Real-life spy story inspires bestselling Norwich novelist

Rachel Hore

Rachel Hore - Credit: Supplied

When she stumbled across the story of a British woman spy, packed with bravery, betrayal and even links to James Bond, Rachel Hore was hooked. 
She tells the real-life story of a female British spy in her latest book. 
A Beautiful Spy is based on the remarkable life of Olga Gray – an apparently ordinary woman who was recruited by M15 to spy on her fellow countrymen. Jarrold will host an online launch on Thursday, including a signed hardback copy of the book and the chance to quiz Rachel about her latest novel. 
Rachel came across the story of Olga Gray by chance while researching another novel. 
“I was determined immediately to write about her, so put my original idea on the back burner, where it still lies,” she said. She calls her character Minnie, rather than Olga, saying she thought it was important to remind readers that A Beautiful Spy is fiction, based on a true story, rather than a biography. 

Front cover of A Beautiful Spy by Rachel Hore

A Beautiful Spy by Rachel Hore - Credit: Simon and Schuster

A Beautiful Spy begins in 1928 when many of Minnie’s fellow secretaries are dreaming of marriage and children. But Minnie is searching for adventure, excitement and the chance to make a difference. Her dreams seem to come true when she is recruited as a British spy by the man believed to be an inspiration for the James Bond character M. Her mission: to infiltrate the British Communist Party. 
As she gains the trust of people at the top of the organisation in London her job becomes increasingly dangerous. With the Russians notorious for getting rid of anyone they are suspicious of, and unable to confide in anyone about her double life, Minnie is isolated, frightened and wonders what following her dream might cost her. 
Rachel said she admired Olga’s bravery. “Some of the people she was spying on were decent enough, but naïve, with misplaced loyalties. Others were unpleasant, even downright nasty and dangerous, as were their Russian Communist masters.” 
Rachel has sold more than a million books and twice been a Richard and Judy Book Club pick. Her previous books have been called hugely compelling, poignant and rich in period detail, with Judy Finnigan saying: “Rachel Hore's research and mastery of the subject is deeply impressive.” She taught publishing and creative writing at the University of East Anglia before becoming a full-time writer and is married to writer DJ Taylor and has three sons.  
Her next novel is already underway, set in wartime Norfolk and France. Although she has not been able to travel to research it, she said she had been lucky to be able to continue working through the pandemic. “However, an atmosphere of anxiety pervades everything, which is not good for one’s concentration,” she said. “I very humbly acknowledge that I’m most fortunate to live where I do, in a nice house near countryside, and that we’ve not had the virus and are well. I miss seeing my 90-year- old mother and other family in Surrey, but they’re all well, too. Life has stopped for the young ones and they find it difficult to envisage how the future will be.” 

A Beautiful Spy – Q&A 

Why did you want to write about Olga Gray? 
“I was struck by how she had to live two different lives at the same time, and the pressures that this exacted, especially being a woman. I was interested in her psychology as an individual, too, quite dissatisfied with her life and made very unhappy by her father’s cruel treatment of her when she was a child. She badly wanted to please ‘M’, her handler, but felt ultimately betrayed by him. There was fascinating material there for a novelist.” 

How close to real life is the novel? 
“I tried to make it as close as possible, but I often had to use my imagination to fill gaps or ambiguities in historical evidence and when it came to writing about Olga’s innermost thoughts and feelings.” 

Would you be a good spy? 
I’m good at making people talk about themselves and extracting information from them, but I’m an appalling actor so I think I’d be exposed pretty quickly if I were in Olga’s position. 

Are you a James Bond fan? 
I love the excitement and glamour of the films whilst not warming to Bond as a man – definitely not my type, whichever actor plays him. Though he’s two-dimensional, of course. You never get to know his innermost thoughts or anything about him. It’s not the point of him. 

What would you normally be doing for a book launch and how will this one be different? 
I usually have a big event in Jarrold’s and I’m doing that again this time (on Thursday 18th). The only differences are that it’s online and you have to bring your own wine to the Zoom session! 

A Beautiful Spy by Rachel Hore is published in hardback for £16.99 by Simon and Schuster. It will be launched at An Evening With Rachel Hore, hosted online by Jarrold this Thursday February 18 at 6.30pm. Tickets are available here for £16.99 and include a hardback copy of A Beautiful Spy.

Read more: Author Elly Griffiths' latest novel is a mystery thriller set on the north Norfolk coast 


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