Daphne Park, around 1943 (Courtesy of Somerville College)

Robert Mitchell is an editor with the Washington Post-Bloomberg News service.

Daphne Park’s career in British intelligence reads like a Cold War travelogue.

Over four decades, Park served in one hot spot after another: In Vienna after World War II, she helped locate Nazi rocket scientists. In Moscow, she helped map a surface-to-air missile defense system as it was being installed around the Soviet capital. In Congo, she became immersed in the postcolonial power struggle that led to the assassination of Patrice Lumumba. During the Vietnam War, she became consul general in Hanoi.

Paddy Hayes’s fascinating and long-overdue biography of Park is aptly titled “Queen of Spies.” Others have referred to Park as 007, though they have also noted that she looked more like Miss Marple.

At the pinnacle of her career, Parks directed British intelligence operations in the Western Hemisphere and advised Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher as Britain negotiated an end to the civil war in Rhodesia. Honored later in life with the title of baroness, Park served in the House of Lords — a fitting honor for a woman who defied gender stereotypes and discrimination to rise to the top of the chauvinistic world of British intelligence.

"Queen of Spies: Daphne Park, Britain's Cold War Spy Master" by Paddy Hayes (Overlook/Overlook)

It was an extraordinary career for a woman who spent most of her childhood impoverished in Africa. Park had no formal education until she left home, alone, at age 11 to attend school in Britain. She earned a degree from Oxford in 1943 and then helped prepare special-operations troops dropped behind German lines in France.

Her stint in Leopoldville (now Kinshasa), Congo, may have been Park’s most challenging assignment. There, American, Soviet and European interests maneuvered for advantage as the mineral-rich Belgian Congo prepared for independence and the West intensified its efforts to keep the new nation from aligning with the Soviet Union. Although Hayes stops short of accusing Park or her CIA counterpart, Lawrence Devlin, of ordering Lumumba’s assassination, he argues that they set in motion the chain of events that made his death inevitable.

Park could not entirely escape the poisonous atmosphere that permeated the transatlantic intelligence community after the spy scandals that shook Britain in the 1950s and ’60s. In some quarters, she was briefly suspected of disloyalty. “Whether Park was ever confronted with these accusations we do not yet know,” Hayes writes, but if she was, “she remained silent about the confrontation to the grave.” Park died in 2010 at age 88.

The drama of Park’s life story transcends the leaden and acronym-laden prose of her biographer. The book also suffers from a lack of specific information about Park’s role in important events. Hayes tries to fill the gaps by talking to Park’s former colleagues, but without Park’s full cooperation — she agreed to talk to Hayes on the condition that operational details not be discussed — the book at times feels speculative. Thus there remains an aura of mystery around Park. Perhaps the “queen of spies” wouldn’t have it any other way.

queen of spies
Daphne Park, Britain’s Cold War Spymaster

By Paddy Hayes

Overlook. 328 pp. $29.95