This is the second book I have read by Ben McIntyre (the first was “A Spy Among Friends”, about Kim Philby) and I continue to be impressed. There exists a genre called ‘historical fiction’ in which an author writes a story that takes place sometime in the past, maybe in the same time frame as an important event, or maybe about some important historical figure. There are various levels of accuracy – sometimes there is nothing historical whatsoever other than the story takes place in the past. Or sometimes a story is a reenactment of actual events, grounded in reality and with evidence of significant research. Then there are the books written by masters of the genre who create highly readable, thoroughly engaging accounts of actual historical events that transport the reader into the era and read like the best modern day thriller (Steven Pressfield, Robert Harris, and David L. Robbins come to mind).
Ben McIntyre is one such author whose works are at the very top level of the genre. He has the rare ability to turn the results of his exhaustive, stunningly complete research into a book that reads like a top shelf novel but drips with authenticity at every turn. In “Agent Zigzag”, we learn of the exploits of Eddie Chapman, an Englishman with an extensive criminal record who becomes a spy for the Germans but ultimately becomes a double agent run by the British. Despite his past, he becomes quite successful, supplying information to the British, supplying disinformation to the Germans, and earning the respect of both sides while doing it. He is one of the few spies who actually provided information which helped turn the war in favor of the Allies. In fact, one of his British handlers stated that his exploits were so incredible that they were beyond conception for the writer of fiction.
The book starts with Eddie the criminal deserting his lunch date by jumping out of a window as the police close in on him, and ends with Eddie the spy encountering that same woman (whom he marries) in a different restaurant after the war is over. In between the lunch dates, he gets picked up by police, gets sentenced to jail, gets collected by the Germans, and learns tradecraft, bomb making, and wireless communications. He is parachuted into England, where he immediately goes to work for the Allies and commences to supply his German handlers with disinformation, perform various espionage tasks, and help in measurable ways to win the war. He even returns to the Germans, survives numerous interrogations, and proceeds to supply his English handlers with information straight from the heart of enemy territory.
The text is clear and readable, with proper grammar and structure. It is alive, however, and delivers the story at the pace of the best novel, but is peppered throughout with references to material obtained from MI5 archives, interviews, and other history sources. In fact, the last fifty plus pages are footnotes on the sources from which the material was obtained. If high school history texts were this well written, there would be a lot more historians around.
This book is quite entertaining and satisfying, and at the end you will have learned things about the covert side of WWII that you would never have known otherwise. And all along the way you will marvel at how one man can do so many things and live to tell about it. I recommend “Agent Zigzag”.