When you first meet Livy Nash, the anti-heroine of M. L. Huie’s debut, SPITFIRE, she certainly doesn’t appear to live up to her feisty moniker. But as she pulls herself out of her vodka-soaked sleep and embarks on a dangerous mission, she lures the reader into the novel. It doesn’t take long to understand how she earned her reputation or to be thoroughly captivated by the intriguing storyline.
The post-World War II setting provides abundant twists for this espionage-filled historical mystery. Livy, once an elite British secret agent, now works a mind-numbing office job by day, while by night she attempts to forget the man she loved and lost during the war.
AN OPPORTUNITY FOR VENGEANCE
Naturally, when the enigmatic Ian Fleming offers her the chance to hunt down the traitor who cost her everything, Livy can’t refuse. Fleming needs her to retrieve a crucial list of names making up the mysterious and deeply powerful Mephisto network, a list which Livy’s old nemesis now controls. Since whoever runs this network controls the trajectory of the ravaged world, Livy is not the only one working to get her hands on it; the American, Russian, and French forces continually hinder her, sometimes help her, and always entangle her as they all struggle to solve the mystery. Livy quickly realizes just how high the stakes of her assignment are as she navigates devious double agents, uncooperative informants, life-threatening confrontations, and ever-changing rules of the game. The result is a truly page-turning, enthralling and ultimately fulfilling read.
As far as protagonists go, Livy Nash is entirely distinctive. Though admirably resilient, daring, and somewhat reckless (all necessary qualities for a first-rate literary secret agent) she also has a genuinely sensitive and thoughtful spirit. She wrestles with myriads of outside dangers but also has to pay her dues to her own emotions and complicated history with both the war and the people who fought in it. Her multifaceted character is raw and well-written, and Huie does an excellent job building both internal and external conflict for his leading lady to resolve. Best of all, he leaves just enough unanswered to make Livy’s narrative poignant and convincing, while still creating a strong central character who the reader can’t help but get behind.
A NEW WAR — AND A CHOICE OF BATTLES TO FIGHT
Livy often struggles to prioritize the greater cause over her personal vendettas, but eventually recognizes that she has to relinquish her past in order to help create a better future both for herself and her country. Her journey from an embittered, shattered and self-destructive woman to someone prepared to face her demons and choose what’s right gives the action-packed novel unanticipated depth and heart. Her distinctive voice and rich backstory only add to her feisty personality.
All the supporting characters are well-crafted, and the setting, which jumps between England and France, is meticulously researched. The many astute historical details provide an intriguing context while reminding the reader that stories such as Livy’s aren’t a far cry from real post-war experiences.
Most significantly, the novel moves at a rapid pace and is so full of baffling revelations that it completely immerses the reader. If you’re after a riveting spy thriller with the added bonuses of an intrepid female protagonist, a fascinating historical setting, and a nuanced depiction of challenging ethical decisions, SPITFIRE will be a winner.
Here, Huie answers a few questions about his page-turning debut.
SPITFIRE’S historical setting is perfect for a mystery novel. What led you to place the novel in post-WWII Europe?
I really wanted to tell an early Cold War story. I see the post-war period as very gray and “noirish” compared to the atmosphere of good vs. evil you get during the war itself, so that atmosphere appealed to me.
The research process for your book must have been extensive, yet you managed to paint such an astonishingly vivid world for your characters. How did you go about making sure all the historical details were accurate and significant?
I actually really love research. Making the details as accurate as possible, however, was an ongoing process that went all the way through editing and proofs. But as much as you have to honor history and watch out for distracting anachronisms, you also have to remember this is a story. The great James Ellroy is fond of saying his books are in the library with a big “F” because they’re fiction.
Livy is the kind of heroine readers love to get behind, yet she’s still deeply flawed. What inspired her backstory and character development?
I find flawed characters so much more interesting and believable. We’re all damaged to some extent, really. I’d say the chip Livy has on her shoulder came from some personal things I went through at the time I wrote the first draft. Her affinity for Polish vodka came from the biography of another former British spy in WWII, and how she had difficulty coping after the war.
This is only your first novel, but you have a background in writing in almost every other format, from journalism to playwriting. How did you enjoy the different processes? Do you plan to pen sequels to SPITFIRE?
The plays I wrote all required a great deal of historical research, and so my love for re-discovering the past pushed me in that direction in writing this novel. I’m also an actor, so I tried to bring that experience as well into the creation of—hopefully—realistic characters whose objectives are clear and believable. I am hard at work on the second Livy book, which is called Nightshade.
Judy Moreno is a recent graduate of Hillsdale College and aspires to anything and everything related to books. She double-majored in English and Theatre after her small-town upbringing led her to read everything at her local library and watch every golden-age Hollywood film she possibly could. Some of her favorites include Catch-22, Anna Karenina and The Sisterhood of The Traveling Pants series.
This column originally ran on Booktrib, where writers and readers meet: