cover image Signed, Mata Hari

Signed, Mata Hari

Yannick Murphy, . . Little, Brown, $23.99 (278pp) ISBN 978-0-316-11264-2

In life, at least before the espionage charges, it was Mata Hari’s body that made her mesmerizing; in this alluring novel, it is her hypnotic voice. As softly poetic as it is insistent, it entices the reader from the first lines to give Mata Hari what she always craved: not the secrets that are the currency of a spy, but the rapt attention that is oxygen to a performer. Shifting time and perspective, the tale moves among Mata Hari’s early childhood in the late 19th-century Netherlands, her years in Java as a caring young mother married to a brutal military man, her glamorous but desperate career as a famed dancer and courtesan and her bleak existence in a Paris prison after her arrest as a spy for Germany during WWI. Murphy (Here They Come ) sticks with the true ending to her subject’s story, which was death by firing squad, and what makes the novel an unlikely achievement is how Murphy nurtures, before the shots are fired, a potent skepticism about the guilt of a woman whose name even today is synonymous with treachery. In its subdued way, this novel is an eloquent cri de coeur and a belated witness for the defense. (Nov.)