As Ben Macintyre points out in Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies, the relationship between cricket (that most English of sports) and spying (at which the British have always excelled) is deep-rooted and unique. Something about the game attracts the sort of mind also drawn to the secret worlds of intelligence and counter-intelligence — for both are complex tests of brain and brawn, high-stakes games of honour and ruthless good manners interwoven with trickery, dependent on minute gradations of physics and psychology interwoven with tea breaks.
There is not anything wildly unusual about a chicken farmer producing chicken feed. Nor about a socialite with somewhat questionable business activities travelling to and from England. No, neither of those statements on their own are hugely surprising. If I told you that they both occurred during World War II you may raise an eyebrow and make an exclamation of moderate interest (“really? How fascinating”). If I told you that someone had written a book about both of these people (and a few others), you would utter another statement, less interested and more looking for a way to escape the conversation (“you must tell me more another time; I’m terribly sorry but you’ll have to excuse me”).What could be in any way interesting enough about the lives of these people to warrant a book? If I told you the book was written by Ben Macintyre that may clue a few of you up. What would tip most people off is if I told you the exact variety of chicken feed.
You see, chicken feed has two meanings. One is a nourishing material consumed by poultry. Dull. The other though… The other is useless intelligence information given to spies. That is profoundly un-dull. This is the kind of thing you expect in a breathless thriller. Macintyre’s Spanish ex chicken farmer first fabricated reports in language so verbose and dense as to be of no use to man nor beast; and then worked for British intelligence. His is just one of the incredible stories told in Macintyre’s book. I have waxed lyrical about Macintyre before in my review of Agent Zigzag, and similarly this was a rip-roaring read that was both educational and enjoyable.
The only factor of the book which I did not enjoy was the narrative structure. As in some novels, the narration changed focus each chapter, alternating between each of the five agents. The only issue with this is that as Macintyre gives so much brilliantly in-depth detail one can forget which person did what (especially given that the agents are largely addressed by their codenames) and where the book left off at the end of the person’s last chapter several previous. It’s ironic really, the book’s greatest strength is its greatest flaw, the incredible depth given can lead to some confusion.
What I love about Macintyre’s writing is that he truly brings the characters to life and underlines just how incredible all of these feats are. He admires the sheer bravery of the men and women yet is not blind to their faults and does not idolise them for their courage. He is willing to tell of the shady deals and the womanising habits, but praise is lavished where it is due. Case in point is one Johnny Jebsen. Macintyre does not shy away from recounting his dealings, his counterfeit currency schemes and other illicit practices, and sleuths around to find out details about him (and the other spies) and his dealings. Jebsen’s name is not well known, yet he singlehandedly saved D-Day. How? You’ll just have to read the book…
★★★★½-unbelievable subject matter coupled with an engaging and entertaining author makes for a superb read