If British press reports are to be believed, Melita Norwood was one of Russia's most important spies in England for the best part of 30 years. She worked as a secretary at a London research institution engaged in investigating the components of nuclear technology, and while there, she passed information to the Russian secret service.
She remained largely undetected until she was a frail old lady of 87, when she gave a press conference on her doorstep - during the course of which she was largely unrepentant - enough to secure blanket coverage. The Times's 1999 headline on the story was, winningly, "The Spy Who Came In From the Co-op".
This pun, and the article beneath it, first caught this talented author's eye when she was a history undergraduate at Cambridge University. While there, she studied under the security services historian Professor Christopher Andrew, who was writing a book in collaboration with Vasili Mitrokhin, a former KGB archivist, who in the 1990s defected to the West with six trunks of documents. Among their contents were details of Norwood's activities (her codename was "agent Hola").
So there is something fateful, then, in the idea that Rooney should return to this subject a decade-and-a-half later for her third novel, enlisting Andrew's help along the way, to craft the fictionalised story of one Red Joan, whose career owes as much to her real-life, female comrade as it does to Rooney's craftsmanship. Both these women worked in similar research departments, and both spied because they wanted to "level the playing field" between the Russians and the West. But in large part this story is made up. The fact that you can't tell what's fictionalised and what isn't, is very much to Rooney's credit.
Joan is visited by two British intelligence operatives, Ms Hart and Mr Adams, who reveal that she's been rumbled - one of her fellow spies, Sir William Mitchell, a senior diplomat, has died, and they confront Joan with the evidence against her and try to force a confession. The agents play good cop/bad cop, by settling in Joan's kitchen and grilling her on her past, a convenient device which allows Joan to recount her story. We learn from the off that her name is due to be revealed in the House of Commons at the end of the week - and she will be impelled to make a similar press conference to Norwood's - so we already know the plot's destination. The process of getting there, however, is where Rooney's impressive storytelling skills really come into their own.
We never really know if Joan is a heroine until the final pages. During her inquisition she is joined by her adopted son, Nick, for whom she wants to avoid any embarrassment, and as such there is a strong incentive for her to do a deal with the spooks (maybe she's nice). However, like Norwood, Joan also wants to defend the ideology in which she once believed (maybe she's not: she's lied to everyone she knows). As Joan is questioned, she is given the chance to explain her past, and incrementally we are led to understand how a little old lady could become embroiled in such far-reaching skulduggery, as the narrative jumps between Joan as an old woman and Joan as a young, impressionable spy-in-the-making. So there's a lot of tension impelling us through the narrative: the conflict between Joan and Nick, and also the intrigue behind Joan becoming embroiled in what is essentially a spy thriller replete with secret cameras and clandestine meetings.