A Most Clever Girl: A Novel of an American Spy

Written by Stephanie Marie Thornton
Review by Franca Pelaccia

It’s 1963, and the Cold War era. Catherine Gray believes Elizabeth Bentley has killed her mother. She shows up at Elizabeth’s home intending to shoot her but instead gives her an hour to tell her side of the story. What Catherine doesn’t expect is to become engrossed in the tale of a young and naïve loner, who is recruited by the American Communist Party to spy on fascists during World War II; falls in love with her handler, Jacob Golos; helps to build the biggest Soviet spy network in the U.S.; refuses to give up her network to the Soviets after Jacob dies; and ultimately turns FBI informant to avoid death at the hands of the Soviets.

A Most Clever Girl is based on the true-life events of Elizabeth Bentley, code named Clever Girl, who, from the author’s note, volunteered her vast network of Soviet agents long before Joseph McCarthy and the Red Scare. It focuses on the development of Elizabeth as a spy and traitor, but also as a woman. Elizabeth joins the American Communist Party for friendship and agrees to do things for acceptance. Jacob’s death changes her from a naïve and God-fearing young woman to a tough and dominant presence. Alone again and with nothing to lose, she stands up to the Soviets, who want her dead, and then to the FBI, which wants her knowledge.

A Most Clever Girl is a recounting of Elizabeth’s story in a mostly one-way conversational format. The format, however, removed me from the story as opposed to putting me in it. The novel doesn’t reveal some big and previously unknown Cold War event, as I hoped, but focuses on Elizabeth and her redemption.