The best books about intrepid women spies of World War II

Maryka Biaggio Author Of The Model Spy: Based on the True Story of Toto Koopman’s World War II Ventures
By Maryka Biaggio

Who am I?

Many years ago, when I was searching for a subject for my next novel, my editor at Doubleday asked me if I’d ever heard of Toto Koopman. A biography of her had recently been translated from French. It was a slight book, covering her whole life, from her beginnings in Java to her adventures as a spy for the Allies and the Italian Resistance. I was hooked and spent five years, on and off, researching and writing the story of her World War II experiences. She was an extraordinary person—poised, beautiful, and intrepid. I hope you enjoy getting to know her as much as I did.

I wrote...

The Model Spy: Based on the True Story of Toto Koopman’s World War II Ventures

By Maryka Biaggio,

Book cover of The Model Spy: Based on the True Story of Toto Koopman’s World War II Ventures

What is my book about?

The Model Spy is based on the true story of Toto Koopman, who spied for the Allies and Italian Resistance during World War II. Largely unknown today, Toto was arguably the first woman to spy for the British Intelligence Service. Operating in the hotbed of Mussolini's Italy, she courted danger every step of the way. As the war entered its final stages, she faced off against the most brutal of forces—Germany's Intelligence Service, the Abwehr.

The books I picked & why

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The Rose Code

By Kate Quinn,

Book cover of The Rose Code

Why this book?

Kate Quinn’s spy novel is unique in that a good deal of the action takes place after the war, in 1947. But I was intrigued every step of the way. Readers get an inside look into intelligence training at England’s remote country estate, Bletchley Park, where three women become fast friends as they train and go on to work as code-breaking cryptanalysts. Of course, female friendships can be complicated, and this proves to be the case for these three. After the war they are brought back together by a mysterious encrypted letter. I enjoyed watching the threesome navigate the troubled waters of resentment and betrayal as they work together on cracking one last code.

Code Name Hélène

By Ariel Lawhon,

Book cover of Code Name Hélène

Why this book?

Ariel Lawhon is one of my favorite authors. I will read anything she writes, and this novel is one of her best. Not many people have heard of Nancy Wake, but she was an Australian expatriate living in Paris during the years preceding World War II. I, for one, am glad she’s finally getting her due, for her story is one of those “I can hardly believe this really happened” tales. Nancy Wake started out as a reporter, but when Germany invaded France she joined the Resistance and smuggled people and documents across the border. The Nazis nicknamed her “The White Mouse” and put a bounty on her head, forcing her to flee France. Any ordinary person would have called it a day. But not Nancy Wake. She returned to France as Hélène under the aegis of England’s Special Operations Executives. Her cleverness and courage are guaranteed to thrill any reader.

Three Hours in Paris

By Cara Black,

Book cover of Three Hours in Paris

Why this book?

The heroine of this novel is an American markswoman from rural Oregon, the state I call home. She is recruited to go to Paris and assassinate Adolf Hitler during the three hours that Hitler spent there in June 1940. Kate Rees is wracked with a vendetta and fierce resolve, and her state of mind made me wonder if this baggage would help or hinder her on her mission. Don’t we all have complicated emotions, and aren’t we often put to tests requiring us to master our passions? This is a riveting read about one woman’s ultimately unsuccessful but courageous mission.

The Lost Girls of Paris

By Pam Jenoff,

Book cover of The Lost Girls of Paris

Why this book?

Pam Jenoff is perhaps best known for The Orphan’s Tale, but here she takes on World War II and lands another great read. I especially enjoy novels based on real people and events, and in this carefully plotted novel Jenoff reveals the story of twelve actual female secret agents who served courageously, only to be forgotten as the war waged on. The story is interestingly framed. The narrator discovers an abandoned suitcase with pictures of a dozen women and sets out to investigate their stories. I loved how I, along with the narrator, learned about how these women were recruited to spy, what assignments were meted out to them, and what their fates were. This is a mesmerizing tale of women willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for the war effort.

Code Name Verity

By Elizabeth Wein,

Book cover of Code Name Verity

Why this book?

I’ll admit it: One of the things I love about spy novels is the heart-thumping intrigue they typically deliver, and Code Name Verity is, simply put, harrowing. The action begins in 1943 when a British spy plane carrying two good friends crashes in Nazi Germany. From that point on Verity is tested to the limit, and I had to ask myself again and again: What would I have done if arrested and interrogated by the Gestapo? When I look back on World War II, I am amazed by the bravery of not just the men, but women, who felt called to duty. This novel is a master class in what it means to show courage. 

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