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

4.06  ·  Rating details ·  1,188 Ratings  ·  167 Reviews
Once rumored to have been the inspiration for Ian Fleming's Miss Moneypenny, Vera Atkins climbed her way to the top in the Special Operations Executive, or SOE: Britain's secret service created to help build up, organize, and arm the resistance in the Nazi-occupied countries. Throughout the war, Atkins recruited, trained, and mentored the agents for the SOE's French Sectio ...more
Hardcover, 528 pages
Published August 22nd 2006 by Nan A. Talese (first published 2005)
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Apr 09, 2017 rated it it was amazing
My reading program for this month is to immerse myself in the world of female agents operating in France during WW2. I read one book on the subject which got me more interested in that world. One book, as we know, leads to another. I was overwhelmed by the courage of these women and want to know more about them.

During World War Two, Vera Atkins recruited, trained, and mentored the agents for the SOE's French Section, which sent more than four hundred young men and women into occupied France, at
Violet wells
Feb 18, 2014 rated it really liked it
An utterly compelling read about Vera Atkins and the female SOE agents she helped send to France. Especially moving is her relentless attempt at the end of the war to discover what happened to those agents who had vanished from all official records. At this point the book becomes a gripping detective story. There's also the mystery of Vera herself, a fascinating woman who gave so little of herself away and destroyed many of her documents. So this fabulously well written and researched book conta ...more
Sep 17, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: biography
This biography of Vera Atkins is one of the most amazing books I have ever read. I was amazed at the breadth and depth of Helm's research. I was amazed at the level of incompetence in the Special Operations Executive (SOE), clandestinely established by the British to place saboteurs into Europe.They were engaged in recruiting, and setting up resistance organizations as well as supporting them behind enemy lines. The ability to rationalize away grave mistakes in judgment as the result of the fog ...more
Jim Leffert
Sep 04, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Vera Atkins, the “spymistress” who sent men and women as agents to France during World War II, was a wealthy Anglophile Jewish woman in Romania who ended up trying to assimilate in England and becoming den mother to a legion of undercover operatives in France. This biography of Atkins is better even than the novels of Alan Furst! The book conveys the author’s heroic effort to discover the truth about Vera’s life and also about the agents, many of whom landed right into the arms of the Germans an ...more
Debbie Robson
Sep 17, 2012 rated it it was amazing
A Life in Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Missing Agents of WWII is a book about journeys. A lot of journeys. Firstly it is the author Sarah Helm’s journey to discover the real Vera Atkins who she met only once in 1998. She initially came to see Atkins about the agents but found that to understand what happened to the agents she needed to understand Vera Atkins herself, a woman who said of her Romanian past: “It is something on which I have closed the book. I have closed the book on many things in ...more
Regina Lindsey
Sep 25, 2012 rated it really liked it
Great Britain formed the Special Operations Executive (SOE) as a reaction to the Panic of 1940, in order to execute espionage activities behind enemy lines. In 1942, Col Collin Gubbins received unofficial authority to send women into combat zones as couriers. It was thought Nazis would be less likely to bodily search women and women could devise logical explanations as to why they were on the move as opposed to men who would be readily searched and conscripted. Women were so successful in their ...more
Mark Drew
Jan 16, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a very astounding book; another look behind the curtains of the S.O.E and the "brains" of the "F" section, Vera Atkins. I have read several books regarding the activities of England's super secret sabotage department, but this one surprised me for several reasons, the foremost being the character of Vera Atkins herself. In the other books I have read Atkins is usually painted in saintly hues but here we find a totally different persona, one who probably had feet of clay with a will of ru ...more
This is truly a book of contrasts. Here is a story that needed to be told, and which required the skills of a terrier of a competent and persistent investigative journalist to breathe life into it. Yet this book largely, but not wholly, reads as though the author struggled to sift and piece her material together to her satisfaction, let alone that of her editor.

