I picked up this book for a peculiar reason: the story of Red Joan draws partly on the real-life story of Melita Norwood who - some years ago and at the age of 87 - was exposed as a (former) Soviet spy who had passed important atomic secrets to the Soviet Union during the period when it was seeking to develop its own atomic weapons. She was living an unremarkable and modest life in the London suburbs and the British powers-that-be wisely decided not to prosecute her. She was old though still dignified and spry enough to make a public statement about her spying. She was a surprising and not unsympathetic character. She was nicknamed “The Spy Who Came In from the Co-op”.
Melita Norwood, apart from these important things, was the widow of Hilary Norwood – a life-long Communist and schoolteacher (of mathematics, if I recall rightly) who was also - for some time after the War -President of the British Society of Russian Philately, of which I am a member (since the 1990s - unfortunately, I never met him or Melita Norwood). The Society was founded in the 1930s and many of the original members were Communists or Fellow Travellers. That is no longer true – fortunately, perhaps, because the Society holds its Annual Meeting in London’s Army and Navy club. Its French sister society La Cercle Philatélique France – Russie still meets in the governmental Russian Cultural Centre in Paris, but that of course has changed its flag in recent years.
And now to the novel, which is uneven. The structure works – moving from narratives set in the 1930s and 1940s to recall of those events during an interrogation of the elderly Joan. The Mills and Boon romances (there are two) may work for some, though didn’t for me.
The explanation of Why? Joan spied is very well done and is morally challenging: she spied because of Hiroshima and wanted to ensure that America could not do to Russia what it had done to Japan. In that sense, she helped develop a situation of Mutually Assured Destruction which came to be called deterrence.
There are anachronisms which are disconcerting, even though they are sometimes the anachronisms of fictional documents being quoted: “Born Leningrad, 20 May 1913” (page 90), “died in St Petersburg in 1982” (page 339), for example; and in a letter of 1949, written in English in England by someone without the background which would enable it, we find “Qu’ran”.
And there is one bizarre passage which has a 1940s KGB document denouncing one of its victims as an enemy of “the Soviet Empire”(p 285). Enough to get a KGB man shot. Nowadays, maybe he could blame some American Imperialist spell-checker.