I am a sucker for historical fiction based on fact, particularly if it involves World War II. Add to that mix, people who make their living dealing with books, such as booksellers and librarians and I will jump on the book. Alan Hlad has written just such a book. The title is The Book Spy. It is the first book by Mr. Hlad that I have read. It will not be the last.
Shortly after December 7, 1941, Colonel William “Wild Bill” Donovan, head of what was to become the Office of Strategic Services (O.S.S.) that later morphed into the Central Intelligence Agency (C.I.A.) went to see President Franklin Roosevelt with an idea for intelligence gathering in Europe. Send librarians to neutral cities such as Lisbon, Madrid, and Stockholm to gather books, periodicals, and other printed material from Germany. The librarians were to act under the banner of the Library of Congress. They were not to be spies. The gathered material was to be preserved for the Library so it would not be lost. Their technique was microphotography and the medium was microfilm. It was easier to ship microfilm to the U.S. and Great Britain than the actual documents.
At the time of the story, Maria Alves was the lead micro photographer of the New York City Public Library in 1941. Her parents were freelance news photographers. Her father had been born in Portugal and her mother had been born in Germany. They met and married in Europe before immigrating to the United States. They settled in New Jersey not far from New York City. Her mother Elise had been killed in a crossfire incident in Madrid during the Spanish Civil War in 1937. Maria had traveled extensively with her parents prior to 1937 and was fluent in seven languages. Maria is based in part on Adele Kibre, who actually was based in Stockholm, Sweden.
Frederick Kilgour from Harvard University’s Library was put in charge of recruiting for the librarian/micro photographers. He had a bias against those who had not graduated from Ivy League universities such as Harvard, Yale, and Columbia. Maria had gone to the University of California in Berkeley, which is an excellent west coast university. Thus, she was considered unsuitable for the role. Her assistant, Roy, was recruited despite the fact that he had a wife and child while Maria was single (she was about 28). Maria, with her father’s help, devises a plan to crash a party at the home of Vincent Astor, one the America’s wealthiest men, where William Donovan was to be the featured guest. Kilgour had not returned any of Maria’s phone calls asking to join the venture and Donovan was his boss.
Eventually Maria and Roy meet in Washington, D.C. where Roy has a new partner, Pilar, another librarian. Eugene Powers, who started the company University Microfilms International, conducted her training at the Library of Congress. He had been in charge of microfilming at the British Museum. Maria, Roy, and Pilar reunite in Lisbon, Portugal after their training.
In Lisbon, Maria meets Tiago Soares, who owns a bookstore that features poetry. Tiago and his elderly assistant Rosa provide documents to refugees, primarily Jewish, who are trying to escape the Nazi purges and death camps. The bookshop is under surveillance by the Portuguese Secret Police and their investigator Martin Neves, a nasty individual. Tiago’s French grandparents near Bordeaux had started the network with which Tiago works. His grandmother was Jewish. They were winemakers, as were Tiago’s Portuguese parents.
At the Casino in Estoril, not far from Lisbon, Maria meets Lars Steiger, a wealthy Swiss banker, who was secretly helping Germany acquire tungsten ore used in military weapons. At this point, Maria becomes a spy as well. She reports to “Argus” (whose real name was H. Gregory Thomas, OSS chief for the Iberian Peninsula). Lars tells her that if she helps him, she could become very wealthy. The funds he provides, Maria she donates to Tiago’s refugee network.
Maria feeds Steiger false information provided to her by the O.S.S. about the Allies’ plans to invade France. Because of her “friendship” with Lars, Maria gets to meet Prime Minister Antonio Salazar and his banker Ricardo Espirito Santo as well as Adolph Hitler, Eva Braun, and her sister Gretl. The deception plan was called Operation Fortitude. It was real.
Alan Hlad is a terrific writer and storyteller. If you want to learn about a little-known WWII espionage operation, this book is for you. If you like adventure stories, read this book. If you like great writing of any kind, this is also for you. If I could, I would give the book 10 stars instead of five. EXTREMELY HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
GO! BUY! READ! NOW!
–Jim Harris, retired book sales rep
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