Michael C. White’s Beautiful Assassin showed up in my package of books from BookPage for April, and I glanced at the blurb only briefly before sidelining it with regard to BookPage’s Whodunit column (www.bookpage.com). After all, “a novel of love, loyalty, and intrigue set during World War II, in which a decorated Russian sniper finds herself caught between two suspicious allies”, didn’t seem to fit the brief of a mystery/suspense column. That said, I had every intention of reading it on my own time, and indeed it has been occupying most of my free moments for the past several days.
The story begins in 1996, or rather in a way it ends there, when reporter Elizabeth Meade pays a visit to one Irina Andreeva Bishop in a remote area of Colorado. Meade represents herself as a distant relative of Bishop’s deceased husband, but that is simply a ruse to get in the door. For as nearly as Meade can figure, Bishop is in fact Tat’yana Levchenko, a first-rate World War II sniper decorated for her bravery and marksmanship, and a key player in one of the greatest spy stories of the Roosevelt era, and a woman who dropped off the radar without a trace some fifty years before. Bishop’s claim of no knowledge regarding Levchenko quickly crumbles in the face of Meade’s overwhelming evidence to the contrary, and she grudgingly agrees to tell her story, but in her own way, and with certain conditions (i.e., from the beginning, no tape recorder allowed).
From then on, the narrative is related in the first person by Tat’yana Levchenko, the chronicle of her phoenix-like rise from the battle-scarred trenches of Sevastopol to the heady arena of wartime Washington, DC, where she was a friend and confidant of no less a personage than Eleanor Roosevelt. To the American public, Tat’yana was a heroine, the Beautiful Assassin, the fiercely attractive face of struggle against the tyranny of Nazism; on a more private level, she was a political pawn, used to spread disinformation and to gather compromising intelligence that the Soviets hoped to use in postwar negotiations, sealing their position as a world power to be reckoned with.
Beautiful Assassin is a work of fiction, to be sure, but it draws from real life situations and characters: the siege of Sevastopol is factual, the Russian spy network did indeed infiltrate the highest circles of Washington’s elite, and the speculation about the nature Eleanor Roosevelt’s relationship with her constant companion Lorena Hickok continues even today. Painstakingly researched, relentlessly paced, Beautiful Assassin is a book you will not put down easily, and one that will resonate well past the closing pages.