Book review: Rendezvous at the Russian Tea Rooms by Paul Willetts

As London teetered on the brink of the Blitz in the summer of 1940, an extraordinary and potentially catastrophic spy plot was unfolding in the streets, cafes and clubs of the blacked-out capital.

Monday, 12th October 2015, 10:00 am
Rendezvous at the Russian Tea Rooms by Paul Willetts
Rendezvous at the Russian Tea Rooms by Paul Willetts

Two foreign agents from two very different walks of life were working undercover to try to overthrow the British government and change the course of the war.

One man stood in their way… an eccentric, dapper, animal-loving MI5 spymaster who was noted for personally befriending his staff and liked nothing better than taking his pet bear cub Bessie for walks around Chelsea on a lead.

The intersection of these three flamboyant people’s lives formed one of the greatest spy stories of the Second World War, a fascinating and gripping tale of furtive meetings, covert surveillance and daring kidnappings brought to vivid life by author and journalist Paul Willetts.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

It is a work of mammoth proportions, involving sifting through one million words of notes accumulated over almost 27 years of research, and the result is the first comprehensive account of a remarkable wartime episode.

At the heart of the conspiracy was 37-year-old Anna Wolkoff, a famous White Russian émigré and former fashion designer whose clothes graced many a royal garden party and who once counted Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor, among her clients.

An impeccable German speaker and fierce anti-Communist, Anna was bitterly opposed to Britain’s involvement in the war and became an active member of the Right Club, a small group of anti-semitic, fascist sympathisers within the British establishment.

Anna’s father, who had served as an aide-de-camp to Tsar Nicholas II before fleeing the Russian Revolution, and her mother, a maid of honour to the Tsarina, were now running the Russian Tea Rooms, a fashionable café-cum-restaurant in south Kensington popular with disaffected émigrés.

Into Anna’s life strolled Tyler Kent, a handsome, womanising 28-year-old Ivy League graduate drawn to luxury hotels, made-to-measure suits and classy restaurants. For five years, Kent had worked at the US Embassy in Moscow where he became a Soviet spy, passing on information and photographing paperwork for his girlfriend in the secret police.

Now posted to the US Embassy in London where he worked as a code clerk, he was more than happy to turn his spying efforts to the fascist cause for his new lover, stealing top-secret telegrams between Winston Churchill and President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Hot on their trail came the brilliant MI5 spy chief and zoologist, Maxwell Knight, a tall, polished 39-year-old who possessed the vigilance of a bird of prey and the essential skills of careful observation and endless patience.

With the help of three women agents, Knight was able to keep a close watch on his adversaries as a dangerous cat-and-mouse chase played out through the streets of London…

Rendezvous at the Russian Tea Rooms contains all the excitement of a film production as Willetts injects verve, tension and captivating detail into his portrayal of the three-way espionage plot.

The alternating stories of Anna Wolkoff, Tyler Kent and Maxwell Knight blend seamlessly, adding pace and impact to the race to capture the fascist spies before the country’s closest secrets are betrayed to the Nazis.

Packed with skulduggery, spies, secrets and spellbinding drama, this is the nearest that real-life gets to a fictional thriller.

(Constable, hardback, £20)