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Between Silk and Cyanide: A Codemaker's War 1941-45 [Paperback]

Leo Marks
4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (91 customer reviews)
RRP: 14.99
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Book Description

1 Oct 2007
In 1942, with a black-market chicken under his arm, Leo Marks left his father's famous bookshop, 84 Charing Cross Road, and went to war. He was twenty-two and a cryptographer of genius. This book is an account of his time in SOE. It tells how he revolutionized the code-making techniques of the Allies and trained some of the famous agents.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 480 pages
  • Publisher: The History Press (1 Oct 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0750948353
  • ISBN-13: 978-0750948357
  • Product Dimensions: 12.6 x 19.3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (91 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 52,308 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Amazon Review

Twenty-three is awfully young to find yourself with the power of life and death...Leo Marks failed the examination to go and work on codes at Bletchley by being just too good and too much of a smart aleck. Instead, he was imposed on a not entirely willing Special Operations Executive (SOE) to teach coding to agents dropped into Europe and to decode the sometimes indecipherable messages they sent back at great risk to their lives. His speeches to his staff on the mortal danger of slowness or carelessness are classics of guilt-tripping. Absence of mistakes made him suspect that the Germans had captured SOE's Dutch agents--his youth and personality meant that his superiors were slow to believe him. In his spare time, he revolutionized cryptography by inventing one-time-only pads, and wrote poems for agents to use as keys--including the poem associated with Violette Szabo, "Odette".

This is a moving memoir of the agents like Odette and Noor Inayat Khan, whose fates we already know and whom he tried in vain to protect. This is a powerful memoir of war, responsibility and guilt; Marks, hitherto famous as screenwriter on Peeping Tom and son of the 84 Charing Cross Road family, has written a classic. --Roz Kaveney --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


