Book: Agent Zigzag by Ben Macintyre

Brilliant true-life spy story from the second world war

Ben Macintyre
Agent Zigzag: A True Story of Nazi Espionage, Love, and Betrayal
Three Rivers Press, 2007
ISBN: 978-0-307-35331-2
305 pages (main text)

The problem with most true-life spy stories is that they're not especially interesting. Even for spies, real life isn't usually all that exciting. But Agent Zigzag by Ben Macintyre is an exception. It's about Edward Chapman, who was born in 1914 in a small town in the north of England. In the early 1930s he joined the British army but went absent without leave after nine months. He was caught, imprisoned, and dishonorably discharged. He then embarked on a life of crime, becoming an experienced burglar and safe-cracker. His willingness to spend the money he stole brought him into contact with London's demimonde and he got to know Noël Coward, among others.

A little while later, he was serving a prison sentence on the British Channel Island of Jersey when the Germans invaded. He was eventually released from prison and promptly offered to spy for the Germans. Shortly thereafter he ended up in trouble with the new authorities and found himself in a German prison outside of Paris. The Germans eventually took him up on his offer but, as the book's title suggests, that's not nearly all there is to the story.

Eddie Chapman (as he was known) was a morally and psychologically messy person. It seems that he had some good reasons for that. Though Mr Macintyre doesn't mention it, it seems likely from his descriptions that Eddie had (among other problems) bipolar disorder and some not very socially acceptable mechanisms for coping with it. I didn't count the number of women Eddie had love-affairs with and then abandoned during the course of the book, but it's a lot. He was smart, brave, charming, tough, and a scoundrel.

Not only is there an interesting story here and an interesting character, but Mr Macintyre's writing does justice to both. Take this from the beginning of the book:

    A group of men in overcoats and brown hats had
    entered the restaurant and one was now in urgent
    conversation with the headwaiter. Before Betty
    could speak, Eddie stood up, bent down to kiss
    her once, and then jumped through the window,
    which was closed. There was a storm of broken
    glass, tumbling crockery, screaming women, and
    shouting waiters. Betty Farmer caught a last
    glimpse of Eddie Chapman sprinting off down the
    beach with two overcoated men in pursuit.
    (p. 4)

There are a fair few funny parts of the story. But Mr Macintyre makes sure that we don't lose ourselves in the story, fascinating as it is, by reminding us of the Nazi horrors that the allied victory would stop.

If I can find a complaint about the book, it's that it makes the work at Bletchley Park sound a bit easier than it was. But that's a very small thing. The ending isn't especially tidy, but that's real life for you.

Posted: Mon - November 24, 2008 at 07:03 PM   Main   Category: