Gwen Moffat lives in Cumbria. Her novels are set in remote communities ranging from the Hebrides to the American West. The crimes fit their environment, swelling that dreadful record of sin in the smiling countryside cited by Sherlock Holmes. The style echoes this: rustic charm masking horror.
The ideal spy is a paradox: inhuman but passionate. Friends, lovers, family, all must be sacrificed to the Cause, and that demands total loyalty. Joan, the eponymous hero, was a bad spy, one who loved too well, but a good agent in that she delivered the goods.
An unworldly but clever girl, she went up to Cambridge in the 1930s. She was befriended by a glamorous Russian student and fell in love with her cousin. Through them she came to admire the basic principles of Communism but was lured to its darker side, love used as bait.
After Cambridge, now recognised as a promising physicist, she was recruited by an elite laboratory working on the atom bomb, everyone believing, first sincerely, then rationalising, that “nuclear” would save the world: provide cheap clean fuel, feed the millions. After Hiroshima and Nagasaki there could be no more rationalising and Joan turned criminal, convinced that she was acting for the good of the whole, regretting that she hadn’t acted sooner, guilt-ridden. Her thinking being that if Russia had possessed the bomb it would have been the deterrent to stop America using hers.
Joan is a well-rounded character, loyal to the bone but her loyalties divided. Occasionally silly, half-blind with love and compassion, she matured fast. Faced with exposure and, presumably, the death penalty, she resorted to blackmail and, if the end is left hanging, there is a suspicion that she is still calling the shots, still passionate but passion redirected, now tempered with cunning.
A world away from the traditional spy story, Rooney gives us the human side of espionage. If at the conclusion you ask how you can be left with admiration for a traitor, the answer is that this is not a case history. Joan is a fictitious character in a novel. You have been conned into reality by a brilliant author.