The Red Dancer: The Life and Times of Mata Hari
"I am absolutely Oriental," says Mata Hari, and so begins Richard Skinner's debut novel about the life of the famous seductress-turned-spy, executed by the French for selling secrets to the Germans. Skinner tells her tale in unconnected segments, mostly narrated by the many people whose lives intersected with hers--including her lovers and her executioner. Though rich in details, the novel seems to mistake itself for a biography.
The "Oriental" protagonist was born Margaretha Gertrude Zelle in the Hague in 1876. She lived a destitute life till she answered an advertisement from a Dutch army captain, seeking a wife to join him in the East Indies. After mutual infidelities and the death of a young son, the couple divorced and Zelle moved to Paris--where, inspired by the dances of the Javanese women she'd lived among, she reinvented herself as the dancer Mata Hari, the Eye of the Dawn.
"[I]t didn't matter if her stage name was Malay, Siamese or Mandarin," the man who discovered her talent during an early performance in a seedy Parisian bar remarks, "it just had to be foreign and exotic-sounding." Europe at the time was thirsty for all things exotic, and Mata Hari grew famous performing elaborate stripteases and erotic dances for private gatherings. Impressed by her success, German espionage agents recruited her to seduce high-ranking French officials and steal military secrets.
Skinner rarely turns the narration over to Mata Hari herself, perhaps befitting a woman whose famous performances helped her adapt to being perpetually viewed by others. And though the action is fast-paced and intense in describing World War I espionage, the author occasionally stops to review irrelevant historical details and definitions. He spends several pages describing foreign musical instruments (the only connection to the plot being that they provided the background music to Mata Hari's performances) and includes a segment on the invention of the Orient Express (she rode the train at least once). Interrupting an otherwise riveting story, such information seems tedious and pedantic.