The Librarian Spy: A Novel of World War II

Image of The Librarian Spy: A Novel of World War II
Release Date: 
July 26, 2022
Hanover Square Press
Reviewed by: 

It is April 1943, and World War II is raging throughout Europe. In Washington, D.C., Ava Harper is working as a librarian at a job she loves in the Rare Book Room at the Library of Congress. Nothing pleases her more than the scent and texture of books, especially the old and priceless tomes she catalogs and researches for safekeeping. Though her position is repetitive at times, Ava enjoys the solitude and peace she experiences in her career. When summoned by the Librarian of Congress, she wonders if they plan to change her duties. She arrives at her appointment, meeting with Mr. Charles Edmunds, Secretary to General William Donovan, a no-nonsense man who gruffly questions her qualifications. His comment is:

“'Your government needs you,' he stated in a matter-of-fact manner that broached no argument. 'You are invited to join the Office of Strategic Services—OSS—under the information gathering program called Interdepartmental Committee for the Acquisition of Foreign Publications.'"

Stunned yet rather flattered, she learns she will be sent to Lisbon to gather intelligence by working undercover as a librarian—a position usually slated for men. With nothing tying her to the States, she looks forward to the challenge, though she is also frightened due to the current situation in Europe.

Ava's arrival in Lisbon is a surprise for her supervisor, who thought she was male, and he makes no secret of his ambivalence. She is adept at her job and sets out to prove she can handle the tasks no matter his disdain for her. All too soon, she discovers she must be very circumspect and careful of everything she says and does. Finding the atmosphere so different from what it is in the U.S., Lisbon, alleged to be neutral in the war, proves a bit terrifying.

Meanwhile, in Lyon, France, Helene Belanger agonizes at the destruction of her beloved home and the atrocities happening to her fellow citizens since the Nazi forces entered the Free Zone of France. She desperately wants to join the Resistance comprised of those against the German occupation, but her stance provokes a problem between her and her husband Joseph. When he displays no compassion as they and their neighbors starve, cannot attain rations, and lose their homes, her anger escalates into an intense quarrel. She complains he is weak and wretched for not wanting to do something, and "he scolds her for not being the proper Vichy wife, who is a mother, housewife, obeying the orders of her husband—the type of woman she had never been." Their argument has him leaving, and days pass without his return. Helene is apprehensive. She loves Joseph, but where is he, and could he have abandoned her after such a fierce quarrel?

Helene is astonished when a strange woman arrives at her apartment asking for a man named Pierre. Fright assails her as the woman states she is there to see Pierre for proper documentation. She is Jewish and cannot run and hide anymore, and without papers, she will be sent to the camps. The two women are of similar stature and resemblance, so Helene unselfishly offers her credentials and sends her on her way. Now, she needs to be extra careful. Caught without documents, she knows what could happen to her.

She searches for Etienne, Joseph's closest friend, thinking he can help her. On the way to his flat, she is stopped by a Nazi demanding her papers. Fear clutches her heart until she believes she will faint when Etienne suddenly appears, shaking his head with a chuckle and saying she forgot her documents, which he produces for the officer. Trying not to appear shocked, Helene sighs in relief and follows Etienne to his place, where he spills the beans—Joseph is in the Resistance—and he is now in prison after being captured. Etienne informs Helene her identity is changed, and she is now known as Elaine Rousseau.

"In that moment, Helene's world flipped on its axis. All the times Joseph had claimed the Resistance did nothing, all the ways he had restricted her. And he had been working with them the entire time."

Helene, aka Elaine, toils tirelessly in the Resistance to get the facts out via underground newspapers. She assists another Jewish mother with a young son, hoping to gain asylum in America to join her husband, who has now been there for several years. Adamant about helping all she can, Elaine tries to find Joseph and stop the atrocities. In doing all this, she puts her own life in danger.  

While Elaine works undercover, Ava begins to enjoy her status and friendship with James, who is with the British Embassy. He escorts her to elegant soirees and takes a fancy to her. As one of her primary duties is to read all the periodicals available and send news back to D.C., when she happens upon an article in this periodical that has always been meticulously printed and finds blatant typos, she suspects a code is involved and asks for James's assistance in breaking it. This code is of Elaine's doing with her plea to help her newfound friend and son out of Europe, and through these messages, Elaine and Ava unite in their like-minded undertaking.

The description and events in this novel prove to be deftly researched. The different locations and the vernacular used highly add to the tale's credibility, offering depth and insight into the happenings of this era. With suspense and tension throughout, this reads like a stealthy shadow lurking around a dark corner, producing hair-raising situations sure to raise one's hackles while making the reader ponder why this horror was allowed.