However, I am glad that Ms Helm fully engaged in that struggle, because overall her text really is very well worth sticking with. Yes,
Dec 28, 2007 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: People who like WWII memoirs, espionage, strong women
Ooof - this is a long, detailed, sometimes disturbing but always fascinating account of Vera Atkins' work with female SOE agents both during the war, and after. She spent a great deal of time post-war tracking down and interviewing witnesses on both sides of the war who could provide details of her missing female agents, and their ultimate demise.
Oct 12, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Engrossing book.

Re-read. There is quite a bit in here about how to do research and about conflicts that we have with our heroes. It really is an entertaing book about a quest, more than a biography.
Mar 08, 2009 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
An excellent book and well worth reading. Vera Atkins was indeed an enigma but this book tries to dispell some of the myths. What can't be denied is the work Vera Atkins put in after the war to find the missing female SOE agents that didn't return home.
Stephen Goldenberg
Jul 18, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Another book that passed me by on its original publication but which proves that there are still things left to discover about the 2nd World War. In this case, Sarah Helm delves into the operations in occupied France by the Special Operations Executive (S.O.E). In particular, she tries to piece together the story of Vera Atkins, who worked at the S.O.E. Office in London recruiting agents to be parachuted into France to collect intelligence and support the resistance. She took particular responsi ...more
May 15, 2014 rated it liked it
I'm giving this book three stars because the author has obviously done a beautiful job of researching this story. However, the book didn't really engage me at all. For some masochistic reason I felt compelled to finish every last word, like maybe, just maybe I will find something in this book that proves useful to me later...why do I do that to myself? The main character of the book, Vera Atkins, seemed unlikeable, cold, and even callous. Helm explains at the end of the book the hidden events in ...more
Douglas Perry
Jun 02, 2010 rated it it was ok
Shelves: nonfiction
This is the true story of Britain's Special Operations Executive and how, after World War II, its "spy mistress" went in search of her missing agents. Clearly, "A Life in Secrets" has all the makings of a great book, but it never quite engaged me. For one thing, the protagonist, the austere, self-absorbed Vera Atkins, is not very likable. Plus, the SOE -- sort of a kid sister to MI6 -- was filled with incompetents at the staff level, and this is the reason so many of Atkins' agents went missing. ...more
I am an ambiguous admirer of Vera Atkins and, after reading this book, a huge admirer of Sarah Helm. This is a harrowing book, a war history as well as a biography, and the amount of detective work Helm’s done in pulling together the story of Atkins’s life—as WELL as retracing Atkins’s steps in some of her OWN detective work—is tremendous. I’m a little envious! (from a time and money point of view). I’m also agog at the gargantuan task Helm has done in putting all this minutiae together to make ...more
Liz Chapman
Aug 04, 2012 rated it it was amazing
A fascinating account of Vera Atkins lone search through the chaos of Allied Occupied Germany, to find out what had happened to the 12 missing female agents that had been dropped behind enemy lines , that Vera had helped to prepare for their missions.
Aug 07, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Conventions, especially in the fantasy genre, have a strange side effect on my life. Well other than the direct effect of following people attending them and reading up on all the happenings (I mean, really who thought cons would be cool one day?) they have the other impact of making most of my favorite authors write their next books very slowly.

This leads to me outreading their series, deterred at starting other ones, and suddenly developing an uncharacteristic streak of enjoying non fiction. O
N.L.B. Horton
May 20, 2014 rated it really liked it
A LIFE IN SECRETS is a book whose story should be told. It's predominantly about British spies during WWII, and a spy mistress (Vera Atkins) with secrets of her own. Working closely with the female spies sent to France on behalf of the Allies, she went to great lengths to determine the fates of those whom she prepared for espionage.

Atkins herself was quite a character, and I enjoyed reading about the challenges she faced to get her job, do her job, and to survive within the British establishment
Jan 19, 2015 rated it really liked it
I had slightly mixed feelings about this one. It was at times extremely captivating. I just had to find out the fate of these agents but the problem I had was that I could have totally done without having to read about Vera Atkins because I found her to be not at all likeable in any way.

