Sunday, October 18, 2015

A Female Spy at the Heart of the Third Reich

Author Jane Thynne.

This review contains some spoilers for Jane Thynne's A Winter Garden and The Scent of Secrets.
Over a month ago at the Berlin airport, I picked up a copy of the novel, A Winter Garden (Simon & Schuster, 2014) by Jane Thynne, an author with whom I was not familiar. I was most interested in finding out whether she had anything new to say about the deeply-lined runes of the Third Reich. Apart from a few academic studies that Thynne acknowledges, I do not recall any novelist that explores as she does the intensity of Nazi misogyny and contempt for women. When I finished it, I ordered the next book in the series, The Scent of Secrets (Doubleday Canada, 2015). In the UK, the same novel is published with the title, A War of Flowers. Unfortunately, the cover of The Scent of Secrets is almost identical to that of A Winter Garden. On the plus side, either Thynne or her publishers made the astute decision to hook the reader by publishing the prelude and chapter of the subsequent entry in the last few pages of the book. She succeeded with me.

A reader might think that Thynne, a former print and television journalist and the wife of author, Philip Kerr, who has written several well-received novels on the Third Reich, might overlap with her husband. But in terms of subject matter and style, they are completely different. Whereas Kerr’s protagonist, Bernie Gunther, is a wise-cracking police officer and later a private detective with a cynical view of the world who has seen the worst of humanity, Thynne’s central character, Clara Vine, whose mother was German and father is English, has been recruited in 1933 by British Intelligence to become a spy while she establishes herself as an actress in Berlin’s Ufa studios as her cover, a process that apparently occurs in the first Clara Vine novel, Black Roses (Simon & Schuster, 2013). Her novels offer a woman’s perspective of the regime as Clara’s task is to gain admittance to the circles of the Nazi wives, and, in The Scent of Secrets, a greater challenge: to win the friendship of the woman closest to Hitler, Eva Braun. But there is a paradox that the series can probably never fully resolve: how can a single, independent and half-English woman have access to and influence in the corridors of power in such a misogynous regime?

The two novels from this series that I have read are fast-paced and highly entertaining, but how plausible are they? Is there any historical model for Clara Vine? Most women who became spies began to operate after the war began. The closer parallel to Vine may be the Australian, Nancy Wake, a prewar journalist stationed in Marseilles, who Sebastian Faulkes used as his model for Charlotte Gray that was later turned into a film starring Kate Blanchett. Yet I do not think that Thynne had Wake in mind when she created Clara Vine. Instead, she tackles the problem of plausibility with a great deal of historical research to provide authentic period detail, particularly of 1930s Berlin, and imaginative plot devices. The Nazi paladin, Joseph Goebbels, who plays a significant role in both novels since he presides over the production of every film, has ambiguous feelings towards her, even wondering whether she is fully Aryan. Yet he recognizes her intelligence so as long as he finds her useful, he will be her protector.

It helps her credibility that Clara’s father is a well-known English Nazi sympathizer. Recall Lord Darlington from Kazuo Ishiguo’s 1989 novel Remains of the Day or the 1993 film with the same title, and you can appreciate how a large swath of the English aristocracy were Nazi fellow travellers. In A Winter Garden set during 1937, Edward, Duke of Windsor, his wife Wallis Simpson, and two of the Mitford sisters, Unity and Diana (wife of Oswald Moseley, leader of Britain's black-shirted British Union of Fascists), make, apart from Moseley, cameo appearances. Goebbels, who is known as a serial sexual predator, does not attempt to seduce Clara, because he finds her more valuable as a spy to report back to him the gossip from the Nazi wives and the British foreigners, particularly Unity Mitford, who harboured a blind infatuation for Hitler, are saying. Thynne is also aware of the turf wars and intense rivalries even hatreds that the senior Nazi leadership bore toward each other, and she exploits that animosity to give Clara Vine more credibility as a double agent for both the British and for Goebbels. At one point, she becomes aware that she is being followed and confronts Goebbels only to discover that he has no knowledge of this operation, and that it must have been done by the Gestapo on the orders of Goering, an action that enrages the Minister of Propaganda. No wonder that he wants to hear anything said by the spiteful and gossipy Emmy Goering when Clara attends receptions where Nazi wives are present. Although the wives do not trust her because of her Englishness, and are both attracted to and envious of her allure as an actress while they remain burdened and are physically heavier by bearing so many children and live unfulfilled lives, they do reveal sometimes valuable pieces of information that Clara duly relays to Goebbels and her British handler. Thynne likely assumes that most of the Nazi leadership believed that the opinions of women were so inconsequential that it did not matter if a partly English woman heard them. (If you want to hear about the horrific Emmy, the Australian documentary, Bloodlines, introduces us to her granddaughter, Bettina Goering, who has spent most of her life trying to cope with the shame of being a Goering. In one sequence, she provides us with a powerful vignette of her venomous grandmother.)

