The Scent of Secrets: A Novel

The Scent of Secrets: A Novel

by Jane Thynne


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Set in Europe, in 1938, during the tense run-up to war, and perfect for fans of Jacqueline Winspear, Charles Todd, Robert Harris, and Susan Elia MacNeal, this gripping historical novel features the half-British, half-German actress (and wholly covert spy) Clara Vine, who finds herself enmeshed in a dangerous game of subterfuge.
The colorful, lively streets of Paris come as a welcome relief to Clara Vine after the dour countenance of Berlin, where bunkers and bomb shelters are being dug, soldiers march the streets in their high boots, and Jewish residents rush to make it home before curfew. Though Clara is in Paris to make a film, her true work is never far from her mind. Approached by a British intelligence officer, Clara is initially confounded by his request: Get close to Eva Braun and glean as much as she can about the Führer’s plans and intentions. Clara has already established friendships with several high-ranking Nazi wives, but Eva Braun is another matter altogether. Hitler keeps his “secret” girlfriend obsessively hidden, fiercely guarding their relationship as well as Eva’s delicate psychological state. From the gilded halls of the decadent City of Light to the cobbled, quaint streets of Munich, and even to the chilling, rarefied air of the Berghof, Hitler’s private mountaintop retreat, Clara flirts with discovery at every turn—and a dangerous, devious plot unfolds.

Previously published in the U.K. as A War of Flowers
“A brilliant tale of spies and secrets, of intense psychological drama, of edgy climax and one extraordinary heroine.”—Beatriz Williams, New York Times bestselling author of A Hundred Summers
“A compelling story of love and betrayal in Hitler’s Berlin . . . Peppered with real-life characters, this series offers a fascinating glimpse of the extraordinary world of the Nazi wives.”—Daisy Goodwin, author of The American Heiress
“An alluring blend of thrills, suspense, historic detail, and seduction.”—Susan Elia MacNeal, author of the Maggie Hope series
“An extraordinary, absorbing read with an array of characters so real you’re there with them as war looms, and a pace that sweeps you from page to page. This is indeed a winner!”Charles Todd, author of Inspector Ian Rutledge Mysteries
Look for special features inside. Join the Random House Reader’s Circle for author chats and more.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780553393903
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 09/15/2015
Series: Clara Vine , #1
Pages: 448
Sales rank: 241,631
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Jane Thynne was born in Venezuela and educated in London. After graduating from Oxford, she worked for the BBC, The Sunday Times, and The Daily Telegraph. She continues to freelance as a journalist while writing her historical fiction. Her novels, including the Clara Vine series, have been published in French, German, Greek, Turkish, Italian, and Romanian. The widow of Philip Kerr, she has three children and lives in London, where she is working on her next novel.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1


Paris in late August 1938 was a city living on its nerves.

Rumors swarmed around the streets like rats, refugees from every corner of Europe brushed shoulders on the boulevards, and the cafés were a babel of foreign languages—Spanish, Italian, Czech, Polish, and of course, German, rising and falling in anxious disputation. In the city center the clatter of cream-­topped buses, the blare of taxi horns, and the shouts of traffic gendarmes were overlaid with the distant sound of reservists, in hastily assembled khaki, marching along the Champs-­Élysées. German, Austrian, Polish, and Hungarian Jews congregated in the Marais quarter in anxious exile, scraping a living by day, and drinking it by night. Morsels of foreign news were picked up and ravenously chewed on, then discarded as propaganda or lies. Refugees choked the railway stations. Native Parisians were packing up and moving their families to the country. Others lingered longer than usual in the churches. A dry summer wind blew around the city, chivvying along the gutters a vortex of leaves and litter and scraps of newspaper alarm. Hitler was claiming that the German-­speaking population of Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland, just south of the German border, desired reunion with the Reich. If the Czech government did not agree, he would march in and take it. France and England seemed certain to reject Germany’s demands. Hitler had set the date of October 1 for military action. The threat of war hung like a distant thunderstorm on a sunny day.

Clara Vine threw open the tall shutters, leaned over the narrow balcony, and gazed down at the Boulevard de Sébastopol below. She had only three days on location in Paris; the last two of them had been spent shooting scenes for her latest film, an adaptation of Maupassant’s Bel Ami, but the third, today, was entirely, gloriously, free. A whole day ahead of her and only an engagement that evening before catching a train at the Gare du Nord early the next morning and heading back home to the Babelsberg studio in Berlin. She could visit the Louvre, go shopping, see a concert, or maybe just sit in a square beneath the dusty trees and drink a café crème. An entire day to herself in Paris! No lines to learn, no character to assume. No takes or retakes, no director’s temper or costume fittings. No delays or disputes. After filming almost nonstop for months, a day off in a foreign location felt like a fantasy. And despite the mood of the city, Clara was determined to make the most of it.

