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Saturday, January 19, 2013

Book Review Agent Zigzag by Ben Macintyre



Agent Zigzag by Ben Macintyre is the true story of Eddie Chapman, a criminal-turned-spy and his role as “Agent Zigzag” during WWII.  As always with Macintyre’s books, the characters here are first rate, with Chapman coming across as a character with a capital C.  He fascinated almost everyone he came into contact with, from the women who fell for his blue eyes to the man who “ran” him as an agent for MI5.  This was a man who made his living as a thief, but who also courted friendships with people like Noel Coward and a young filmmaker who went on to direct the first James Bond movie. 

Eddie Chapman/Agent Zigzag
Macintyre has a knack for taking footnotes in history and turning them into riveting non-fiction. The author does a terrific job of sketching out both time and place, wherever that time or place might be.  Whether he’s recounting the story of Eddie’s early crimes, the night he was arrested while dining with a date or his growing frustration in prison, there’s always an emotional underpinning to the scenes, and they spring from the pages in three dimensions.  The writer intersperses contemporary documents with his own narrative, so that we read accounts of Eddie’s crimes and exploits.  It gives a true immediacy to the events and brings us into his story. 

Stephan Graumann, the aristocratic German spymaster who "runs" Eddie in Germany is very much the antithesis of the clichéd German spy.  He’s an educated and intelligent man.  (And as we learn from the author’s graceful side trips into context, we know that the Abwehr was antithetical to Nazi culture.  Headed up by Admiral Canaris, who would later be executed for his part in a plot to kill Hitler, the German intelligence service sought to serve the country without serving the Fuhrer.)

The backdrop of events is elegant.  In fact, it’s about as far removed from modern-day spycraft, with its anonymous rooms and bland personalities as it is possible to be.  The Villa de la Bretonniere is an irresistible setting for Eddie’s schooling. 


A lot of the training part of the story is familiar, but has a neat twist in that we’re seeing it from the German side, not the Allied side as we’re used to. And it’s tempting to think of Eddie as a one-man Dirty Dozen, although he was not being sent into suicide missions. 

As with any account of a real life, this story doesn't fit neatly into a narrative line. It is often episodic and even a bit convoluted; filled with superfluous characters and bits of plot that never quite get resolved.  On the other hand, there are thrilling accounts of missions here, and a character that’s intriguing enough to make us care about what he does and why he did it. 

Agent Zigzag is an absorbing read about a man whose work helped shape history.

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