Special Operations Executive (SOE) was a British counterintelligence division that supported resistance movements in occupied Europe. A Life in Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Missing Agents of WW II, by Sarah Helm, is the story of the woman who helped run the French section of SOE, and most importantly, how she searched France and Germany to try to find out what happened to the SOE spies that were missing at the end of the war. Atkins' search is the heart of the book, as she scoured every corner of the German concentration camps, trying not only to confirm the deaths of the missing spies, but the details of their deaths, how they were treated, and who was involved in their executions.
Helm is as thorough as Atkins; not only does she retrace Atkins steps in her search for the missing spies, but also searches for the real Vera Atkins, a woman some liked, some disliked, but about whom most knew very little. Few knew that Atkins was not really the proper British lady she portrayed herself as, but was really an expat Romanian Jew. Helm digs out the secrets of Atkins' past in old files and memoirs kept in garden sheds in England and Canada (the Canadian one requiring a wait for a thaw in order to get to it). She travels to Germany, the Netherlands, and far corners of Eastern Europe, interviews everyone she can find who was remotely involved in Atkins' life, following even such obscure clues as "a Dutch woman at Atkins funeral who carried her lunch with her in a bag."
Helm finds an extremely complicated life: Atkins was probably involved in spying long before she came to England, and appeared to have, early on in the war, been involved in getting money to a relative who in turn paid it as a bribe to a Nazi higher-up to get herself and her husband out of Germany--which was not the kind of thing you want your English military employers to find out about.
Helm's book is fascinating, a real page turner, with layer upon layer of mysteries revealed on every page; I don't nearly do it justice in my description, mostly because it is such a complicated story, and without having my returned-to-library-copy on hand, I don't want to get a detail wrong. More importantly, though, the book is a vindication of the art of reporting. Helm never stops when she finds the answer to one question, but instead looks at the answer, sees what additional questions that answer raises, and then goes off to investigate those. She's relentlessly curious and patient, willing to follow even the smallest, most frayed thread until she finds the very end. The book is a clinic on how to investigate a story.
The press gets a pretty bad rap these days, and people spend a lot of time ascribing ulterior political motives to every word written, especially those written by members of the "old media" or "MSM" (mainstream media, as it is scornfully called). However, despite what many bloggers think, commenting on news isn't the same as reporting it. That job requires a lot more work and a lot more curiosity, and is best embodied by people like Helm, who investigate and dig, solve and resolve, answer questions, then ask a few more.