The Bellevue, where the cast was staying, was not everyone’s idea of Parisian chic. Its forty rooms were squeezed into a narrow, five-­story building, and Clara’s bedroom on the top floor was sweltering. The paint on the wrought-­iron balconies was flaking, the plaster decayed, and the entire building reeked of drains. But who cared about that when there was all of Paris to look at?

The city seemed impossibly beautiful, the elegant precision of its buildings and the classical uniformity of its blocks and streets bathed in a golden light that appeared to saturate the pale stone. Even now, in high summer, when most Parisians were on their vacations, the pavements were thronged with people. Immediately below Clara’s window, between the patchy trunks of the plane trees, a cart bulged with red, yellow, and pink blooms, like a bright shout of color in the morning air. Vans making deliveries and a porter hauling a crate of baguettes collided with a man bearing a box of oranges on his head. In the fishmonger’s window a chorus line of doomed lobsters waved their limbs helplessly on a tray. Young women with crimson lips and kohl-­lined eyes clipped past wearing Breton-­necked tops with wide scarves slung diagonally across them, in keeping with the latest fashion, and little felt hats studded with flowers or feathers. Some wore printed summer dresses in ice-cream colors, and they even managed to make their heavy wooden-­soled shoes look stylish. Men in open-­necked shirts and berets swaggered past. Despite the undercurrent of nerves that rippled through the city, the citizens on the Boulevard de Sébastopol were doing their best impression of elegant nonchalance.

What a contrast with Berlin! In Clara’s home city the daily roundups of Jews and the sporadic Gestapo cruelties had worsened throughout the year. That spring Hitler had marched into Austria and found himself greeted not with hostilities but with a carpet of roses; Blumenkreig, he called it, a war of flowers. The lack of international outcry over the Anschluss had only emboldened him. Hitler was, everyone realized, more confident than ever.

Unlike Clara herself.

Clara Vine had made a successful career for herself since arriving in Berlin five years earlier. She had seven films to her name, and by sheer chance had forged connections with many people in Berlin’s high society, including the wives of several politicians. Yet despite her acquaintance with his own wife, Joseph Goebbels, the minister for propaganda and public enlightenment, had become increasingly suspicious of Clara’s motives. It was as though he was determined to prove what he suspected—that even though her father was a British aristocrat and Nazi sympathizer, and she herself was working full-­time in the Babelsberg film studio, Clara was an agent of British intelligence. That she was passing snippets of information and gossip to her contacts in the British embassy. That she deliberately mingled in Nazi society to observe the private life of the Third Reich.

It would have been absurd, if it hadn’t also been true.

What made Clara’s position more perilous was the discovery she made when she arrived in Germany, that her own grandmother was a Jew. The document of Aryan heritage Clara carried everywhere was as much a fabrication as the russet highlights in her hair, but infinitely more dangerous.

Every day she asked herself why she stayed in Berlin. Every day she came up with the same answer. She would stay in Berlin as long as she could because it meant seeing her godson, Erich. He was the only man in her life right now, and for his sake most of all she prayed that war could somehow be averted.

A passing barrow boy aimed an admiring whistle up at her balcony, forcing Clara’s mind back to the present. Paris had always been one of those big, statement places, like a famous perfume that everyone knows, burdened with the weight of expectation. The Parisian air was a complex fragrance of baking and drains, a whisper of flowers, undercut with something acrid and rotten. The leavings of vegetables from the market stalls mingled with the enticing aroma of garlic and coffee. Berlin’s own air, by contrast, carried the gray, metallic edge of wet stone and steel offset by the tang of pine from the Grunewald.

Much as she relished the prospect of a day in Paris, suddenly Clara felt herself wishing she had someone to share it with. Most of the time she liked her solitude; at the age of thirty-­one, she considered it part of her identity. Her self-­sufficiency was a carapace toughened against the barbs of loneliness, and safer too. But solitude seemed wrong in the city of romance. This was Paris after all, whose streets murmured with the promises of lovers through the ages, and she was alone. As she leaned back against the casement, a whirlwind of memories assailed her, like leaves thrown around in a storm.

There were only two men she had ever cared for, and both had disappeared from her life. She had not seen Ralph Sommers, the man she had met in Berlin the previous year, since the day he left for London. Since then, his work as a British agent had been exposed. Now it was too dangerous for him to return to Germany. Ralph had sent Clara a message saying that so long as she stayed there, she must do her best to forget him. It hurt, but she was trying her hardest.

