It is almost inevitable that a reader of my interests and disposition should slightly miss the point of this book, described in a Daily Express blurb as “a good spy thriller,” and that is precisely what I propose to do.  Spy thrillers are plentiful; they are summer reading at its Sardinian beachiest.  To review one head-on in this space is a little like coming to a Tennyson Society dinner in nothing but a bracelet of turquoise beads and a floppy panama.

Let me get the vulgar preliminaries out of the way of the intellect by seconding the view of the Express reviewer, a view apparently shared by others who know something of the genre.  Thus, John le Carré, for instance, hails the book as “splendidly told, immensely entertaining and often very moving,” while an unnamed source cited on the back cover merely as “MI5” has contributed a literary judgment to the effect that, “in fiction,” the story of Eddie Chapman “would be rejected as improbable.”  In short, this thriller is thrilling.

More thrilling, in fact, than anybody with even the most roundabout concern for the survival of a free West in the present totalitarian era would find comfortable.  The book is set at the dawn of that era, its historical context the concurrence of the intelligence services of Germany and Great Britain during the first, the more perilous, phase of World War II.  Yet only a myopic jingoist inebriated with hindsight should judge that the present state of intelligence, whether in Britain or in her once and future ally the United States, is a priori a good match for its counterparts and adversaries elsewhere; and that the ongoing great game of MI6 or the CIA is more like the game played by Churchill than like a Hogan’s Heroes episode that, as he rightly suspects, Hitler’s spy network resembled.

This, in effect, is the chiller in the thriller.  It has always suited the West’s spywriters to exaggerate the shrewdness, the resourcefulness, and even the courage of their side’s opponents, because when, after a sweaty three hours, a burly adult finally beats a six-year-old girl at chess, the news value of the event, to say nothing of the victor’s skill, is thrown into doubt.  By contrast, Ben Macintyre’s chronicle, in the preparation of which he has drawn with what appears like exquisite precision on the newly opened MI5 files of the Eddie Chapman case, leaves no doubt in the reader’s mind that Canaris’s organization consisted of monocled charlatans and grandiloquent clowns who swilled French champagne while German cities burned, of incompetents whose immorality did little to avert or retard their abject failure, of helpless amateurs who tried to hide their ignorance as if it were stolen silver.  Not unlike the general atmosphere in Langley at this writing, I hasten to add, if recent achievements of the CIA are any indication.  Yet what kudos, then, for Churchill’s side?

A joke about a CIA agent comes to mind.  He has been specially bred for infiltration, speaks Russian with any number of regional accents, and uses a billion-dollar edible parachute to land himself in a Soviet cornfield.  Knocking on the shutters of a house in the nearest village, he asks the old peasant woman, in the name of the Most Holy Mother of God and all the saints, for a glass of water, at which she slams the window shut and yells: “Get thee hence, American spy!”  He moves on to the next village, this time careful to ask for a drink in the name of the Thrice Blessed Anchorite Peter who is the region’s favorite saint, whereupon the old woman there again denounces him as an American.  He tries it on in a third village with the same result, and in the end throws caution to the winds: “For Christ’s sake, my good babushka, how could you ever tell?”  “Cuz you’re a nigger,” answers the babushka.  I once told this joke to a group of Dutch tourists forgathered in an Italian hotel lobby.  Nobody laughed, and, after a long pause, one of them explained that racist jokes were illegal in their country.

Incompetence, however, is not and has never been illegal in the free West, whose vast, sprawling, essentially Kafkaesque government bureaucracies are neither stimulated by material gain, like their corporate complements in the business world, nor prodded into action by mortal fear, like their totalitarian counterparts in Russia and elsewhere.  Thus, film footage of the American agent Oleg Penkovsky being cremated alive has been used to condition the present generation of GRU officers, while Time reports that a government employee who takes a middling job in the private sector, as the Bank of America’s head of security, “will earn more than triple what he makes as the FBI’s No. 3.”  Indeed, if one were to make an a priori judgement on the matter, a dire imbalance rather than a comforting parity of competence, resolve, and resources is precisely what one would have to assume.

History confirms this.  More than 30 years ago, my father published an article in Commentary entitled “What the CIA Knows About Russia,” whose frank assessment of the disparity between the GRU and the KGB and the bureaucracies of Western intelligence, eerily reminiscent of the joke illegal in Holland, an individual is yet to rebut and an event is yet to contradict.  An equally chilling imbalance emerges from the epoch in which Eddie Chapman, Macintyre’s swashbuckling hero, made his reputation as a double agent, scoring success after success against the Third Reich.  In his monumental Icebreaker trilogy, the historian Victor Suvorov has described how Stalin’s spies in Germany—who had been reporting that militarily, organizationally, and from just about any other strategic vantage point, Berlin was unprepared for a war of aggression against Moscow—were promoted rather than punished after Hitler had opened a second front by launching his suicidal strike. They had not been asked to analyze Germany’s intentions, only her military’s competence, and in Stalin’s view, despite the gross political miscalculation that he recognized as his own, their analysis had been accurate.  The Wehrmacht entered the war in 1941, against a winter stretching across ten time zones, with 600,000 horses doing the work of armored vehicles, without antifreeze in the tank fuel of which there was a shortage, and with no winter coats or warm boots.

And, still more crucially, without intelligence.  The infantile naiveté of the Germans, whose codes had been broken at Bletchley Park years before they realized that their agents in the field had become puppets of their adversaries, is the recently declassified background of Agent Zigzag, whose protagonist, an erstwhile bank robber and Cockney con man, offers his services to Berlin from a barbershop he has opened with his cell mate after a prison stretch in occupied Jersey.  In the end, Chapman proves his loyalty to the homeland by becoming a lynchpin of Churchill’s campaign of strategic deception, though not before we get the crucial glimpse of the preposterous kindergarten that was the Abwehr, generally, and of the German spy center at Nantes, in occupied France, in particular.  Here, Chapman is trained in the use of Morse code, equipped with everything but the anecdotal edible parachute, and supplied with bundles of English cash sealed into a bag with Reichsbank bands still on them.  Not that this would have made any difference, of course, considering that the Enigma code, and with it all the radio traffic concerning his imminent arrival by air to a Suffolk cornfield, was being read by the British.

If the intelligence of an avowedly totalitarian regime in peril could be so anecdotally inept, if a democracy in crisis could show itself capable of at least average competence or prudence, then the resulting nutcracker of a paradox, with our usual a priori assumptions for nuts, may be of some use as an instrument for prying open the secrets of Western political failure in Iran and Iraq, in Russia and Eastern Europe, in Mozambique and Angola, in India and Pakistan, in just about every corner of the globe where the West has lost or is losing.  What does the CIA know about today’s China?  Nothing, I dare say.

Like Hitler’s Germany preparing her “Operation Sealion, the plan for the German invasion of Britain”—notwithstanding that, as Macintyre writes, “the Abwehr had utterly failed to recruit an effective team of spies in Britain before the war”—Bush’s America sells rope to her enemies without understanding its eventual uses, and assuming, in the teeth of much historical evidence to the contrary, that the eventual landings of business and commerce in countries of which the United States knows little will end differently from the Negro parachutist’s brush with the babushkas.  As the Eddie Chapman story suggests, it is the nation that reads the most codes, rather than the one that sells the most hamburgers, that is most likely to celebrate victory.  Whether it deserves it is another question.


[Agent Zigzag: The True Wartime Story of Eddie Chapman: Lover, Traitor, Hero, Spy, by Ben Macintyre (New York: Bloomsbury) 372 pp., $25.95]