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Thursday 15 February 2024

THE ENGLISH LADY - book review

William Harrington’s Second World War espionage novel
The English Lady was published in 1982. It comprises three parts: 1931-1934; 1938-1940; and 1941-1942 (though the final pages are 1981).

Lady Nancy Brookeford has grown up knowing the rich and famous movers and shakers of Great Britain and the United States, including the Prince of Wales, Winston Churchill and President Roosevelt! ‘Her face was faultless, clear, smooth skin; a small nose, a small mouth with full mobile lips; large, deep-blue eyes; straight, unplucked brows... She had a reputation for being pretty and intelligent’ (p5). The family had relations in Germany, one of whom was Helmut Bittrich, a cousin, who taught her to fly when she visited that country.

Her skill as a pilot combined with her looks gained the attention of Germans, especially Nazis, not least Von Ribbentrop and Hindenburg, and in the early 1930s Göring and Goebbels. By 1934 she found herself being employed as a pilot for Lufthansa. Before long she was brought to the notice of Hitler, who seemed enraptured by her...

However, Hitler was not the only one under her spell: Reinhard Heydrich was intensely interested in her: ‘He was a sensual man – his narrow eyes wandered over her like exploring fingertips... He liked to fly, to fence, to play the violin, and to make love to beautiful women. This was the positive side of his personality. He showed a dark negative in the performance of his official duties, she supposed. Maybe she need not see that side’ (p132).

And then, when returning to England for a funeral, she is faced with a proposition she cannot refuse: to become a spy because war was imminent.

Haydrich observed ‘We have to prepare for war. To save the peace, you prepare for war’ (p183).

A phrase handed down from the fourth century Romans, perhaps: si vis pacem, para bellum. Interestingly, part of this was used as a motto by a German arms maker – parabellum guns and cartridges.

There is plenty of intrigue among the Nazi hierarchy, several of them intent on ridding the country of Hitler and then suing for peace – among these was Admiral Canaris. Nancy is often in the thick of it, all the while getting closer to Heydrich.

Two aspects of the novel create suspense and verisimilitude. The detailed behind-the-scenes behaviour of the Nazi hierarchy and the quite exhilarating flying sequences.

Certain events are touched upon, notably Kristallnacht – the Night of Broken Glass, and Hitler’s detestation of the Soviets. Both monsters, Hitler and Heydrich, are given human faces, no mean feat, though I doubt that this will endear some readers to the book.

Any student of the Second World War will be aware where the book is leading when Heydrich is transferred to Czechoslovakia. While Nancy frequently uses the airfield at Lidice, the book does not mention this town’s awful fate.

William Harrington was a lawyer turned prolific novelist, writing a half-dozen Columbo books and over 17 standalone novels. He died in 2000, having committed suicide aged 68. 

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