Why was an adventuress, who rose to notoriety as an exotic dancer in pre-World War I Paris, executed by firing squad in 1917? Was she a double agent, as the French prosecution claimed, or had she been framed? Before Mata Hari perished, she swore to her innocence, and the government dossier, made available 68 years later, corroborated her testimony. This led to a re-assessment of her character, which had been depicted as devious—a fille de joie who had accepted payments from the French and the Germans, her treason causing the deaths of thousands of allied troops. By contrast, the journalist to have insight into her legal files, Russell Warren Howe, painted Mata Hari as a sad, pathetic figure—a convenient scapegoat, sacrificed by the French to supply an excuse as to why the nation had incurred heavy losses in the trenches.
Paulo Coelho, in The Spy, adheres to this later view, opening his novel shortly before her death, as she pens a (fictional) letter to her attorney, telling the story of her life and explaining why she became embroiled in espionage—she wanted to earn money for her Russian lover. Was Mata Hari an accidental spy, who loved too much, or an early feminist, taking unprecedented freedoms? Coelho suggests that she was a living contradiction, a brilliant dreamer, who misunderstood the complex politics of the Great War. The Spy resurrects this fascinating personality and shows that she was not a femme fatale, but a hapless victim. Yet, a few nagging questions remain by the end of the novel. Would a woman counting the days to her execution embark on a lengthy memoir? Would she not rage more at the injustice of her fate and mourn her existence being cut short? The book is a compelling read, but somewhat lacking in gravitas, considering Mata Hari’s tragic ending.