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Between Silk and Cyanide: A Codemaker's War 1941-45 Paperback – 1 Oct 2007


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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: 12.4 x 1 x 19.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (113 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 22,048 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description

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.

Review

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.

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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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Customer Reviews

4.6 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

45 of 45 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on 8 Dec 2000
Format: Paperback
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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33 of 33 people found the following review helpful By Andrew Kerr TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on 3 Jun 2003
Format: Paperback
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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27 of 27 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on 15 Aug 2000
Format: Paperback
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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21 of 21 people found the following review helpful By Andrew Kerr TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on 23 Aug 2002
Format: Paperback
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 By A Customer on 17 Sep 2000
Format: Paperback
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 By Gareth Greenwood on 16 July 2008
Format: Paperback
Marks was with SOE during WW2. This book is a memoir of his experiences. Don't be put off by its size. Like some other reviewers, once I started it, I couldn't put it down.

In SOE Marks had the job of briefing agents about the codes they would use in the field. At the start of the war SOE's codes had several weaknesses and Marks chronicles their gradual improvement, often against opposition from various closed-minded people in the military hierarchy.

Particularly moving is his description of the code given to Violette Szabo based on the famous "Life that I have" poem. He also describes SOE's tragic failure to accept that its Dutch network was completely compromised by the Germans and that most of the SOE agents sent to Holland were captured on arrival.

Marks's descriptions of colleagues and the SOE military bureacracy is in places hilarious, his descriptions of the fate of agents in places harrowing. His writing weaves the lightest and the darkest into a compelling story. Many have written about the codebreakers of Bletchley Park and their part in the life-or-death Battle of the Atlantic. As a code-maker, Marks offers a different and more personal perspective on the life-or-death decisions that affected individual agents.

Readers not into codes, codemaking and codebreaking might find the technical details a bit turgid - but they can be skipped without detracting from a narrative that is eye-witness history at its very best.
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14 of 15 people found the following review helpful By Jayne Lansdell on 9 April 2003
Format: Paperback
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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