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“Few suspected women of spying, and certainly no one expected a middle-aged knitter to be surreptitiously gather­ing intelligence.” -Elizabeth Bentley, A Most Clever Girl  

While researching topics for my next novel, I stumbled across Elizabeth Bentley’s name and was gobsmacked that I’d never heard of this American spy who once ran the largest Soviet spy ring in America. Because Bentley was a female NKVD-spy-turned-FBI-informer—a combination America wasn’t quite sure what to do with—she was overshadowed both in life and after her death by Joseph McCarthy and Whittaker Chambers. In fact, Whittaker Chambers—whose story is very similar to Bentley’s—received a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1984 for his contributions to “the century’s epic struggle between freedom and totalitarianism.” In the meantime, Elizabeth Bentley was dismissed as “hysterical” and “menopausal.” All this despite the fact that the FBI had corroborated her full testimony via the top-secret Project VENONA. However, no one expected that women—especially women of a certain age—could be involved in the dangerous world of espionage. When confronted with this strange reality, these female spies were vilified or perhaps worse, forgotten by history.

Just like their male counterparts, women like Elizabeth Bentley, Catherine Dior, and Virginia Hall led lives packed with danger and intrigue, where a simple brush-past or meeting with a contact could turn deadly. These women were wildly intelligent patriots willing to put their lives on the line for their country during times of horrific wars. Fortunately, in recent years, many of these real-life stories have been dusted off and transformed into books that will keep you gasping in disbelief and flipping the pages until all hours of the night.

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Sisters of the Resistance: A Novel of Catherine Dior’s Paris Spy Network by Christine Wells

This spy novel spotlights two fictional sisters who join the Paris Resistance in occupied France during World War II. The entire sweeping story is set against the backdrop of Catherine Dior’s—beloved sister of famous designer Christian Dior—actual spy network. This is a great mix of wartime danger and intrigue, all juxtaposed against the glittering fashion world.

The Alice Network by Kate Quinn

The Alice Network by Kate Quinn

While both protagonists in this stellar blockbuster novel are fictional, the unforgettable Eve Gardiner is tapped to spy for the real Alice Network in France during World War I. The real-life spy network was run by Louise de Bettignies—the “Queen of Spies” who trains Eve—and reported on the German front so accurately that new artillery placements were often bombed within days of being set up. The stakes are high for Eve and her life as a spy will haunt her for decades to come.

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The Invisible Woman by Erika Robuck

Uninterested in gossip or balls, young Virginia Hall instead seeks to help the Allies win the war against Hitler by becoming a spy. Despite having lost part of her leg in a hunting accident—and naming her prosthesis “Cuthbert”—Virginia becomes a pioneering spy early in the war and will be considered by the Gestapo to be the most dangerous of all the Allied Spies. Bold and courageous, this “limping lady” will receive the Distinguished Service Cross for her service during the war.

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Code Name Hélène by Ariel Lawhon

Real-life Australian socialite Nancy Wake turns spy, kills a Nazi with her bare hands, and becomes the most decorated woman in World War II in this riveting novel. Evading capture by the Gestapo and with a bounty on her head, Nancy must assume different code names and identities to confuse the Nazis and keep one step ahead of the enemy.

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Mata Hari’s Last Dance by Michelle Moran

Rather than be forgotten, Mata Hari falls into the category of misunderstood female spies. In this novel, Mata Hari awaits the verdict that will decide whether she lives or dies and recounts to a journalist the path that led her to the prison cell she now sits in. From an abusive marriage to the stage, this dancer-turned-courtesan-turned-spy led a life that was anything but conventional.

The Spymistress

The Spymistress by Jennifer Chiaverini

Despite being a slave-owning Richmond aristocrat, Elizabeth van Lew defies the Confederacy at the outbreak of the Civil War by gathering military intelligence and smuggling to the North information from the Confederate War and Navy. Her reach even extended to the home of Jefferson Davis and her work assisting Union P.O.W.’s is eye-opening.

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The Secret Stealers by Jane Healey

The main character—Anna Cavanaugh—is actually a composite of several real women who worked for the Office of Strategic Services—precursor to the CIA—during World War II. A widow stationed abroad, she will go undercover in the French Resistance to try to make a difference both for her country and herself.

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Life Undercover: Coming of Age in the CIA by Amaryllis Fox

This book is actually the riveting memoir of a modern former CIA agent who served for ten years in sixteen different countries throughout the Middle East and Asia. This book is a must-read for anyone who wants a behind-the-scenes look at the CIA recruiting process and what life is like for spies in the field today.

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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