Eleanor Updale writes fiction for all the family, specializing in a mix of body fluids, international politics, medical ethics, and confused identity. Her Montmorency series, set in the late 19th century, has won several awards on both sides of the Atlantic. Her new book, Johnny Swanson, will be published next year. Its plot takes in murder, tuberculosis and advertising in 1929. Eleanor has just become a Royal Literary Fund fellow at Queen Mary, University of London. Below she discusses Ben Macintyre's Agent Zigzag.
Eleanor Updale on Agent Zigzag by Ben Macintyre
As so many contributors to this series on Norm's blog have said, it's a nightmare deciding which book to write about. Fiction or non-fiction? A classic, or a hidden treasure? Should I plead for the novel I wanted to win the Booker Prize (Love and Summer by William Trevor, which didn't make it to the shortlist)? I agonized before settling on South Riding by Winifred Holtby, longing to re-read and celebrate a neglected writer from the interwar years, and her enlivening of an unlikely subject (local government). But then I was defeated by a house crammed with so many books that we might as well have none: it's impossible to find what you want when you need it. The public library was no good either. It's been too ruthlessly purged of the printed word. So I asked my children if they could remember me raving about a book, and my son instantly came up with Agent Zigzag by Ben Macintyre, published in 2007. Fortunately my copy, though already physically decaying in the way modern paperbacks do, came to hand.
Agent Zigzag is a perfect example of how to write non-fiction. The attention to detail is meticulous, but the pages turn like a novel's. It's the true story of Eddie Chapman, fantasist and spiv, who was transformed during World War II into a secret agent working for both Britain and Germany. There can be no doubt that he risked his life for his homeland, yet he was the only British citizen ever to win the Iron Cross.
The story starts before the War, as Eddie dines with a girlfriend on the island of Jersey:
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. Here are just some of the things Betty did not know about Eddie Chapman: he was married; another woman was pregnant with his child; and he was a crook.
That sets the tone for a romp drawing on official records, Chapman's personal memoir, and interviews - conducted just in time - with key characters in the story. We follow Chapman across Europe under several aliases, watching him persuade the intelligence services of Britain and Germany that his very criminality, and his expertise with explosives (as a former member of 'The Jelly Gang') are indispensable to their war efforts. But Macintyre doesn't hide behind the fun. Even the most slapstick moments are sourced in the end-notes, and much primary material, now in everyday use by historians, appeared in this book for the first time. The index and bibliography of secondary sources are full and genuinely useful.
No fiction writer would get away with this story. Just one of Chapman's adventures sees him convincing the Germans that he has blown up the De Havilland aircraft factory in Hatfield - an illusion achieved with the help of a professional conjuror called Jasper Maskelyne and a team of theatrical set-painters from the Old Vic. We trail him round chemists' shops, collecting the ingredients for bombs. As Macintyre says, 'Britain might be in the grip of rationing, but buying the materials for a homemade bomb was a piece of cake. (In fact, obtaining the ingredients for a decent cake would have been rather harder.)'
Eddie Chapman's handlers on both sides are as weird and entertaining as anyone you'll find in a spy novel. Stephan Von Gröning, the bored dilettante who lures Chapman to work for the Germans, would be worth a book in his own right. Back in Britain, there's Robin 'Tin Eye' Stephens, commander of Britain's interrogation centre for enemy spies, and Thomas Argyll 'Tar' Robertson - known as 'Passion Pants' because of his tartan trousers - the MI5 man who turned Eddie into a double agent. 'Tar' and 'Tin Eye' developed a guilty affection for their charge, but towards the end of the war we cringe at the hopeless mismatch of Chapman and his final MI5 minder, Michael Ryde, a man of old-fashioned rectitude and patrician manners. Poor Ryde was forced to accompany Eddie on expensive junkets round sleazy clubs and bars, so that the Germans would believe their spy was still in touch with his criminal contacts.
All this cost money, and Chapman was intermittently successful at extracting huge sums from his masters – especially from the Germans. Despite his contention that he'd offered to carry out a suicide attack on Hitler, it seems that money, and the desire to stay out of prison, were his strongest motives throughout. As 'Tin Eye' Stephens put it, 'Chapman was the worst of men, in whom war had brought out the best'. And yet it's hard not to feel relief when, at the end of the war, he escapes punishment for his many past crimes. We, and Macintyre, even fall a little in love with the rogue, as several women did, despite his appalling behaviour. Just one example: he allegedly infected an 18 year-old lover with VD and then blackmailed her, threatening to tell her parents that she had given the disease to him.
People stuck by Chapman. After the war he rediscovered Betty, the girl he'd abandoned by jumping out of that hotel window in Jersey. 'It was a happy, enduring marriage,' says Macintyre, 'even though Chapman's eye wandered more or less continuously for the next fifty years'. The marriage produced a daughter, and at her wedding, in Britain in 1979, Chapman and Von Gröning linked arms and sang Lili Marlene.
Please read Agent Zigag. It's a wildly entertaining book, almost worth it for the photographs alone. It has so few flaws that one is reduced to nitpicking (presumably Ben Macintyre is too young to remember that British police cars used to have bells, not sirens). It's tempting to think that with such a story to tell, he couldn't fail - but the truth is that Macintyre's crisp style, his understanding of character and his eye for comedy are the real reasons for the book's success. He has the courage to wear his erudition lightly, but it is profound. If only more non-fiction were written like this.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]