Realistically exciting and a thriller which maintains a breathless pace, this is an adventure in wartime Europe which expands on the already fascinating stories of female Special Operations Executive heroines. Elisabeth de Mornay is a woman with an obscure past, a perilous present, and an uncertain future. Operating on several levels Elisabeth herself is trying to work out which identity is most effective in a country which is balancing its alliances between German forces, the allies headed by British interests, and the disparate interests of Russians, Spanish and other nationalities all jostling for space and influence as seen in the large number of refugees in a small country. Elisabeth has discovered the high cost of being an agent in France over some time, as the danger of getting close to people as well as the danger of betrayal has left her determined to survive in any way. This is a brilliantly researched novel which revels in the details of a setting intimately described, the clothes that much of rationed Europe could only dream of, and the food and drink that seems to be little affected by shortages. Going under various guises she must work out who, if anyone, she can trust, when no one is completely as they seem. This is a well written book which I was so pleased to have the opportunity to read and review.
The book opens with Cecile recalling her time in France as a “pianist” or radio operative. Partly lucky, partly because she is brave and resourceful, she has survived thus far, but one more betrayal has propelled her to seek sanctuary with an older woman even though her very presence is a threat. Her training means that she knows when she is being followed, and what to do in hand to hand combat. She has an incredibly strong need to survive, which keeps her going even when under fire. A chance encounter leads to a whole new set of problems, and means that she turns up in Lisbon in June 1943. Her new setting means a new role with an old contact in a new context, an encounter which exposes several facts about her background. Slipping into the role of a mysterious French widow who has recently arrived in Lisbon as a refugee from occupied France, she has the house, clothes and identity fabricated for her, but her own preparations means that she goes further to create other disguises in case of need. As she begins to blend in with a society of refugees and transitory residents of a country balancing on the edge of neutrality, the gossip, jealousies and dangers of a confusing place mean that she must constantly adjust her assumptions about those around her.
This is a book that is virtually impossible to put down when engaged with the adventures of a remarkable woman. I enjoyed Elisabeth’s story in France as she takes on huge challenges, but it is in Lisbon among a community of potential spies and military from Germany and other enemies that the narrative really comes alive as she must try to double guess everyone who she meets. The setting is beautifully described; the cafes, the parties, the streets and the countryside all come alive in glorious detail. The character of Elisabeth is a wonderful one, as she uses her intelligence and cunning to prepare as much as possible for threats and attempts on her life. A fast moving and enjoyable story with a warmth of personality which is memorable, I thoroughly recommend this remarkable novel.
northernreader - 20/10/2020
Enjoyable World War II Spy Thriller.
Elisabeth de Mornay is an SOE agent based in Paris; but when her cover is blown she flees, eventually ending up in Portugal. Here she receives new orders and takes her place amongst the Lisbon melting pot of exiled nobility and royalty, diplomats, military attachés, smugglers and spies. Posing as Solange Verin, a wealthy French widow, Elisabeth is tasked with mingling with the right people and finding out what she can. Is Salazar, the Portuguese Prime Minister playing games with the Germans and the British?
The book is set over a period of about eight months, and is split into five parts - sometimes jumping forward a month or two in time. Elisabeth is a likeable character who is in the thick of the action from the outset. She can handle herself, and does so if the situation requires.
My only (minor) criticism of the book is the vast cast of characters, I kept finding myself having to refer back to the handy (three page) character list at the front of the book to check who some people were. Although the fact that this character list is actually there at all indicates that I’m not the only one to feel this, and it is a handy reference tool. All in all, this is an enjoyable World War II based spy thriller, with a female lead character.
gills - 18/10/2020
I was nearly put off from this by the (extensive) character list at the start of the book however fortunately I was not. This is fully on action from the start, more underlying tension than major action however it definitely leaves you wondering who is working for who and just what it happening underneath the surface, even in a supposedly neutral country. As it’s only told from the perspective of SOE agent Elisabeth de Mornay you really have no idea what others are doing and what their motivation is so it does keep you on your toes. I would have loved to know more of Elisabeth’s back story, why her mother objected to her choice of husband leading to their estrangement, either way as the story had an open ending I would definitely love to see where Elisabeth’s next mission takes her.
SarG - 17/09/2020
“City of Spies” is a debut novel by Mara Timon and is an easy to read, espionage thriller set in neutral Portugal in 1943.
