Agent Zigzag: A True Story of Nazi Espionage, Love, and Betrayal by Ben Macintyre

“Eddie Chapman was a charming criminal, a con man, and a philanderer. He was also one of the most remarkable double agents Britain has ever produced.”

I like spy stories, especially true spy stories. Author Ben MacIntyre’s story of Eddie Chapman and his activities as the consummate double agent for Britain during World War II is particularly fascinating because it’s well-researched and full of details that were gleaned from recently declassified MI5 files.

So, first, I had to get straight the difference between MI5 and MI6:

“The Security Service (MI5) is the UK’s security intelligence agency. It is responsible for protecting the UK, its citizens and interests, against the major threats to national security. The Secret Intelligence Service (SIS, or MI6) operates world-wide and is responsible for gathering secret intelligence outside the UK in support of the government’s security, defence and foreign and economic policies.”

Well, that’s clear, but I can see how during a war like WW II when the outside threats (of German infiltration and even invasion) were quickly becoming inside threats, the lines would get a little blurred. Anyway, Eddie Chapman worked for MI5 because he came to England as a Nazi spy and saboteur. When he reached Britain, parachuted in by his German employers, he immediately reported to MI5 about what the Germans had taught him and what they wanted him to do while he was “in the field.” (The Nazi wanted him to sabotage and blow up a factory where British warplanes called Mosquitos were being manufactured.)

Mr. Chapman is an interesting character, a very flawed hero. He was “a man who kept every option open, who seemed congenitally incapable of taking a bet without hedging it.” Terence young, the filmmaker, who had known Chapman before the war, wrote to MI5 officials about Chapman,”One could give him the most difficult of missions knowing that he would carry it out and that he would never betray the official who sent him, but that it was highly probable that he would, incidentally, rob the official who sent him out. . . . He would then carry out his [mission] and return to the official whom he had robbed to report.” Chapman had a girl in every port, or country, and he seduced each of them into thinking that she was the only one. But when none of his long-term partners was available, he found it necessary to visit prostitutes or find a new paramour. He performed some incredibly valuable missions of misinformation and spying for the British, but he was paid mostly by the Germans who believed that he had done great things for their side.

If you’re interested in World War II, British intelligence services, James Bond and the like, espionage, or just morally ambivalent characters, Agent Zigzag is a good read. MacIntyre does tell what happened to the major players in this episode of double and even triple cross after the war was over, and the index is useful for finding specific incidents and information if you’re studying the era and the subject.

Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan

Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive. ~Sir Walter Scott, Marmion, Canto vi. Stanza 17.

My name is Serena Frome (rhymes with plume) and almost forty years ago I was sent on a secret mission for the British Security Service. I didn’t return safely. Within eighteen months of joining I was sacked, having disgraced myself and ruined my lover, though he certainly had a hand in his own undoing.

Set in the 1960’s, this novel of lies and spies and deception within deception is spell-binding, especially toward the end as the author begins to tie up all the loose ends into a choose-your-own ending sort of denouement. As it begins, Serena Frome tells us how she became a spy, a very low-level spy with a fairly innocuous duty to perform. She simply has to recruit an up-and-coming novelist and lie to him about the source of her funding. No big deal. However, as Sir Walter so aptly observed, small deceptions grow over time into large, knotty messes.

Serena, who is anything but serene throughout most of the novel, and her spy-target, Tom, become lovers. They actually fall in love with each other, and the secrets between them become more and more heavy and complicated and unsustainable. In one scene Serena and Tom make love to one another on the beach and declare their love in words for the first time:

“I knew that before this love began to take its course, I would have to tell him about myself. And then the love would end. So I couldn’t tell him. But I had to.
Afterward, we lay with our arms linked, giggling like children in the the dark at our secret, at the mischief we had got away with. We laughed at the enormity of the words we had spoken. Everyone else was bound by the rules, and we were free. We’d make love all over the world, our love would be everywhere. We sat up and shared a cigarette. Then we both began to shiver from the cold, and so we headed for home.”

So ridiculous. We all do this: fool ourselves into thinking that the rules don’t apply to us, that we can lie and steal and cheat and still give and receive love that is lasting and stable. But love that’s built on deceit is just like that Biblical house built on beach sand, headed for a fall.

However, just when the reader thinks that he knows the end of this story, after all we’ve all heard it and experienced it before, love lost, betrayal uncovered, and tragedy, Mr. McEwan and Tom the novelist and Serena herself all have a few more tricks and twists of plot to reveal or live through. I’m not sure the ending is really, truly possible or likely (can the Gordian knot really be dispatched with a single sword stroke?), but I want it to be so.

I’ve read McEwan’s most famous novel, Atonement, and it, too, had a twist at the end. The surprising or ambiguous ending seems to be a trademark in most of Mr. McEwan’s novels, as is a “predeliction for more graphic sexual description than I am comfortable reading” (what I wrote about Atonement and what is also true of Sweet Tooth). I thought the sexual details were unfortunate and unnecessary, but I usually do think that about modern novels. These lascivious particulars were skim-able, and the rest of the story somewhat redeemed the few vulgar parts.

So I give the novel, which also deals with the value of fiction and the intricacies of the Cold War, a qualified recommendation.

The Expats by Chris Pavone

About a month after I read the ARC of this chick lit/spy novel, I heard an interview on NPR’s All Things Considered with author Chris Pavone. (According to the interviewer, it’s pronounced “pavoney”).

It seems that Mr. Pavone moved to Luxembourg where he became a “house-husband” and started writing a book that bored him just as much as housekeeping did. So, he decided to make the homemaker protagonist into a retired CIA spy, and the rest, as they say—well, if not history, at least it got more interesting.

So, the protagonist of this spy thriller was a CIA agent, but she’s hung up her spurs (and guns and spy stuff) and moved to Luxembourg to become a homemaker while her banker/computer security expert husband makes a mint helping secretive banks with their security systems. Kate sees little of her husband who works long hours, and she becomes bored with her life with little children. She begins to wonder if her past has come back to haunt her in the person of a couple in the “expat” community who seem to know more about her than they should.

The book has lots of twist and turns, as a thriller should. But something about it just didn’t draw me in the same way a Helen MacInnes novel always does (my gold standard for spy novels). Maybe it was the bored mommy angle that I didn’t like. The book was just good, not great.

Other blogger reviews:
Sam at Book Chase: “Seldom have I changed my mind about a book so many times before finishing it, than I did with Chris Pavone’s debut novel, The Expats.”

Read Around the World: “Well, you may take the girl out of the CIA but there’s no way you can take the CIA out of the girl. Pavone has created a spunky, devious, brave new heroine in Kate Moore and I don’t believe for a second that we’ve seen the last of her.”