The hour of the wolf: Jennie Rooney unmasks the world of Cambridge spies

Boyd Tonkin interrogates the author about ideals, betrayals and regrets.

In 1999, the 87-year-old "spy who came in from the Co-op" opened her front door in south London to face the waiting media. And she refused to say sorry. Melita Norwood had, over four decades after 1937, used her routine office job at the British Non-Ferrous Metals Association to pass classified information to the KGB and the previous Soviet agencies. Unmasked in files brought to Britain by defector Vasili Mitrokhin, the unrepentant "granny spy" was spared prosecution on the grounds of age.

Jennie Rooney, as a Cambridge University history student who dived into the turbid archives of 20th-century intelligence under the guidance of MI5's official chronicler Professor Chris Andrew, read Norwood's story. It struck a chord. "I just remember it so clearly: those pictures of her standing on the doorstop and saying - sort of - that she wasn't sorry. Basically, she was saying that I had my reasons and that I would do it again if those same circumstances were to arise."

Deliberately, Rooney has not fictionalised the Soviet heroine of the suburbs - who once went to Russia to collect a medal for her work - in Red Joan (Chatto & Windus, £12.99). In her third novel, the Liverpool-born writer (who still also works as a commercial solicitor) wanted to expose the secrets of the heart rather than mimic the data in the files. "The process of spying can be quite dull. It was more the reasons." Unlike Norwood, the committed life-long Communist, her protagonist Joan Stanley is wrenched by contradictory impulses, only briefly opts for betrayal, and then swiftly backtracks. "I wanted more ambiguity - for the character to be more torn."

In contrast to standard-issue espionage yarns in the Le Carré mould, with their frenzied and tortuous mole-hunts, Rooney has set the bar high for herself. Red Joan begins - in 2005 - with the former atomic scientist's confession, after the death of a fellow-agent from her Cambridge days. So we know she's "guilty" from page one: but of what precisely; and, above all, why?

"What drew me," Rooney explains as we talk in the top-floor bar of a West End hotel with a bird's-eye - or spook's eye - view of the city below, "was the actual story, not the genre of espionage fiction." She hopes that Red Joan "will be interesting to people who would normally say, 'I don't read thrillers.'" It will. But this "whydunnit" generates plenty of suspense as well. Joan, daughter of a progressive headmaster, and a science student at Newnham College, falls in 1937 into the orbit of the glamorous, cosmopolitan Russian-born cousins, Sonya and Leo. Shocked, despite her growing love for Leo, by his manipulative way with economic facts, Joan always keeps her distance from the "fairy-tale" of Soviet Communism. Even then, the comrades know that at its heart lurks a wolf named Stalin - but they prefer to hide his kills.

As war with Germany breaks out, and the Communist Party twists itself into theological knots to justify the Nazi-Soviet pact that held until Hitler's invasion of Russia in June 1941, Joan goes to do her patriotic duty as a research scientist in a Cambridge lab. Some readers may think the "Tube Alloys" project, which sees British researchers briefly take a lead in the conversion of the science of nuclear fission from theory to technology, a wild fiction. It all happened. Red Joan craftily braids a fictitious plot into the history of a secretive and little-known breakthrough. "They were really far ahead," says Rooney, "but once they get in with America it kind of got taken over. And the spies didn't help…" The Tube Alloys research was subsumed into the US-led Manhattan Project and then irrevocably tarnished by the betrayal of its discoveries at the hands of the "atom spy" Klaus Fuchs, exposed in 1949. Fuchs's own justifications helped Rooney to trace her heroine's own line of reasoning: "Some of the thoughts he had are ones that Joan has."

As collaboration with the Americans becomes tense and tangled, Joan resists all Leo and Sonya's inducements to treason. Then, in 1945, theory becomes practice and the atomic bombs fall on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Now, with the West alone in command of a planet-smashing power, she concludes: "it's not about stealing; it's about sharing". Her career as a conduit for nuclear secrets begins. Norwood too believed that "Russia needed to be in with a chance." Red Joan digs deep into minds before hindsight. Rooney, who knows her way around the National Archives at Kew, has deployed her training to circumvent the historical novelist's usual lazy back-projection of present views onto past eras. "What I find interesting about history," she says, "is not what happened when but how did it feel - and what might I have done if I were in that position."

Rooney's parents - an accountant and a teacher - moved for a spell from Liverpool to Zambia, before the family relocated to south London. "It gives you a taste for other worlds," she reflects; "It was normal to me to have gone there." In an early introduction to the well-meaning smoke-and-mirrors of so many official sources, she remembers "being scared of snakes". So she asked her dad to walk her round the house to prove their absence. Later, he confessed, "We walked around and there were snakes - but you didn't see any of them!"

Her debut Inside the Whale - a shortlisted contender for the Costa first novel award - was written as she prepared for her law exams, and appeared in 2008. It drew, with warmth, humour and a cliché-free sense of period, on aspects of her family's wartime and post-war history, and revealed a notable talent for decade-leaping empathy in a genre too often marked by crude emotional anachronism. Its 2010 follow-up, The Opposite of Falling, moved further back in time to 19th-century experiments in flight, as an intrepid young woman travels to Niagara in an age pushed skywards by its dreams of freedom.

In Joan's case, those aspirations for a broader, better life - as a scientist, an independent woman, a citizen of the world - plausibly crash into the doubts and fears bred by a mainstream inter-war upbringing. When the crunch comes, she makes her choices on the battleground of conscience - although always with a divided soul. For Joan, after Hiroshima, "there are no sides any longer, not once this thing exists". And would her creator have taken a side? "It's impossible to tell," Rooney says. "As Melita Norwood said, in specific circumstances, at a particular time and given certain beliefs, I don't think that anyone can really say what they would have done for sure."

Rooney never intended Red Joan as a parable of today's dilemmas over commitment and betrayal, while the Soviet Union itself - whether as beacon or as bogey-man - fell into history in 1991. But she does acknowledge that the core plot may still resonate. There is, she notes, "a parallel with terrorism. Until you understand why it is that people do what they do, you can't really get around to solving it."

So before history's hindsight kicks in, Joan wrestles with her mixed motives as the "wolf" of Moscow seems to stand in need of protection from an earth-shattering force. "At times I thought, if I hadn't framed it like this, maybe it would have been easier," Rooney says. "But that was always the picture I had in my head: of Melita Norwood standing in her garden with a piece of paper, saying, 'Yes. I did it'."

Jennie Rooney will be appearing at the 'Independent' Bath Literature Festival on 9 March:

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

    Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

    His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
    'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

    Open letter to David Cameron

    Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
    Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

    You don't say!

    Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
    Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

    So what is Mubi?

    Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
    The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

    The hardest job in theatre?

    How to follow Kevin Spacey
    Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

    Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

    To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
    Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

    'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

    The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
    Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

    This human tragedy has been brewing for years

    EU states can't say they were not warned
    Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

    Women's sportswear

    From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
    Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

    Clinton's clothes

    Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders