Ben Macintyre is the reigning champ when it comes to attention-grabbing World War II spy stories that are stranger than fiction. Each of his two most recent books, Agent Zigzag and Operation Mincemeat, has been suspensefully written and studded with exotic details. And each has been narrowly particular.
Double Cross, Mr Macintyre’s far-reaching account of elite double agents, winds up detailing the war’s most complicated and successful ruse: the D-Day feat of deflecting German attention from the beaches of Normandy and successfully faking a different attack aimed at Calais, to the northeast. But this is a more crowded, less intimate book. Mr Macintyre seems dizzied by information overload, just as some of his readers may be.
If you haven’t pored through the earlier books, which established some of the most important German and British spymasters behind the fake Calais invasion, called Operation Fortitude, the new book will seem oddly organised and blandly written. Mr Macintyre cherry-picks so many quotations from other sources that his own voice can give way to the crowdsourced sound of a Zagat guide.
About Thomas Argyll Robertson of the British agency MI5, a major “Zigzag” player, Mr Macintyre now writes this: “He was ‘immensely personable and monstrously good looking,’ according to one colleague, ‘with a charm that could melt an iceberg’ and an ‘unmistakable twinkle’ that encouraged the spilling of confidences.” This is awfully close to “ ‘try the prix fixe’ but ‘can be noisy on weekends.’”
Mr Macintyre also relies on the artificial construct of linking five double agents who never met as a group, because “they spun a tapestry of lies so thick and wide it would envelop the entire German intelligence system”. One of those agents, Juan Pujol García, a Spanish-born former chicken farmer known as Garbo to the Allies and Arabel to the Germans, is the subject of a narrower but clearer book, Agent Garbo by Stephan Talty. Mr Talty has his own list of the war’s five most important double agents. The topic is so complicated that these two books’ Top 5 lists don’t agree.
Pick your poison: Double Cross thrives on excess background information and minutiae (one of Mr Macintyre’s main figures, Lily Sergeyev, had kidney stones), while Mr Talty favours glib storytelling with a Hollywood gloss. (“ ‘Turn around slowly, Ivan,’ the voice said, ‘and don’t make any sudden moves.’ ”)
Double Cross and Agent Garbo begin very differently, then wind up overlapping a great deal. Mr Macintyre starts off by emphasising the importance of Johnny Jebsen, a close friend to Dusan Popov, aka Tricycle. (Both figures are in both books.) Mr Macintyre pays much attention to establishing Jebsen’s playboy habits, his acquaintance with P G Wodehouse and the recruiting of Popov to spy for German intelligence long before these matters affect the course of his book. Mr Talty, who has less detail about Jebsen, does not introduce him until he is kidnapped by Germans, who realise he is spying for the British.
Both books agree about Garbo’s great importance to the war effort. And neither delves too deeply into the mindset that made him such a skilled fantasist about “notional” agents, invasion plans and armies that did not exist: in other words, such a gifted liar. But Garbo invented an entire espionage network and issued frequent bulletins that the Germans intercepted. He earned the movie-star moniker by being such a good actor. He was such a successful double agent that he was awarded high honours by both Germany and Britain. Most remarkably, when caught red-handed, he could affect high dudgeon and angrily convince accusers that he was an honest man. Garbo not only had the honour of revealing the D-Day Normandy invasion to Germany but also of arguing persuasively that Normandy was just a distraction.
Ultimately the books are complementary, not competitive. Perhaps Mr Talty’s is a useful prelude to Mr Macintrye’s, the designated Bigfoot of the two.
And Mr Talty supplies – via his reporting on David Strangeways, a deception expert who barely figures in Mr Macintyre’s scheme of things, and Tomás Harris, Garbo’s MI5 case officer – the better explanation of why such elaborate and peculiar British scheming played into a German weakness. “From Harris’ point of view the Germans were culturally and institutionally handicapped when it came to deception,” he writes, “because they’d closed their minds to the irrational.”
The True Story of the D-Day Spies
Crown Publishers; 399 pages; $26
The Brilliant, Eccentric Secret Agent Who Tricked Hitler and Saved D-Day
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 301 pages; $28
©2012 The New York Times News Service