From E.M. Nathanson’s The Dirty Dozen to Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, the trope of a disparate yet plucky band of outsiders deployed behind enemy lines to carry out a secret mission is well-trod territory. And in the hands of a lesser writer than Leila Meacham, author of bestsellers Roses and Somerset, it could easily descend into redundancy or even parody. Happily, in Dragonfly, this is by no means the case.
Five idealistic young Americans—two women and three men—are recruited at the height of World War II to assume secret identities in Paris and spy for the Allies. Over the course of the opening chapters, we come to realize that each has a motive beyond patriotism that qualifies them for the mission but could also endanger both their operation and their lives.
During their cursory read-in and training, one of the five, a fly fisherman, codenamed Limpet, comes up with the perfect name for the team: Dragonfly. “They’re almost impossible to snare and have no blind spots,” he explains. “Their eyes wrap around their heads like a football helmet to give them a three-hundred-sixty-degree view. Most insects, predators can attack from underneath and behind. Those are their vulnerable areas. Dragonflies don’t have them.”
Ah, but this Dragonfly does. In an occupied city where the slightest transgression or out-of-place comment can get you reported to the Gestapo, our freshly minted agents find themselves evading close call after close call—until they don’t. Is one of their number nimble enough to escape a prison cell and a firing squad? The truth, if there’s one to be had, may rest on a single mark on a convent wall’s mural.
Most people in America—and for that matter, most people in Paris by this point—have never lived in an occupied city. Meacham’s impeccable pacing and razor-wire tension evoke the daily drama of life under a Reich whose French reign might have lasted little more than four years but felt like the thousand years that it threatened to endure.