Book review: Jennie Rooney's crafty novel on a secret spy is a classic thriller

Jennie Rooney's novel is inspired by the real-life story of Melita Norwood, who passed along secrets to the KGB and was exposed in 1999. Rob Sharp writes that the author's third book is crafty, nuanced and impassioned

Powered by automated translation

Red Joan
Jennie Rooney
Chatto & Windus

If British press reports are to be believed, Melita Norwood was one of Russia's most important spies in England for the best part of 30 years. She worked as a secretary at a London research institution engaged in investigating the components of nuclear technology, and while there, she passed information to the Russian secret service.

She remained largely undetected until she was a frail old lady of 87, when she gave a press conference on her doorstep - during the course of which she was largely unrepentant - enough to secure blanket coverage. The Times's 1999 headline on the story was, winningly, "The Spy Who Came In From the Co-op".

This pun, and the article beneath it, first caught this talented author's eye when she was a history undergraduate at Cambridge University. While there, she studied under the security services historian Professor Christopher Andrew, who was writing a book in collaboration with Vasili Mitrokhin, a former KGB archivist, who in the 1990s defected to the West with six trunks of documents. Among their contents were details of Norwood's activities (her codename was "agent Hola").

So there is something fateful, then, in the idea that Rooney should return to this subject a decade-and-a-half later for her third novel, enlisting Andrew's help along the way, to craft the fictionalised story of one Red Joan, whose career owes as much to her real-life, female comrade as it does to Rooney's craftsmanship. Both these women worked in similar research departments, and both spied because they wanted to "level the playing field" between the Russians and the West. But in large part this story is made up. The fact that you can't tell what's fictionalised and what isn't, is very much to Rooney's credit.

Joan is visited by two British intelligence operatives, Ms Hart and Mr Adams, who reveal that she's been rumbled - one of her fellow spies, Sir William Mitchell, a senior diplomat, has died, and they confront Joan with the evidence against her and try to force a confession. The agents play good cop/bad cop, by settling in Joan's kitchen and grilling her on her past, a convenient device which allows Joan to recount her story. We learn from the off that her name is due to be revealed in the House of Commons at the end of the week - and she will be impelled to make a similar press conference to Norwood's - so we already know the plot's destination. The process of getting there, however, is where Rooney's impressive storytelling skills really come into their own.

We never really know if Joan is a heroine until the final pages. During her inquisition she is joined by her adopted son, Nick, for whom she wants to avoid any embarrassment, and as such there is a strong incentive for her to do a deal with the spooks (maybe she's nice). However, like Norwood, Joan also wants to defend the ideology in which she once believed (maybe she's not: she's lied to everyone she knows). As Joan is questioned, she is given the chance to explain her past, and incrementally we are led to understand how a little old lady could become embroiled in such far-reaching skulduggery, as the narrative jumps between Joan as an old woman and Joan as a young, impressionable spy-in-the-making. So there's a lot of tension impelling us through the narrative: the conflict between Joan and Nick, and also the intrigue behind Joan becoming embroiled in what is essentially a spy thriller replete with secret cameras and clandestine meetings.

Rooney has already shown herself to be a marvellous portrait artist of character in her previous two novels, so the spy facet is something of a departure. However, the espionage elements, while having a certain hardboiled mystique, are propelled by the fug of romance and twisted motives (something like a Graham Greene novel).

Without giving too much away, we are led to believe that Joan is manipulated into becoming an agent through her love for a fellow student. Rooney paints the picture of Joan as a young, nervous undergraduate away from home for the first time and out of her depth with typical aplomb, drawing her motives from various sources: the father with socialist leanings, Joan's bad relationship with her mother, her need to be loved, her naivety and inexperience. Cambridge, at that time, would not give women proper degrees. We are left in no doubt as to why this story is appealing to Rooney: the spy is effective because she is female. She makes the scientists' tea, thus, like Norwood, no one really suspects her. Indeed, when the police try to chase her down, she hides evidence of her treasonous activities in a collection of sanitary towels.

So as well as rivalling John le Carré for bombast, this is, at heart, a feminist work of fiction. Joan goes against the wishes of her family by applying for a science degree. She resists working for the Russians until she believes it is the right thing to do, making up her own mind despite huge external pressure (her impetus is the atomic bomb being dropped on Hiroshima). In her own way, despite her tribulations, Joan is an incredibly successful professional - and a very adept spy - in the face of an entire society geared towards undermining her. What is perhaps more complex about her character is how easily she seems to betray those close to her.

Placing Joan at the centre of Britain's quest to build an atomic bomb raises some questions. I wasn't sure whether a Natural Sciences graduate would be grilled on basic atomic physics at an interview by someone leading such an important project, but I could also see how this scene set up one of the book's most important relationships, that between Joan and Max, her boss. Winston Churchill also makes a guest appearance, giving Rooney the opportunity to show off some excellent talents for pastiche. I did wonder, at first, whether someone who had been attending Communist rallies would have so easily received security clearance. However, the reality is even more staggering: Norwood was much better known to British intelligence than Joan ever was.

Joan's reasons for spying are written in terms which most readers will be able to relate to. Unlike Norwood, she is never seen as a committed Communist, more someone who is taught to stick up for what she believes. She refuses to spy for a long time and then becomes rather adept at it, and before long she is giving away the country's most important secrets. Here, she is all too easily forgiven by those she betrays, but by the final pages you scarcely care. From her difficult beginnings she eventually finds some peace: the pay-off leaves you gasping.

This is an infectious page-turner, as crafty and nuanced and impassioned as any classic thriller, but one that doesn't forget where its heart is. It is crying out to be adapted for television - or film - and is a case study in how to handle complex characters and motivations, keeping the reader on tenterhooks until the work's final moments.

Rob Sharp is a freelance journalist based in London.