“Red Joan” is an absorbing, intelligent tale from British writer Jennie Rooney. It’s loosely based on a real-life figure from World War II: Lettie Norwood, who in 1999 — at age 87 — was outed as the Russian spy system’s longest-serving British agent.
(“Oh dear,” the sweet old thing told a reporter at the time, “I thought I had got away with it.”)
Joan Stanley is a young, naive physicist who is part of Britain’s race to build a nuclear bomb. Falling in with radical and dashing Sonya and Leo — they’re cousins — Joan is won over to the Soviet cause and begins passing information.
Partly this is out of conviction — Joan was raised by socialist parents and believes that peace will result from Soviet and American nuclear arms balancing each other. Partly, too, Joan is seduced by Leo’s nerdy sexiness.
Told in flashbacks as present-day British agents interrogate Joan, the book tautly contrasts her quiet life as a jam-making granny with her long-ago education in the tradecraft of espionage.