Then there was Leo Quinn. Leo, her first love, who had returned to England after she turned down his proposal of marriage. In her darkest moments Clara questioned if there was something within her that destroyed her deepest relationships. Did she shy away from intimacy or deliberately reject it? Did she emit some invisible signal that warned, “Leave me alone”?

The previous evening her film’s director, Willi Forst, had hosted a dinner at Maxim’s for the cast. Maxim’s, just off the Place de la Concorde, was the restaurant of choice for German visitors to Paris, and Willi Forst thought its Art Nouveau opulence perfectly suited to celebrating Maupassant’s story. The group had the best table in the house, the one usually reserved for the Aga Khan, spread with snowy linen tablecloths and silver cutlery, and they were served platters of oysters with vinegar and shallots, quenelles de brochet floating in a rich cream sauce, and crème brûlée to finish. Ice buckets cradling bottles of vintage Krug rested to one side, furred with frost. The actors indulged themselves loudly, jokes and stories flowing, impressions being performed, anecdotes related. The sheer relief of being away from Berlin inspired a feverish jollity, a holiday atmosphere that had already prompted a couple of romantic liaisons among cast members and promised more nights of passion ahead. But none of the actors had propositioned Clara. It was as though they divined something in her that told them their approaches would be rebuffed. As they reveled in the unaccustomed fine food and called loudly for more wine, Clara felt the restaurant’s other clientele eyeing the Germans, in their expensive suits and scented furs, with wariness and resentment.

“To my magnificent cast!”

Willi Forst raised a glass and beamed. Sitting there, Clara thought back to the newspaper pictures in March, when Hitler had entered Vienna in his six-­wheeled bulletproof Mercedes, striking his familiar pose, upright, gripping the windscreen with his left hand while raising the right in the Nazi salute. The crowd had erupted in a volcano of feeling, and flowers rained down on him like ash. Would these Paris streets too be overtaken by tramping boots and thumping drums? Might France go the way of Austria? Austria wasn’t even Austria anymore; it was part of Greater Germany. It seemed countries could end, just as much as relationships.

A knock at her door made her turn. It was the bellboy, wearing a little navy cap and holding out a manila envelope. “Pour vous, mademoiselle.”

“Merci.” She fished for a coin, then opened the envelope. Inside was a heavy cream notecard with the logo of Big Ben and a company name at the top. Beneath was spiky, academic handwriting.

Dear Miss Vine,

Please forgive me for approaching you directly, but I noticed from an article in France Soir that you were in Paris and felt compelled to get in touch. We would be very interested in discussing a proposal with you. Would you be free to meet at the café Chez André in the Rue Marbeuf, today at 12:00 noon? If you are able to come I shall be looking out for you,

Sincerely, Guy Hamilton,

Representative, London Films

London Films? Clara frowned. She had heard of it. From what she remembered, London Films had been started by the Hungarian émigré Alexander Korda. The company was based at Denham in Buckinghamshire and had hired Winston Churchill as a screenwriter. Hadn’t they made The Private Life of Henry VIII and Things to Come and last year’s Fire over England, with Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh? Clara had taken a special interest in that one because a director had once casually referred to her as “the German Vivien Leigh,” so she had attended the first night at the Ufa Palast, closely studying the actress’s classic porcelain beauty, before concluding that the director, unfortunately, was exaggerating. Clara might have the same heart-­shaped face, clear brow, and dark eyebrows, but her cheeks were fuller than Vivien Leigh’s, her skin more olive, and her mouth had a rebellious purse to it that gave her looks a distinctive, less classic edge.

She read the note again, then checked her watch. It was already eleven. She was suddenly, unaccountably excited. This proposal would almost certainly be the offer of a part—she was becoming better known, and as many of the German Jewish actors and directors who had been forced to leave Berlin had now relocated to England, it was likely that one of them had mentioned her name. And maybe, if this company was offering her a job, she should take it. What might it be like returning to London, picking up the threads of a life she had abandoned five years ago, and doing an ordinary job without risk or subterfuge? Seeing her father, sister, and brother, and other people who had been consigned firmly to the past. That was a prospect both consoling and daunting.

After clanging the shutters closed, she grabbed a short jacket to slip over her dress. Peering in the mirror, she applied a thin layer of Elizabeth Arden’s Velvet Red—always her first weapon of concealment—and gave her reflection an encouraging smile. Dabbing a trace of powder over the freckles that the sun had brought out, she pulled a brush through her hair and pinned it loosely at the nape of her neck with a diamanté clip. Then she donned her sunglasses.

Clearly the idea of a day without business was just a fantasy after all.

