Set in England during the Interregnum, the period between the execution of Charles I in 1649 and the restoration of Charles II in 1660, Pete Langman’s Killing Beauties tells the story of two female spies – or she-intelligencers, as they were known. Female spies played an important role in the intelligence networks of the time and the two women who feature in this novel, Susan Hyde and Diana Jennings, are based on real people.
The story begins in August 1655. With England under the rule of the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell, the future Charles II – who is in exile awaiting the day when he can return to claim his throne – has entrusted Susan and Diana with a difficult and dangerous mission. Their task is to infiltrate the household of Cromwell’s Secretary of State John Thurloe in the hope of extracting secrets that will help them to undermine the Protectorate. However, Thurloe is also Cromwell’s spymaster, with a large and powerful network of his own. Will the women be able to obtain the information they need before their true identities are revealed?
Killing Beauties is a fascinating novel from the point of view of learning what was involved in the secret services of the 17th century: how they were organised and structured; the disguises, code names and terminology they used; how they gathered their intelligence; and the methods they used to keep their correspondence private – it was particularly interesting to read about the clever and intricate art of letterlocking! It’s such a shame that the contributions of the women who worked for these secret societies have been largely ignored and forgotten. The real Susan Hyde was completely overshadowed by her own brother Edward, the Earl of Clarendon, whose book, The History of the Rebellion, doesn’t even mention her.
Pete Langman has stated that the inspiration for his novel was Nadine Akkerman’s Invisible Agents: Women and Espionage in Seventeenth-Century Britain, which refers to both Susan and Diana, but as there is a limit to how much is actually known about them, particularly Diana, he has had to use some imagination to fill in the gaps. According to Akkerman’s book, Susan Hyde was postmistress for the secret royalist society of the Sealed Knot, and she carries out this role in Langman’s novel as well as trying to gain the trust of John Thurloe in order to obtain intelligence. Susan is portrayed as a sensible, practical person who takes her work very seriously, fully aware of the danger she is in – and I admired her, but I have to admit I found her a little bit bland. Diana, in contrast, is lively, daring and much more fun to read about, even if her loyalties are sometimes in question…
Diana had her fingers crossed as she spoke. It was something she did a lot, crossing her fingers as she spoke. Sometimes even Diana was unsure when she was lying, and at such times she had long ago decided that it was best to assume that she was.
For various reasons Diana virtually disappears from the story in the middle of the book and we don’t see as much of her as I would have liked. However, there’s a large cast of other characters to get to know, some of whom I’m assuming are fictional but others who definitely really existed: for example, Isaac Dorislaus, the Dutch scholar recruited to examine the correspondence passing through Cromwell’s ‘Black Chamber’, and Samuel Morland, one of Thurloe’s spies, who was also a mathematician and inventor.
I can’t really say that I loved this book; I found the plot unnecessarily complex and on occasions a bit difficult to follow, which admittedly could have been because I wasn’t paying enough attention, although I don’t think so. I also thought the book felt longer than it really needed to be, which meant the pace seemed to drag at times. Still, it was good to get some insights into the fascinating world of 17th century espionage and to have the vital contributions of female spies highlighted. At the end, it seemed as though things were being set up for a sequel, so despite having one or two problems with this book I would be happy to read another by Pete Langman.