Tuesday, 26 July 2011

The Most Unlikely Agent ZigZag

Eddie Chapman was the most extraordinary WWII spy you will never have heard of. Were he a fictional character, you would not find him credible.

I met him while browsing a second-hand book shop where my attention was drawn to his existence by a book entitled Agent Zigzag by Ben Macintyre. Implausible title, improbable character, I thought. A wannabe blockbuster, I thought, till I read the blurb where I discovered it was reprint for World Book Night 2011; to quote: 'one of 40,000 copies printed of each of the 25 brilliant titles selected…'. I looked at the list. They included many I have read, like The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night by Mark Haddon, Stuart: A Life Backwards by Alexander Masters, A Fine Balance by Rohinton Misty. Good company, I thought, I'll buy it.

Eddie Chapman was by all accounts a charmer. Terence Young, director of the first Bond film, who knew him when Chapman arrived in Soho, observed to a lawyer friend, '"He is a crook and will always be one. But he probably has more principles and honesty of character then either of us." […] Chapman would steal the money from your pocket, even as he bought you a drink.'

And Chapman was a crook, he was a member of the 'Jelly Gang', responsible for burglary the length and breadth of the country. With the police on his heels, he moved with his girlfriend and others to Jersey. It was in a restaurant there, that he made a spectacular exist befitting of Bond through a closed window to escape the law who had just walked in. Eventually he was caught and imprisoned locally. Bad timing. It was 1939. On 30th June 1940, the Nazis occupied the island.

Chapman, together with his less fortunate friend and fellow inmate, Anthony Faramus, decide on a ruse to get out of prison. They would claim they wanted to spy for the Germans. They made their ambitions known with no effect even after they were transferred to the Fort de Romainville prison in Paris. German bureaucracy may have been slow, but it was relentless and eventually Chapman was interviewed. And accepted. (Faramus, despite all Chapman's protests, remained in prison. He was to be the Germans' security for Chapman's good behaviour. Faramus was later transferred to the Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp but survived.) 

So the story begins.

After training, Chapman is parachuted into a muddy field in Cambridgeshire and immediately gives himself up to MI6. Thanks to Enigma, the code-breaking machine, they are already aware of his existence, but can they trust him, a man, who by rights, should be in prison? Despite all their qualms, they take him on and he proves one of their greatest successes as a double-agent.

Ben Macintyre documents Chapman's career neatly and concisely without succumbing to any temptation to embellish. He is enough of a journalist to know that the facts in this case are more than sufficient to hold the reader's attention. But he is also enough of a journalist to know how to structure the telling in order to keep the pages turning.

You do not have to be a fan of the Boys Own Book of Adventures to enjoy reading the history of this archetype model. Eddie Chapman was an exceptional character. In the words of Colonel Robin 'Tin Eye' Stephens, 'The man [Chapman], essentially vain, has grown in stature and, in his own estimation, is something of a prince of the underworld. He has no scruples and will stop at nothing. He makes no bargain with society and money is a means to an end. Of fear, he knows nothing, and he certainly has a deep-rooted hatred of the Hun. In a word, adventure to Chapman is the breath of life. Given adventure, he has the courage to achieve the unbelievable. His very recklessness is his standby.'

PS Bang on cue, World Book Night publishes the one hundred contenders for 2012, here.

PPS Just noticed it is on a 342 book offer at Waterstones, (342 - neat, huh?  I should have been a copywriter.)

Ooops. Correction, the book was Alone in Berlin which a reviewed a few posts ago. (Nurse! Nurse! It's time for my medication.)

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