A Most Clever Girl

Stephanie Marie Thornton

Berkley Pub.

Sept 14th, 2021

A Most Clever Girl by Stephanie Marie Thornton brings to life in fictional form, the true story of Elizabeth Bentley, a Cold War double agent. Readers are presented with the psychology of a spy, the dangers, betrayals, and motivations.

“I was looking for an amazing spy story during the Cold War. After I started digging, I found out about Elizabeth Bentley who parallels Whittaker Chambers.  He also ran a Soviet spy ring and turned an informant for the FBI. Unlike Chambers, Elizabeth was discounted by the FBI and was left on her own.  They knew what she was telling them was true because of Project Venona, a counterintelligence program that decrypted messages transmitted by Soviet intelligence agencies.”

Bentley was an American citizen who spied for the Russians until she became an FBI informant. She was recruited by the American Communist Party to spy on fascists since she worked at an Italian library. After being fired because she was anti-Fascist, she became a spy for Russia. Along with her lover and Russian handler, she helps to build the largest Soviet spy network in America, becoming known as the uncrowned Red Spy Queen.  

“She was a prickly protagonist.  She tried to spin in her autobiography that she was matronly.  Sometimes she was arrogant, fearless, and early on naïve. I think she had courage to face down the Soviets.  I think she was complicated and intriguing. During her college days she never had any close friends and her parents had died when she was young.  She felt aimless and fell in with the American Communist Party during the Great Depression.  After traveling to Italy, she realized the Fascists were dangerous.  To stop Fascism, she joined the Communist Party.  While there she felt some camaraderie and that she had a purpose.  It was justifiable in her mind to be a spy because she thought the Russians and the US were on the same team to fight the Nazis.  I think her motivations were a combination of loneliness, being anti-Fascist, and falling in love with her handler.”

Once WWII ended, she had qualms about spying for the Russians since they were no longer allies.  After Elizabeth refused the Russian intelligence demands to turn over her contacts’ names, she was put on the assassination list by the Soviet secret police, NKVD, the predecessor to the KGB. This prompts her to become an FBI informant, testifying at the trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. 

Readers get the gist of Elizabeth’s story in the form of a dialogue between her and a fictional character Catherine Gray.  Catherine showed up at Elizabeth’s doorstep demanding answers to the shocking mystery she uncovered about her family.  As Catherine listens to Elizabeth’s harrowing tale, she discovers that the women’s lives are linked in shocking ways. Faced with the idea that her entire existence is based on a lie, Catherine realizes that only Elizabeth Bentley can tell her what the truth really is.

“The role of Catherine is to allow Elizabeth to explain herself.  She represents the readers who are doubtful about what Elizabeth said. They want to understand how this highly educated young woman, an All-American girl, became a Soviet spy and yet still considered herself a patriot.  With Catherine I was able to call out all Elizabeth’s discrepancies and to ask questions.”

Anyone interested in an espionage book will enjoy this story. Readers will be immersed in the dangerous world of spies. They will question who is an American patriot and who is not. An added bonus is the writer’s notes at the end of the book, 19 pages explaining all the changes that the author made in persons, places, and timelines.



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About the Author

Elise Cooper

Elise writes book reviews that always include a short author interview.