The best books on female spies and special agents

Who am I?

Clare Mulley is the award-winning author of three books re-examining the history of the First and Second World War through the lives of remarkable women. The Woman Who Saved the Children, about child rights pioneer Eglantyne Jebb, won the Daily Mail Biographers' Club Prize, and is now under option. Polish-born Second World War special agent Krystyna Skarbek, aka Christine Granville, is the subject ofThe Spy Who Loved, a book which led to Clare being decorated with Poland’s national honour, the Bene Merito. Clare's third book, The Women Who Flew for Hitler, long-listed for the Historical Writers Association prize, tells the extraordinary story of Nazi Germany’s only two female test pilots, whose choices and actions put them on opposite sides of history. Clare reviews for the Telegraph, Spectator and History Today. A popular public speaker, she has given a TEDx talk at Stormont, and recent TV includes news appearances for the BBC, Sky and Channel 5 as well as various Second World War history series. 

I wrote...

Book cover of The Spy Who Loved: The Secrets and Lives of Christine Granville

What is my book about?

Christine Granville, aka Krystyna Skarbek, loved adrenalin, men and, above all, freedom - both for her country and for herself personally. This Polish-born Countess with Jewish heritage, was the first woman to serve Britain as a special agent during the Second World War, and her achievements prompted Churchill to call her his ‘favourite spy.’ Christine served in three different theatres of the war, initially skiing into Nazi-occupied Poland, then serving in Egypt and the Middle East, before being parachuted behind enemy lines in France in 1944 where her service made her legendary among the special forces. Not only did she make the first contact between the French resistance and the Italian partisans across the Alps, she also secured the defection of an entire German garrison on a strategic pass in the mountains. Despite being arrested more than once, she used her wits to save not only her own skin but also the lives of many of her male comrades-in-arms. Awarded the George Medal, OBE, and French Croix-de-Guerre, her early tragic death made headlines around the world, yet her true story was kept hidden. Clare was decorated with Poland’s national honour, the Bene Merito, for this inspiring biography. 

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission.

The books I picked & why

Book cover of Invisible Agents: Women and Espionage in Seventeenth-Century Britain

Why did I love this book?

A few years ago I spoke at the London History Festival alongside Nadine Akkerman, and we realised how much the female spies of 17c Britain and the Second World War had in common, not only conveniently overlooked in their own day, but also disregarded subsequently. This brilliant study explores the gendered dimension of early modern spycraft.

By Nadine Akkerman,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Invisible Agents as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

It would be easy for the modern reader to conclude that women had no place in the world of early modern espionage, with a few seventeenth-century women spies identified and then relegated to the footnotes of history. If even the espionage carried out by Susan Hyde, sister of Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon, during the turbulent decades of civil strife in Britain can escape the historiographer's gaze, then how many more like her lurk in the archives?

Nadine Akkerman's search for an answer to this question has led to the writing of Invisible Agents, the very first study to analyse…

Book cover of Gabrielle Petit: The Death and Life of a Female Spy in the First World War

Why did I love this book?

'There are graves that are alive’, the President of the Belgian League of Remembrance pronounced at Gabrielle Petit’s state funeral in 1919, three years after her execution for espionage. Petit, a young shop-girl, served her country both during the First World War, and as a national legend after her death. Yet a century later, she was all but forgotten. Sophie De Schaepdrijver’s fascinating study not only helps to restore Petit's memory, but also asks important questions about why we should remember, and how such commemoration serves us.

By Sophie de Schaepdrijver,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Gabrielle Petit as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In central Brussels stands a statue of a young woman. Built in 1923, it is the first monument to a working-class woman in European history. Her name was Gabrielle Petit. History has forgotten Petit, an ambitious and patriotic Belgian, executed by firing squad in 1916 for her role as an intelligence agent for the British Army. After the First World War she was celebrated as an example of stern endeavour, but a hundred years later her memory has faded.

In the first part of this historical biography Sophie De Schaepdrijver uses Petit's life to explore gender, class and heroism in…

Book cover of A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II

Why did I love this book?

Over the last few years the female special agents of the Second World War have finally been receiving better attention, with important books on, among others, Noor Inayat Khan by Shrabani Basu, Violette Szabo by Susan Ottaway, and my book on Krystyna Skarbek aka Christine Granville. Purnell's is one of the best, a well-researched look at the life of Virginia Hall, the only agent, male or female, to serve the British SOE, its American counterpart the OSS, and later the CIA. Did I mention that she was a woman and that she had a prosthetic leg?

By Sonia Purnell,

Why should I read it?

13 authors picked A Woman of No Importance as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?


Chosen as a BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR by NPR, the New York Public Library, Amazon, the Seattle Times, the Washington Independent Review of Books, PopSugar, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, BookBrowse, the Spectator, and the Times of London

Winner of the Plutarch Award for Best Biography

"Excellent...This book is as riveting as any thriller, and as hard to put down." -- The New York Times Book Review

"A compelling biography of a masterful spy, and a reminder of what can be done with a few brave people -- and a little resistance." - NPR


Book cover of A Life in Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Missing Agents of WWII

Why did I love this book?

Excellent book that gets to the fascinating truth of Vera Atkins, the tough and dedicated Romanian born Jewish refugee who became the lynchpin in SOE’s French Section based in London, and led the post-war investigation into what happened to all the female SOE agents who failed to return from service behind enemy lines.

By Sarah Helm,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked A Life in Secrets as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

During World War Two the Special Operation Executive's French Section sent more than 400 agents into Occupied France -- at least 100 never returned and were reported 'Missing Believed Dead' after the war. Twelve of these were women who died in German concentration camps -- some were tortured, some were shot, and some died in the gas chambers. Vera Atkins had helped prepare these women for their missions, and when the war was over she went out to Germany to find out what happened to them and the other agents lost behind enemy lines. But while the woman who carried…

Book cover of Madame Fourcade's Secret War: The Daring Young Woman Who Led France's Largest Spy Network Against Hitler

Why did I love this book?

45 years after the publication of Marie Madeleine Fourcade’s fabulous memoir, Noah’s Ark, Lynne Olson has filled in the gaps in the remarkable story of the female head of one of France’s most important clandestine war-time intelligence networks. Both books are well worth reading.

By Lynne Olson,

Why should I read it?

6 authors picked Madame Fourcade's Secret War as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • The little-known true story of Marie-Madeleine Fourcade, the woman who headed the largest spy network in occupied France during World War II, from the bestselling author of Citizens of London and Last Hope Island

“Brava to Lynne Olson for a biography that should challenge any outdated assumptions about who deserves to be called a hero.”—The Washington Post


In 1941 a thirty-one-year-old Frenchwoman, a young mother born to privilege and known for her beauty and glamour, became the leader of a…

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in France, espionage, and spies?

9,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about France, espionage, and spies.

France Explore 825 books about France
Espionage Explore 502 books about espionage
Spies Explore 527 books about spies