Reading Group Guide

A few streets away from Harrods in London’s Knightsbridge stands the anonymous, shiny black door of a private members’ club. From the outside, you would never know that the club is for agents who served in resistance organizations during WWII and beyond. But when you enter and climb the stairs you pass numerous photographs of female spies who served—-and mostly died—-in the field. It is deeply inspiring.
When I began writing about a British agent in Germany in the 1930s it was with the bravery of these women in mind. I had always wanted to write a novel set in Berlin. It was a city that went in a matter of months from being the most exciting place in Europe—-the center of sexual and cultural freedom, of Expressionist film and Bauhaus art—-to the most frightening and repressive. The idea of placing a female British agent not just in Berlin but at the heart of the Nazi regime itself was irresistible.
Having been a journalist, both in TV and newspapers, for most of my career, I was keen on documentary accuracy, so even though I was writing fiction, I spent weeks tramping Berlin’s streets, exploring the prewar buildings that remained and picturing those that had been destroyed. It was a strange process in which my imaginary Berlin—-the 1930s version—-existed like a palimpsest alongside the hastily erected and often ugly postwar buildings. Parts of Goebbels’s Propaganda Ministry still stand, and the Babelsberg film studio remains in its entirety, as does Goering’s Air Ministry, but we can no longer see Hitler’s Reich Chancellery, and the bunker where Hitler and Eva Braun died is buried beneath a parking lot. Yet it wasn’t just the official buildings that mattered. Deciding where an actress like Clara Vine might live was just as important. In the end I chose Winterfeldtstrasse, a lovely tree—lined street in Schöneberg just a block away from where Christopher Isherwood wrote the novel that was filmed as Cabaret.
The streets of Berlin were the easy bit. The chief challenge of my research was that I was writing about women. There are barely enough libraries in the world to contain the books written about the male side of the Third Reich—-the leaders, the politics, the campaigns—-but the experience of German women seems to have gone largely unrecorded. What was it like to be in the League of German Girls? To attend a Bride School or a weekly Mother’s Course? And in the upper echelons of society, how did it feel to be married to a man who became a monster? Were the Nazi leaders’ wives complicit, or did they try to dissuade their men from their crimes?
The answers were not easy to find. No one has wanted to translate the memoirs of women like Lina Heydrich into English, so I brushed up on my German and spent time buried in the London Library, a beautiful Georgian building in St. James’s Square. And the information I found provided for me a whole new perspective on the private life of the Third Reich. The domestic details of the women’s lives seem so fragile and recognizably ordinary beside the war machine that their husbands were preparing. While I was researching the life of Eva Braun I read a few lines about her love of perfume, how she adored Worth’s Je Reviens and liked to create her own concoctions. This was, of course, just another irony of life in Nazi Germany—-cosmetics, especially French ones, were frowned on for ordinary women. Yet that detail, like a snatch of perfume itself, lit an idea in my mind. I thought about the power of scent to evoke feelings—-not just childhood memories, but unsettling emotions and fear too—-and I decided that perfume should be a theme at the heart of my story.
Like the door of that secret agents’ club in London, the wartime lives of German women are easy to pass by. But you only understand how a totalitarian society works when you see it on the human scale. To me, glimpsing the personal lives of the senior men through their relationships with their wives and girlfriends only makes their activities more disturbing.

1. Who surprised you the most in the novel?

2. Women played a crucial role in Hitler’s vision for the future of Germany. Discuss the role of women in German society in the 1930s. How does Hitler want the position of women to change?

3. There are several examples of women who are even more fervently in favor of the Nazi cause than their spouses; did that surprise you? Why or why not? Discuss the relationships between the high—ranking Nazi officials and their wives.

4. What did you think of Rosa’s decision to forge her nephew’s official medical papers? Were you surprised by her decision? Why or why not?

5. What did you think of Eva Braun? What about her relationship with Hitler? Was she as silly as she sometimes seemed to be, or do you think she understood more about politics than she let on?

6. Discuss the importance of the Nazi youth clubs and the mother schools in implementing the Nazi philosophy.

7. Like most Berliners, Clara grows suspicious of everyone—-including her new neighbor, who turns out to be an innocent schoolteacher. Anyone might be a spy, even young children on their Sunday collection rounds. What means of recourse are there for normal citizens who do not support the Nazi regime?

8. There seem to be a lot of inconsistencies in the personal, political, and moral philosophies of Hitler and his entourage. Hitler detests makeup yet loves actresses and the cinema. Goebbels champions family values yet is a serial philanderer. Rosa observes that party leaders seem to want to keep men and women separate, like flour and sugar, while at the same time encouraging higher birth rates and more marriage. Can you think of any other examples? How do you rationalize these hypocrisies? How do they?

9. What surprised you most about Hitler?

10. Compare and contrast the different Nazi wives in the novel.

11. What would your signature scent be?

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