In one breathtaking, breathless volume Fitzroy Maclean tells of his career as diplomat and soldier from 1937-45.
The first part of the book deals with his diplomatic career in the USSR. Maclean quickly tires of the endless cycle of diplomatic receptions and the restrictions upon travel, and decides to see more of the USSR, particularly the Central Asian republics that were still being assimilated into the Union. He sets off on a series of enlightening journeys (with little or no official approval!) that take him far from Moscow to the legendary cities of Samarkand and Bokhara. This is fine travel writing indeed, Maclean giving a very powerful sense of what the Stalinist era was like and also of the exoticism of Central Asia. There are also powerful descriptions of the Stalist purges of 1938 and the accompanying "show trials".
The second part of the book covers Maclean's exploits with the SAS in the North African deserts and the Middle East. Resigning from his diplomatic post to join the Army (using the convenient excuse of becoming an MP!) Maclean serves as a private in a Scottish regiment for some time before being commmissioned and sent to the Middle East. Here he falls in with David Stirling and becomes an early member of the SAS - his stories of their training, tactics and raids are powerful indeed, matched by evocative descriptions of the African landscapes. Maclean moves on to form SAS units in the Middle East, but before long is summoned to go behind enemy lines as Churchill's military representative to Tito's Yugoslav partisans.
The final third of the book mixes military action and politics, with Maclean organising the support for the Partisans and representing them to the Allies. The political agenda here is a little blurred - Maclean is obviously a Conservative who has instinctive support for the return of the Yugoslav monarchy, and yet he admires Tito for what he has achieved in the liberation of his own country, while still maintaining a personal anti-Communist agenda... This section of the book makes the sheer scale of the Partisan operations very apparent, and hints at the confusion between the Western allies over the future fate of Yugoslavia.
This is a splendidly readable book, full of incident and description, with vividly drawn characters. It is told with occasional gentle humour, modesty, and genuine insight.
Maclean's adventures arguably span the end of the "Great Game" - political influence won by adventurers - and the beginning of the Cold War, and his memoirs of this historical crossroads are thought-provoking and highly entertaining.