BOOK REVIEW / The spy who never was: The fatal lover: Mata Hari and the Myth of Women in Espionage - Julie Wheelwright: Collins & Brown, pounds 16.99

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LEON BIZARD, the doctor who examined Mata Hari at the grim Saint-Lazare prison-hospital in Paris, was contemptuous of his charge's claims to beauty. She was 'of an Asiatic type', lacking in physical charm, 'something of a savage'. The army captain investigating her case, Pierre Bouchardon, unleashed an even more racist tirade. She had 'a bulbous nose, chapped skin, a mouth that touched the ears, the swollen lips of a negress, teeth as big as plates'.

Bizard and Bouchardon met Mata Hari at her lowest ebb, after her arrest in 1917, but neither of them wins high marks for observation; their prisoner was actually a woman from a small town in Holland, as European as themselves. They were responding not to reality but to the fantasies devised by Margaretha Zelle MacLeod to further her stage career and to compensate for the dullness of her Dutch provincial background. To these multiple identities, pathetic and harmless inventions on the part of a woman making the most of a small talent and few resources, her accusers added another which was to cost her her life: spy.

Mata Hari was executed by firing squad on October 15, 1917. Myths immediately sprang up about the event: she was said to have faced her executioners naked except for a fur coat which she threw open in an attempt to persuade them not to fire; she had been seized from the firing line by one of her lovers in a dramatic horseback rescue. The truth, established by the American Natalie Barney, who had employed Mata Hari to dance at her parties, was that she went to her death calmly. Eleven shots rang out, after which a cavalry sergeant walked forward and fired another bullet into her temple.

Although Mata Hari had been found guilty on eight charges of spying by a military tribunal, the evidence against her was confusing and anecdotal. Much of it was guilt by association, in that her lovers included officers, policemen and the German envoy in Madrid, Major Arnold Kalle. The claim made by one of her judges, police captain Jean Chatin, that Mata Hari 'has caused the death perhaps of 50,000 of our men' was patently ludicrous; the prosecutor, Andre Mornet, later admitted that 'there was not enough evidence to whip a cat'.

Julie Wheelwright's book is not a biography of Mata Hari, but an attempt to use her as the focus for an inquiry into the myth and reality of women's role in espionage. The obvious problem with this approach is that the life of so persistent a fantasist as Mata Hari, riddled with inconsistencies, does not lend itself to summary. Wheelwright writes like a woman in a hurry, informing the reader that a statue of Mata Hari was erected in her home town, Leeuwarden, to commemorate 'the hundredth anniversary of her birth' in 1965 and, two paragraphs later, that the dancer was born in 1876.

Nor is there anything revelatory about her analysis. It is obvious that war breeds paranoia and an appetite for scapegoats, and that Mata Hari fatally misjudged the changed moral climate of wartime Paris. Much of the book consists of familiar rhetoric to make such points, expressed in vague sentences ('The mythomania that surrounded Mata Hari crystallised these fears, preserving the complex struggles about gender, identity and race which were the undercurrents of the war'). Wheelwright also appears to think that Mme de Stael was sentenced to death by Napoleon III, who would have been nine years old when the novelist died in 1817.

There is no shortage of writing on Mata Hari. The bibliography lists nine biographies, ranging from the myth-making Mata Hari: Courtesan and Spy, by Major Thomas Coulson (1930) to Russell Howe's assertion of her innocence in Mata Hari: The True Story (1986). Julie Wheelwright's book is at best a minor addition to the literature, a well-meaning but inadequate attempt to write about the unfortunate dancer in a feminist context.

(Photograph omitted)