“When her cover is blown, SOE agent Elisabeth de Mornay flees Paris. Pursued by the Gestapo, she makes her way to Lisbon, where Europe's elite rub shoulders with diplomats, businessmen, smugglers, and spies. There she receives new orders - and a new identity. Posing as wealthy French widow Solange Verin, Elisabeth must infiltrate a German espionage ring targeting Allied ships, before more British servicemen are killed. The closer Elisabeth comes to discovering the truth, the greater the risk grows. With a German officer watching her every step, it will take all of Elisabeth's resourcefulness and determination to complete her mission”
As ever in books of this nature, there is often some harrowing events that unfold. The plight of the French resistance in the story and their heroism and bravery made me realise how important they were to the war effort and how they all put their lives on the line, often to the point of being brutally murdered in public. The author covered this and highlighted just how important they were to helping the allies to safety. British Special Operatives who were recruited and trained to fight and spy on the enemy were also worth their weight in gold, something I certainly wouldn’t have had the confidence to do.
I enjoyed the bulk of the story, not too spy based so you didn’t know what was going on, though I would recommend you read in a few a sittings as possible for continuity. There is a helpful cast of characters at the start and I do admit I’d have being a bit lost without it.
The characters were true to their loyalties, however I was a bit suspicious of Elisabeth’s romantic behaviour, being so intensely trained, she let her heart rule her head on many occasion, even when duty didn’t call. This just didn’t sit right with me, in a war where you truly can’t trust anyone and your life depended on your identity staying secret. Bertie Jones, a shipwrecked SOE was my favourite character, he brought some much needed, lighthearted banter in a time of war and death and I would love to see him in further stories in the series.
There’s some interesting sections at the end of the book with historical and geographical notes the author has detailed and it’s plain to see the author carried out extensive research regarding the era, the setting and the type of characters who would have been involved the world of espionage.
I believe there is a follow up story in the making, where Elisabeth and two other special operatives pave the way for the Normandy landings and I will be very tempted to read, to see how Elisabeth’s life and ‘career’ develops further.
3.5 stars rounded up to 4.
Miriam Smith - 30/08/2020
I usually steer clear of espionage thrillers for the simple reason that I find them hard going and although the character list at the start of this book didn’t bode well I found this debut novel surprisingly easy to follow. Featuring a firecracker protagonist in twenty-eight-year-old widow and SOE agent Elizabeth de Mornay and taking place in the so called city of spies and the neutral capital of Lisbon I found this introduction to the character of plucky Elizabeth tense and highly atmospheric. Providing an insight into the stress of living a lie and trusting nobody it also gives an idea of the personal toll such a role would have taken.
The novel opens in June 1943 when six months after being parachuted into Nazi-Occupied France, wireless operator and SOE agent Elizabeth de Mornay’s cover is blown and she is forced to flee Paris. As a childless and widowed woman with a difficult relationship with her mother, Elizabeth (codename Cécile) opts to continue working for the Resistance and after a few close scrapes with German soldiers she accepts her new commission from her diplomat godfather and finds herself in Lisbon with a mission to infiltrate high society. Famously neutral but with a port on the Atlantic, Lisbon attracted everyone from exiles and operatives to businessmen and refugees during WWII. Elizabeth recreates herself as Solange Verin, a glamorous and wealthy French widow used to high-living and keen to immerse herself amongst the rich European set. But in the city of spies, no one is who they claim to be and Solange isn’t the only one with an ulterior motive for being there..
Befriended by flamboyant neighbour Claudine, her casino loving Nazi-sympathiser husband Christophe allows Solange access to elite soiree’s hosted by German officers and military attachés, one of whom in particular catches her eye. As a member of the German military intelligence service (Abwehr) Major Eduard Graf should be off-limits to Elizabeth but in the course of identifying just who is leaking key information to the Germans their paths cross and sparks fly. Major Eduard Graf knows Solange is not all she appears but feels an inexplicable urge to protect her whilst Elizabeth in turn is aware that she is playing with fire and potentially putting her life on the line. Stumbling upon a smuggling operation that is giving the Germans the upper hand in importing shipments of wolfram alongside the crucial leaks, Elizabeth also teams up with a half-French East End boy to attempt to bring down both rackets and come one step closer to ending the war. An explosive denouement and a open-ended final chapter leaves Elizabeth’s story up in the air and primed for a follow-up.
Some of Elizabeth’s capabilities and proficiency in combat, outsmarting her enemies and recklessness have to be taken with a pinch of salt but for the most part watching her as she holds her nerve, switches disguises and gets too close to her enemies is worth a bit of eye-rolling! Indeed her appetite for men seems to be her only potential downfall! Whilst I would have appreciated learning more about Elizabeth’s background (family relations and divisive marriage) in order to fully understand her commitment to her work I hope and suspect this will be followed up in future outings. Engagingly written with a easily distinguishable cast of colourful secondary characters the story is pacy and whilst it might not be the most complicated of spy thrillers I found it a decent read. At times I did feel a little let down that everything seemed to boil down to sex with Elizabeth and found it impossible to believe that a highly trained and intelligent SOE agent would be so easily distracted from their mission and sidetracked by seduction.
Rachel Hall - 27/08/2020