Spies, World War II; Continent: Europe

Agent Zigzag: The True Story of Nazi Espionage, Love, and Betrayal by Ben MacIntyre

  • Action-packed and clever, but this bit of history has just enough “Hogan’s Heroes” to make you shake your head
  • 364 pages (305 pages without Appendix and Notes)

Who doesn’t love a spy story? Some of the best ones come from information that is now declassified after decades. Last year, I read about British turncoat Kim Philby in Ben MacIntyre’s A Spy Among Friends. The books share a connection other than the same author: one of the principal players in this tale turns up, much further along in his career, in the book about Philby. MacIntyre has given us another spy story so over-the-top as to give James Bond a headache.

On the threshold of World War II, Eddie Chapman is a charming scoundrel and con man with an eye for the ladies. He has more taste than he can afford, and he likes to keep expensive company in the form of women he meets at nightclubs, more successful criminals, boxers and entertainers. He pays for his lifestyle with some criminal knowledge of explosives. Together with some buddies, he blows safes and vaults. Scotland Yard knows who he is, and they eventually get their man for a few, but not all, of his robberies. While on the inside, he forms a friendship with another inmate, Tony Faramus. Faramus is a little softer than some of the inmates, and Chapman feels protective of him.

The Germans

Eventually, Eddie and Tony’s stint in prison ends, just as the war is heating up for Britain. Feeling resentful toward British authority, Chapman and Faramus decide to sell their services to the Nazis for espionage. The Nazis decide they are interested…but only in Chapman. When they show up to abruptly remove both men from their rental flat, Chapman is questioned and sent for training by the Nazi spy service, Abwehr. Faramus is sent to a prison camp, where he remains as Nazi leverage over Chapman.

Chapman finds he likes the men who are training him to become a spy in the German forest. They are stationed in pretty posh circumstances, the former home of a Jewish family. He likes his German commanding officer, who quietly holds Hitler in low regard. Chapman also finds that he has money to spend, which is the key factor in his happiness for a while. Eventually, however, he begins to feel a certain inconvenient patriotism. He finds he can’t respect Hitler, either, and his German handlers aren’t being entirely straight with him. When MI-5 captures him, he’s ready to flip.

The British

Meanwhile, MI-5 and MI-6 have broken the Enigma code the Germans consider unbreakable, but the British don’t dare let on. Consequently, when Chapman wants to work as a double agent, they can’t give any indication that he’s redundant…just in case he’s more loyal to the Germans. Instead, they set him up to send false information to his German handlers. He’s closely supervised by his British handlers, who not only compose his false messages for him but also provide true, harmless information to fill out the bulk of his transmissions. With Enigma already in their pockets, the British can not only check up on their double agent, they can read how much, if any chatter, results from his transmissions to gauge his impact. Of course, they can’t keep up the flow of inaccurate or irrelevant information forever: Chapman is going to have to really deliver for Abwehr sooner or later or risk becoming expendable. When he is expected to use his explosives expertise to blow up some British physical plant crucial to the war effort, the British make sure it happens…sort of. To accomplish that explosion, the British government hired a stage magician and go to some pretty surprising lengths.

The Bond Girls?

James Bond may have had his “girls,” but Eddie Chapman availed himself of feminine company as often as he could, too. The drama attached to some of these liaisons had a cinematic quality as well. During his criminal career, he abruptly left a dinner date through an open window when police showed up at the restaurant where he and a new lady friend where preparing to dine. His own secretive circumstances in safe houses limited his ability to often enjoy socializing with women at nightclubs…but not as often as handlers on either side of the war would have liked. At one point, Chapman had a wife and daughter on the payroll of one government and, later, a mistress associated with the other.

While author Ben MacIntyre has done his homework to present this tale, sheer intellectual curiosity is probably not what will keep the pages turning for you. Instead, it’s those moments of “that really happened?” bemusement that make the Agent Zigzag story such great fun to read. Pick this engaging book when you really need the distraction, like the flight you’ve been dreading or the hospital stay.

Image: MI5 photo, c. 1942. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eddie_Chapman

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