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November 17, 2008

Agent Zigzag

A True Story of Nazi Espionage, Love and Betrayal
Ben Macintyre – ISBN 9780307353412

This is the next to the best spy story ever written; next, that is, to A Man Called Intrepid. Newly issued in paperback, it is written by one of my recently discovered, most favored writers. My problem with him is that he hasn’t written enough. As with Intrepid, Zigzag is a true story, so bizarre that it could never be conceived as a fictional plot, and if written no one would consider it believable!

I’ve reviewed most of Macintyre’s books before on this site: The Englishman’s Daughter; The Napoleon of Crime, and The Man Who Would Be King. This book is every bit as good as any of them. You’ll recall that he is a journalist who, in his various travels and assignments, discovers unusual people, often largely unknown, and spends years researching them before writing some of the most riveting and perfect prose you will ever read . . . always biographic history.

Zigzag was one of the foremost British double agents of WWII, having infiltrated the upper levels of Nazi intelligence, and was trusted by all, including Hitler. Near the end of the war the Germans were giving him unbelievable assignments which clearly could not be accomplished, but they assigned them to him anyway, desperate as they were for success in the waning days of the Third Reich.

His British managers carefully arranged for some of his assignments to appear to have been completed successfully, adding to Zigzag’s credibility. Foremost of these was the sabotage of the “Mosquito” factory in Britain--the Mosquito being one of the most unusual and feared bombers of WWII. It wreaked havoc on the Germans, and they wanted it neutralized—removed from manufacture. An elaborate ruse was required in order to make it appear to Luftwaffe aerial reconnaissance that the factory had, indeed been “decommissioned,” which façade, itself, was an incredible achievement.

Moreover, Eddie Chapman—Zigzag—was a common criminal (actually a very uncommon one) who was attracted to risk, danger, notoriety and fame. He was fearless, and imagined himself going down in flames by assassinating Hitler. His most important asset was his ability to memorize most anything, and stick rigidly to any story concocted to “out him.” As well, he would explore military installations, memorize the layout, and then duplicate it accurately months later.

While in Norway, training for a Nazi spy mission, he so thoroughly managed the situation that he became a lifelong friend and admirer of his German manager/trainer. Indeed, on more than one occasion the man interceded to save him from undue harassment when the SS was trying to break him. Many years later—both presuming the other to be dead—they resurrected their friendship.

As an amorous and high testosterone male he had many affairs, not unlike 007. He was friends with the devilishly clever Baron Rothschild—British bomb maker and expert, who was the model for the creative genius “Q” in the James Bond genre. Fleming likely stole a little from Zigzag when modeling 007 himself.

Suffice it to say that this is one hell of a book; one noted by a reviewer for the Boston Globe to be “The best book ever written.” (I don’t agree with that bit of hyperbole, since Intrepid is at least as good, and there are others—The Odessa File comes to mind—as well as other genres between which there is intrinsically no way to compare.)

Nonetheless, it is sheer fun to read.

Posted by respeto at November 17, 2008 10:45 AM