A Most Clever Girl: A Novel of an American Spy
“Thornton’s strong writing and seamless plotting compel the reader to keep reading, both to find out what happened to Elizabeth in her youth and to uncover the connection between the former spy and her would-be killer.”
For some six decades, the espionage thriller genre was dominated by two types of stories—those about World War II spies, and those about the shadow intelligence war between the CIA and the KGB. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the genre expanded to accommodate post-Cold War reality—plots involving terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, and the evil doings of rogue nations and wealthy oligarchs. These stories are no less compelling than their Cold War forebearers, but for readers wistful for the Soviet-American intelligence tug-of-war, there is A Most Clever Girl, an historical novel by Stephanie Marie Thornton.
Based on the true story of Elizabeth Bentley, an American woman who worked for Soviet intelligence in the 1930s and 1940s, A Most Clever Girl takes readers on a journey from Bentley’s young adulthood through her death in 1963. The vehicle for this journey is a confrontation between Bentley and Catherine Gray, a young woman who shows up on Bentley’s doorstep with murderous intentions.
Catherine Gray, the only entirely fictional character in the novel, confronts Elizabeth in her shabby Connecticut apartment and threatens to kill the former spy for ruining her life and that of her late mother. Elizabeth concedes that she ruined many people’s lives over the course of her career as a Soviet spy, but asks for a chance to tell her personal story before Catherine kills her.
Elizabeth’s story begins with her experience as a Great Depression-era young adult with no family, friends, or love, and few prospects for attaining any of them. An encounter with a boardinghouse neighbor leads Elizabeth to a meeting of the “American League Against War and Fascism,” a wing of the Communist Party of the USA (CPUSA). There, a naïve Elizabeth finds camaraderie and purpose, and, eventually, love.
After several years as a secret member of the Communist Party, Elizabeth meets Jacob Golos, the man serving as the CPUSA’s liaison with Soviet intelligence. Under Golos’ leadership and tutelage, Elizabeth becomes a Soviet spy, and the pair soon become lovers. After Golos’ death in 1943, Elizabeth continues her espionage work, but eventually grows disenchanted with communism and the NKVD’s (i.e. KGB) treatment toward and suspicion of her. In 1945, she approaches the FBI and reveals the existence of dozens of Soviet spies working inside the US government, an action that preserved her own freedom and destroyed much, if not all, of the USSR’s wartime intelligence networks in the United States.
Elizabeth’s retelling of her life story is fascinating but leaves the reader guessing about what any of this has to do with Catherine and her late mother. Thornton’s strong writing and seamless plotting compel the reader to keep reading, both to find out what happened to Elizabeth in her youth and to uncover the connection between the former spy and her would-be killer. The ending of A Most Clever Girl is equally surprising and satisfying. Both fans of Cold War history and spy thriller afficionados will find this historical novel well worth reading.