Signed, Mata Hari by Yannick Murphy

Nav Purewal

The ability of fiction to evoke empathy and seek emotional truth transcends mere historical details, and it is these things that Yannick Murphy does so well in her new novel.

Signed, Mata Hari

Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Subtitle: A Novel
Author: Yannick Murphy
Price: $23.99
Length: 288
Formats: Hardcover
ISBN: 031611264X
US publication date: 2007-11

Fiction centered on historical figures occupies an odd place in the literary landscape. Historical novels are widely accepted, but those that focus on individual personalities are often met with bemusement. I suspect this is principally the result of a larger bias against fiction in favor of non-fiction. Why, one might ask, fictionalize the life of real person when a straightforward biography would serve at least as well?

It’s an argument one would never make about movies, both due to commercial considerations and the obvious differences in what documentaries and biopics are able to accomplish. But there is a growing trend away from this sort of thinking. Though a work of non-fiction, David McCullough’s John Adams, the source material for the current HBO miniseries, makes great use of letters between John and Abigail Adams that were not available to earlier historians. The intimate details they provide about the couple’s marriage, as well as the direct window they allow into the former President’s thoughts, enhance the narrative in a way much non-fiction cannot. In its novelistic impulses, John Adams is the exception that proves the rule.

The adoption of such literary techniques in examining history need not be confined to the 18th century. Even so contemporary a figure as the current President of the United States is given the type of rigorous psychoanalysis generally reserved for a Shakespearean monarch in Jacob Weisberg’s new book, The Bush Tragedy. Say what you will about the relative merits, it is at least true that fiction, along with non-fiction that adopts novelistic traits, is able to do a different type of thing than traditional non-fiction.

Put simply, a novel can get closer to its characters than most history books. One might dismiss its insights as mere conjecture, but that’s beside the point. The ability of fiction to evoke empathy and seek emotional truth transcends mere historical details, and it is these things that Yannick Murphy does so well in her new novel, Signed, Mata Hari.

Beginning in October 1917 with Margaretha Zelle, more commonly known as Mata Hari, awaiting trial for espionage in Paris, Signed, Mata Hari jumps back and forth through time, relating the major events of Mata Hari’s life that led to her being accused of spying for Germany during the First World War. Prior historical knowledge is not necessary, though it certainly helps in navigating the early chapters, which begin in medias res, and eschew standard chronology while embracing alternating narrators.

Awaiting what she imagines will surely be a death sentence, Mata Hari attempts to delay the inevitable, weaving tale after tale in a manner that evokes Scheherazade in One Thousand and One Nights. That readers will be aware of the verdict goes largely without saying, and Murphy wisely doesn’t try to extract any artificial suspense from her heroine’s fate.

Murphy is hardly the first person to fictionalize Mata Hari’s life. One of Greta Garbo’s most famous performances was the title role in the 1931 film Mata Hari, and Marlene Dietrich played a fictional spy based on Mata Hari in Dishonored in the very same year. Indeed, just last year the Indonesian film Sang Penari also depicted parts of Mata Hari’s life, and there were many such depictions in between. What separates Signed, Mata Hari from earlier efforts is not just the level of sympathy with which it approaches its central character, but the sheer artistry on display.

Murphy’s been praised for her lyrical, at times hypnotic prose throughout her career and Signed, Mata Hari doesn’t disappoint. On the very first page, Murphy writes: “Walking to her chambers I whispered proudly in the black folds of their habits. I have walked across the sea. Later my whispers came out as the nuns knelt for Mass, released like cold air once trapped in a cellar, now mixing with their prayers.” She continues in the same vein, both thematically and stylistically, just a few pages later when Mata Hari reflects,

Mother cried at night. There were holes in the walls, large patches where the paint was peeling and the plaster was crumbling. I thought her cries would enter the holes and stay forever in the house, trapped and ricocheting behind our walls. I tried to drown out the cries by pounding out songs on the keys of the piano, but all that happened was the paint peeled even more, the plaster crumbled to the floor and left small white piles like those inside a sand timer, marking hours that could not be turned upside down.
There’s nothing particularly notable about these passages, except in that they’re representative of the larger novel. I flagged many such beautifully rendered paragraphs in the early pages, before realizing that the entire book is this well-written, and opted to save the ink. The dreamlike quality that pervades these passages fits perfectly with the short, impressionistic scenes that comprise the novel. This sort of prose isn’t for everyone, but in the way Murphy uses it, it’s certainly for me. The few times when Signed, Mata Hari falters, it is this sheer technical mastery that compensates.

Signed, Mata Hari’s very premise invites comparisons to The Confessions of Nat Turner, William Styron’s landmark 1967 novel about the infamous slave revolt leader. But any such associations do Murphy a disservice. That her latest cannot compete with Styron’s masterpiece is hardly to its discredit. Due to the very nature of its protagonist, Signed, Mata Hari doesn’t attempt to navigate issues as complex as race in America or historical crimes as contemptible as slavery. What it does do is provide an intimate, sensitive, and perceptive portrait of a oft-maligned historical figure. If the resulting novel is not as accomplished or as memorable as Styron’s, certainly individual scenes and phrases will continue to resonate in its readers’ minds long after they finish the final chapter.

Admirers of Murphy’s earlier work will surely be satisfied, while newcomers may soon find themselves seeking out Here They Come, The Sea of Trees, and Stories in Another Language. They could do far worse.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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