In hindsight I would have been much more interested in reading something else that was focused solely on the agents. I also really struggled with the level of incompetence, lies and back covering that went on by
Jul 12, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Vera Atkins was the coordinator of the French desk within the British Special Operations Executive during World War II. SOE sent over four hundred agents to occupied countries, four hundred of them to France. The agents coordinated resistance activities and provided communications links to SOE. Over one hundred of the British agents who were sent to France did not return alive. Twelve of those killed (executed) were women. Vera Atkins, who had risen to the highest position held by a woman in Bri ...more
Oliver Flynn
Aug 08, 2013 rated it liked it
I'm captivated by untold stories of the war and this was generally a good one. Princess Noor Inayat Khan's story has long interested me. Apparently, as a person, she intrigued Vera Atkins, as well, since much of the SOE portion of the book follows Atkins' extensive search for “Madeleine’s” post-war whereabouts. I was saddened to learn of the betrayals by other British agents and the seeming ineptitude by Atkin's superior, allowing the Gestapo to all-too handily round up the carefully trained Bri ...more
Jan 04, 2015 rated it liked it
I love the subject and wish like heck we could do half stars here. The first half of the book was very well done, but in an effort to tell Vera's entire story the author must dig back into the hidden past and ends up with suppositions and guesswork. I guess that bothered me. The other issue is that by the end of the book, as we work so very arduously to complete Vera's story, I came to dislike her very much. Yeah, I understand the need for control when sending people to their deaths but later, w ...more
Oct 15, 2016 rated it it was ok
2.5 a bit disorganized. A bit of a mess. Too much information about the author of this book who isn't important and whom I don't care about. I found myself skimming the autobiographical sections about the biographer herself and how difficult it was to ferret out certain information. More than once, I thought, if it's so hard for you that you feel compelled to mention it yet again, maybe investigative journalism really isn't your calling.

Vera herself, the SOE agents, and the reluctance of the Al
Jan 22, 2008 rated it it was amazing
I could barely put this book down. From page one I was hooked. The stories about agents going behind Nazi lines into France were compelling, and Vera Atkin's tenactiy to discover what happened to each and every agent that did not come back was admirable. The descriptions of conditions in the prisons, camps and countries during WW II are difficult to read and accept. Then Sarah Helms goes beyond these points in history to discover what shaped Vera Atkins. Helms does not wear only rose colored gla ...more
Jun 08, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history, library, research
I'm kind of tempted to file this under 'secret history' because Miss Atkins was incredibly secretive about elements of her life, especially when it pertained to her time in SOE and the women agents she worked with. Helm captures a strong, complex woman who was fascinating but not always likeable, who moved through her world with determination. (As a fantasy writer, I also liked the rather mystical moments that cropped up a few times in the story.)
Jan 24, 2017 rated it did not like it
Got to page 100 and I am so bored. My goodness I just could not get into this book at all. I tried and really wanted to be amazed and awed. Didn't happen....
Jul 18, 2017 rated it really liked it
Very interesting story- very impressive research went into this book.
Aug 24, 2014 rated it it was ok
This book is a mess. The author presents seemingly random bits of evidence and anecdotes, switching from her own experience in retracing the steps of Vera Atkins and Vera Atkins' journey to discover the fates of F section SOE agents. I found the author's tale of her journey to Vera Atkins' childhood home especially out of place and unnecessary. I assume the author was attempting to present similarities between her experience of trying to discover details of Ms. Atkins' early life and Ms. Atkins' ...more
Feb 15, 2010 rated it really liked it
Amazing story about WWII spies for Britain, many of them of whom were women and whom went unacknowledged for decades after the war. Vera Atkins was not a spy herself, but coordinated the special group of spies. When things went terribly wrong and the Nazis captured her people, Atkins went on a personal journey, after the war, to find out what happened to each and every one.

The book is as much about her search, as it is about Atkins, who is a mysterious character herself. I found myself not likin
Andy Law
Nov 19, 2014 rated it liked it
Bit of a mixed bag. At times fascinating and at others a bit muddled and bogged down in unnecessary detail. Vera Atkins doesn't really come to life as the interesting character you expect until the last couple of chapters.
There are also some harrowing details of how some of the agents met their end.
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