

He clasped the felt brim, as if uncertain about what to do with his hands now he'd shoved the book and pipe away in his coat pocket. After all these months, they still weren't quite sure how to greet one another. He finally nodded toward the hotel's thé-au-lait terracotta entrance.

"So, fancy that ...

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

An Unlikely Spy is not an action-packed spy thriller. Instead, it's a long-game, character-based work of espionage. Rebecca Starford's debut novel is a near-masterpiece, combining impeccable historical detail with John le Carré-esque tension and intrigue. She layers intricate details into her story, transporting the reader to the time and place. Like a classic Hollywood film, the novel takes its time to unfold and rewards the reader's patience with depth...continued

Full Review Members Only (555 words).

(Reviewed by Ian Muehlenhaus).

Media Reviews

E! Online
Prepare to fall in awe with Evelyn Varley, the titular unexpected MI5 agent in this fast-paced thriller filled with more twists than a bag of pretzels. Set during World War II, memoirist Starford's fiction debut is a must-read for historical fiction buffs.

Publishers Weekly
Class and ideologies collide in Starford's consummate debut, a clever combination of home front drama and espionage thriller...With suspense worthy of Hitchcock and a moral reckoning straight out of Le Carré or Graham Greene, this is a winner.

Kirkus Reviews
The book is rich with historical details, right down to clothing styles and furnishings. The plot sometimes slows amid those details, but most of the book is well paced. The novel's depiction of Evelyn's career is exciting, but it also suggests the human cost: No matter how skilled her performances, to those above her in the social hierarchy, she's expendable. A well-crafted spy novel examines the perils of espionage's foundation in personal relationships.

Booklist
[A] subtle yet moving story of personal and professional camouflage, of hidden selves fearing the light.

The Guardian (UK)
A fast-paced tale with plenty of plot twists and enough complexity to place it somewhere between a historical genre novel and a literary thriller.

Author Blurb Juliet Grames, author of The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna
A poignantly rendered narrative map of one woman's journey from misfit to spy—and a thought-provoking examination of the gently human desires that lay the groundwork for pernicious extremism. Rebecca Starford has given us a rousing reminder of the power of our choices.

Author Blurb Hannah Kent, author of Burial Rites
An Unlikely Spy gripped me to the end: I devoured it. Rebecca Starford has created an exceptional novel about World War II, bringing 1940s England to life in formidable, compelling detail and thrusting the reader into a world of wartime spies, betrayal and surprising revelation. What a rare treat to find a novel that offers both white-knuckled suspense and evocative, beautiful prose. I loved it.

Author Blurb Thomas Keneally, author of Schindler's List
Rebecca Starford seems to be the inheritor of the cool, narrative elegance of Graham Greene and John le Carré. Her building of the tale to reach the critical moral apogee of this book seems effortless, and she has found a fascinating and unexpected World War II corner of espionage and intelligence to exploit for a plot that runs like milk and honey.

Reader Reviews

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Beyond the Book

Joan Miller, Unlikely Spy

Cover of Joan Miller's autobiography One Girl's WarSometimes truth is stranger than fiction, and in the case of An Unlikely Spy, fiction mirrors reality with a protagonist whose escapades parallel those of a real MI5 spy, Joan Miller.

Don't worry, An Unlikely Spy strays from the real-life story just enough in the end for me to assure you there are no spoilers here.

Joan Miller was born in 1918 and joined MI5 — Britain's domestic counter-intelligence and security agency — just before World War II. She began working in the transportation division doing menial bureaucratic tasks before being recruited into B5b — the division responsible for finding political subversives. Her mission: infiltrate the Right Club, a secret organization of Britons attempting to unify the ...

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