A MOST CLEVER GIRL
A Novel of an American Spy
By: Stephanie Marie Thornton
Published: September 14, 2021
This is the second book of a fictionalized account of a woman becoming a spy during WWII that I have read this year. This time, the spy is in America and not spying for America, but instead for Russia. The book opens with a shocking first chapter that grabs your attention and leaves you breathing fast and wondering, “What the heck?”. Catherine Gray shows up at Elizabeth Bentley’s apartment and knocks on the door. When Catherine enters, she is holding a gun at Elizabeth demanding to know the truth. Once she gets the truth, she plans to kill her. It’s 1963 and Catherine’s mom has just died and President Kennedy has been assassinated. Catherine is reeling from her mother’s death, some newly uncovered secrets, and the loss of the country’s leader. She is not in a good state. But, neither is Elizabeth. Elizabeth agrees to Catherine coming in and answering her questions but she has to hear the whole story.
Elizabeth Bentley is a real American spy, recruited by the American Communist Party to spy on the fascists and report back to her handler, Jacob Golos. These two are real people and this novel is based on their relationship, the spies they handled, how she eventually turned on all of them and became a traitor.
“There is no peace for a revolutionary except in the grave.”Elizabeth Bentley
The novel flips back and forth in time to 1963 in Elizabeth’s apartment with Elizabeth and Catherine and to the 1940s and 1950s at the height of WWII and the Cold War between the US and USSR. As Elizabeth shares her story with Catherine, more and more pieces to Catherine’s puzzle begin to come together and her connection to Elizabeth eventually changes everything for her. We also learn more about why Elizabeth chose this double life and how she believed she was truly on the “right” side of the fight.
Thornton takes a bit of liberty with Elizabeth’s story for the sake of storytelling, but after looking up Elizabeth myself, I was quite impressed with the detail and meticulous research that went into this novel. There is a lot of buildup as to how Catherine and Elizabeth are connected and it is very near the end before the reader finds out. There are a lot of names and details to keep straight and an understanding of Russia’s part in WWII and in the Cold War would be helpful to the reader.
Elizabeth Bentley’s story is quite fascinating and Thornton tells it with suspense, a bit of romance, and a whole lot of history. One of the main characters is a total creation of Thornton’s imagination and you find that out in the author’s note at the end. I have to admit, this detail was disappointing to me and left me feeling a bit differently about Elizabeth’s story. But, I still appreciated the extensive research and attention to Bentley’s life story. I will never look at red lipstick the same after reading this and may need to find myself a tube of my own Victory Red.
Elizabeth Bentley also wrote her own memoir of her time as a spy titled, OUT OF BONDAGE if you want to dig deeper into her story. The title for Thornton’s book came from Jacob Golos’ term of endearment for Elizabeth, Umnitsa, which translates to Clever Girl, which became one of her many code names. Thornton hopes that by sharing Elizabeth’s story, part of her legacy will live on and her story will be more understood and less vilified.
“After all, sinners sometimes do make the best saints.”Stephanie Marie Thornton, A MOST CLEVER GIRL
Stephanie Marie Thornton is a writer and history teacher who has been obsessed with women from history since she was twelve. She is the author of seven novels and lives with her husband and daughter in Alaska. Check out her website, HERE.