Martin Scorsese "Between Silk and Cyanide" is a mesmerizing account of World War II as fought on the home front in Great Britain by the ingenious codemakers whose work determined the life and death of the Allied agents in occupied Europe. Leo Marks, a brilliant cryptographer, is a masterful and passionate storyteller. I was immediately swept into his secret world of codes and "undecipherables," trying at times (without success) to unravel the puzzles myself, and found it difficult to put down the book until the drama had come to an end. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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First Sentence
In January 1942 I was escorted to the war by my parents in case I couldn't find it or met with an accident on the way. Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
40 of 40 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A different take on a nowadays popular topic 8 Dec 2000
By A Customer
Every other book written about cryptography has, for me, been overly serious and thus tends to be very hard to become immersed in. This is where Leo Marks' excellent account of his exploits in SOE differs. He tells his amazing, moving and tragic story with a wonderful sense of humour that allows the reader to become involved in the agents he describes. Marks very cleverly observes his colleagues' characters and brings the SOE to life in a way that no other book has managed. I thoroughly recommend this book to anyone, a previous interest is not essential, as I was unable to put it down until the very last page.
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29 of 29 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An outstanding, gripping, hilarious book 3 Jun 2003
By Andrew Kerr VINE VOICE
I can honestly say this is the best book I have read - fiction or non-fiction. Marks hasn't lost any of the cheeky humour that got him into so much trouble early in his military career during the war. What's less obvious from his own accounts of his early life is how he became such an outstanding writer.
This book has everything - it's very informative, consistently gripping and sways between humour and heartache in equal measure.
Marks keeps the pace going throughout the book and deftly intertwines his owns accounts of his time in the SOE with a superb account of his contacts with Captain Forest Frederick Yeo-Thomas (better known as The White Rabbit).
As a factual account of wartime codebreaking, this book easily stands up in its own right. The fact that it's such a great read is just a bonus.
I can't recommend it highly enough. Which is why I've already bought 7 more copies as gifts!
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25 of 25 people found the following review helpful
By A Customer
Leo Marks (son of the owner of 84 Charing Cross Road) set off to war at a tender age clutching a railway ticket and a black market chicken and ended up in less than a year as one of the key people in Britain's war effort. I took this book on holiday and found it almost impossible to put down. It is a masterly summary of the struggle against petty bureaucracy and inter-departmental politics combined with Marks's complete faith in his own not inconsiderable abilities. He briefed allied agents being sent into occupied Europe, invented new codes and ciphers, deduced that the SOE infrastructure in Holland had been blown wide open by the Germans and many other things beside. Marks is a brilliant and truly fascinating individual.
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20 of 20 people found the following review helpful
By Andrew Kerr VINE VOICE
I can honestly say that this is the best book I have ever read. Fiction or non-fiction. Leo Marks keeps you on your toes the whole way through - hilarious and touching by turns, the book is absolutely unputdownable.
Combining his own recollections of how he spent most of the war in the SOE, doing things he had specifically been told not to do by his superiors, and the gripping and moving tale of how Captain Yeo-Thomas (better known as The White Rabbit) was caught by the Gestapo, there's more than enough to satisfy any reader.
What more can I say? I've already bought it 7 times more as gifts!
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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Coding was the least of it 9 April 2003
I borrowed this book in Chicago and couldn't put it down. An excellent writer, witty and pertinent, humours and refined, Leo Marks brings the code breakers war to life. His self critical reflections in conjunction with his sharp mind make the commentary fascinating as the world of coding and the characters develop through the course of the war. The human account of the fate of some of the agents is harrowing, all the more so, for all the efforts by Marks et al to secure their survival. The characters Marks dealt with and learnt from were all heroes, whether agents, procurement specialists or professors with rapier sharp minds
I enjoyed it more than I could have imagined and this work revitalised my appreciation for our more recent history. It's also left me with the poem, 'a life that I have' running through my imagination
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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An excellent account of SOE and its people. 17 Sep 2000
By A Customer
This book puts a very human face to the people who carried the resistance war to the occupied territories during WWII. It left me with an appreciation for what these people did, the sacrifices made, and the lives lost. The book is written to give an insight into the personalities of the people involved, the politics of interservice rivalries, and the techniques of code-making and codebreaking. The author displays his flamboyant personality in a very honest way, and I suspect that the contents of the book are very honestly portrayed as well. Excellent and highly recommended.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Codebreakers War 9 Feb 2007
By Neilb
This is one of the best factual books i have ever read, it describes the art of the codebreaker, the stamina, the un social hours, also the debilitating health it can cause, along with the elation of getting the answers to questions that the normal person would be ignorent of. A truly wonderful book.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Between Silk and Cyanide by Leo Marks 2 Jan 2011
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This is a well written and absorbing book about the author's work in the war as a coder. It's very informative and intellectually satisfying, whilst also engaging the reader on an emotional level - making them feel the urgent need to safeguard the lives of agents (mainly resistance workers) by making better and better codes and minimising the risk-heavy need for them to retransmit previous "indecipherable" messages.
It's the tale of someone, physically safe himself, who is always keenly aware of the dangers being run by the field agents whose messages he is reading, who understands that each of their prospects for surviving the war are desperately slim, and who is constantly and innovatively striving to prolong their lives.
I couldn't put this book down and would recommend it to anyone with an interest in history or in puzzles.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars A code maker's war
Excellent book. Highly recommended. Now if only I could follow the coding and the decoding process all would become clear.
Published 6 days ago by Cato
5.0 out of 5 stars A fascinating tale of wartime problem-solving
This guy is quite a character! To have produced such brilliant solutions at the age of 23 has my admiration. Read more
Published 7 days ago by A. Bradley
5.0 out of 5 stars Between Silk and cyanide
The book is well written and gives insight into the work and use of codes by SOE during world war two.
Published 15 days ago by leonard forbes
5.0 out of 5 stars The story of the other code breakers
Bletchley Park didn't house the only code breaker in the UK. There was one man who single handedly kept the French resistance safe from their own codes without them even knowing... Read more
Published 21 days ago by Amazon Customer
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent Story
A brilliant story about the man who kitted out the SOE with their codes for service behind enemy lines. A heart wrenching read.
Published 1 month ago by Nigel Thompson
2.0 out of 5 stars Almost unreadable
There are so many good or excellent reviews of this book so I am probaby missing something but I have found it amateurish and almost unreadable. Read more
Published 2 months ago by Kim Fyson
5.0 out of 5 stars A code makers war
An excellent read,for someone born just after the war, it gave a brilliant view of what went on in those dark years of the war. Read more
Published 2 months ago by G. Baker
2.0 out of 5 stars disappointing
I had heard so much about this subject l(Bletchley) lately that I was really looking forward to it, but the writing style was so unprofessional and unpolished that I gave up after... Read more
Published 2 months ago by judith bensusan
3.0 out of 5 stars Its okay BUT
A lot of how good am I and takes a long time to get to the point.
Once more showing the intransigence of the higharacy to change and innovation. Read more
Published 2 months ago by P. J. Roberts
5.0 out of 5 stars How secure are we today
This was my first Kindle book and from start to finish I could not put it down! Leo marks brings it all to life.
Published 2 months ago by Romeo
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