In A Winter Garden, there is more evidence of Thynne’s ability to integrate her historical research into a compelling narrative. Through her cover as an actress, Clara meets a flying ace Ernst Udet (a historical personality) with whom she is to about to make a film. Through Udet she learns about aerial reconnaissance and through an American journalist friend, she becomes aware of the Luftwaffe’s responsibility for inflicting in Spain the worst atrocity committed before the outbreak of the Second World War. In one of those ghastly social receptions in which she forced herself to always be careful, she meets a British aeronautical businessman and seemingly Nazi sympathizer, who is not what he appears to be. It turns out from Thynne’s notes that he is based on an actual spy who later wrote about his experiences. In the meantime, Clara is passing on insider information about Nazi plans to her contact in the British Embassy, but she must be careful as she seems to be always followed. One of the skills of the spy tradecraft is the ability to lose a tail and Clara is so adept at it that over the course of the two novels, certain individuals are convinced she is not who she says she is because of her facility for eluding surveillance.

In both novels, Thynne’s most clever device is presented in her preface whereby a young woman is murdered. Initially, their murders do not appear to have much connection with the central narrative. In A Winter Garden, an ex-dancer and artists' model is killed on the grounds of one of the Nazis “bride schools” where young women are being trained in the domestic virtues that will be expected of them as wives of SS officers. These schools actually existed; one of them in a villa on Berlin’s Wannsee Lake, near the summer homes of Joseph Goebbels and Albert Speer, as portrayed in the novel. Given the woman’s background, she seems an unlikely candidate for such a “school” but she possesses a document, which if it became public, would be disastrous for Hitler. I cannot state the nature of this document, but given historical research that has been uncovered about this topic, it is a historically plausible document. Not surprisingly, the authorities seem uninterested in her death and are only interested in talking to girls who knew the dead woman and what she might have owned. Because Clara knew this woman slightly, she and an American journalist friend decide to investigate. In the latter part of the novel, a spy thriller also becomes a murder mystery that puts Clara in the crosshairs of a killer.

Likewise, in the prelude of The Scent of Secrets set in 1938, a woman is murdered on a cruise ship, and she too has in her possession a document that would appall the Nazis if its contents were revealed to the German public or the larger world. This time Clara has a closer connection to the woman’s disappearance since her godchild, Eric, was on that ship. He develops a crush for the older woman and is disturbed by her fate, so he asks Clara if she can find out what happened. She initially shoves it to the back of her mind because of the task that she is given but, as events play themselves out, she must unravel the mystery that occurred on the ship because it holds the key to obtaining the intelligence that she is seeking and the British sorely need.

Clara’s handler has entrusted her with the challenge of befriending Eva Braun, the mistress of Hitler, and to report any pertinent information that she gleans to British intelligence. Again the issue of plausibility arises. How could a woman, who largely lived a solitary life, spied upon by Hitler’s cronies, and was completely unknown to the German public, be put in contact and become friends with an actress who is part British and not arouse suspicion? I think that Thynne partly navigates this tricky conundrum through her reading of the biographies of Braun and therefore is able to offer a compelling and historically accurate portrait of this largely unknown woman. Rather than being an anti-Semitic racist and ideologue, Braun both historically and in the novel is presented as girlish, na├»ve and self-delusional but basically a decent woman. She was cruelly treated by Hitler, allowing her no life of her own while she must be ready at a moment’s notice to be present for him. She is regarded as a simpleton by the Nazi harridans who shun her except when Hitler is present. As a result, she is lonely, and becomes depressed and suicidal. Her desire for a friend is unbridled, and she loves films; Clara is an actress known to Eva who adores her films. Through a sleight of hand, Thynne arranges a meeting between the two at the film studio. The scenario might have worked better had Eva visited the studio when Clara was actually shooting a scene, something that unfortunately never happens in either novel. Nonetheless, the two women instantly hit it off. It is the development of a “friendship” that strains the reader’s credibility, although I have no problem accepting Clara’s growing sympathy for the gauche young woman. Yet Thynne is so skillful in drawing her readers into her narrative trhat at least this reader was able to suspend some disbelief and enter into the relationship between Clara and Eva. As for the missing document, I cannot say what it is but given the document that we do have, and can be found in university libraries, Thynne has taken the next logical step, and by using her imagination she has offered us something that it is indeed plausible. I know I am being vague, but to be more specific would be to deny readers much of the thrill of reading The Scent of Secrets. For readers interested in historical espionage or mystery novels, they might consider the Clara Vine series.

(photo by Keith Penner)
– Bob Douglas is a teacher and author. His second volume to That Line of Darkness: The Shadow of Dracula and the Great War (Encompass Editions, 2011) is titled That Line of Darkness: Vol. II The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden. His website is

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