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Spying for high stakes - this is no James Bond,
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This review is from: Ace of Spies: The True Story of Sidney Reilly (Revealing History) (Paperback)
Reilly may have been an inspiration for Ian Fleming's Bond but he creates a very different impression to the popular image. His abilities, his energy and his ruthlessness in gaining the confidence of very shrewd people from senior MI5 controllers to Lenin to business partners in Russia, Japan and New York, in all of which he made and lost fortunes, was immense. And all this done at the same time as keeping a string of mistresses and wives on the go.
Reilly was born Sigmund Rosenblum around 1872 probably in Odessa in Russia. At eighteen he was arrested by the tsarist secret police, faked his death in the Odessa harbour and came to London and established "business" developing and supplying patent medicines and counterfeiting. He participates in the murder of Hugh Thomas in order to avail himself of a very rich widow and to gain a new identity.
In 1893 he was recruited to the MI5 by William Melville who was no mug - "without doubt one of the most intriguing and distinguished men ever to lead the Special Branch." Melville saw the value of Rosenblum's emigre network as well as networks among journalists and the influential in generating intelligence.
However when his frauds began to catch up with him, Melville facilitates Rosenblums' change of identity to Reilly and arranged for him to return to Russia and thence to Manchuria via China. When Japan invades Manchuria there is intense speculation that Reilly is spying for both Japan and for Melville in MI5.
My attention was drawn to Reilly by an account of the D'Arcy Affair which directly led to the establishment of Britain's leading oil company. In 1904 the Board of the Admiralty predicted that oil would supercede coal as the source of fuel supply to the Navy. Melville despatched Reilly to Tehran to look into the activities of Willliam D'Arcy, an Australian goldminer who had obtained a concession on Persia's oil resources, but had gone bankrupt. D'Arcy was in negotiations with Rothschilds to sell the rights. The legend goes that Reilly stormed Rothschild's yacht dressed as a priest, begged for alms for his orphanage, and then took D'Arcy aside and offered him double what Rothschild was offering. This was the origins of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company - later BP.
Reilly is credited as having the ability to speak several languages with a fluency that allows him to be taken for a native speaker. His wealth that allowed his flamboyant style of living - always first class hotels and beautiful women - was generated from his brokerage of business deals acting as an agent rather than the principle.
His motivation is ascribed to pure avarice and greed. But this does not square exactly with his active involvement in financing and supporting the Tsarist forces against the Bolshevics - going well beyond the spying brief from MI5 and leading eventually to his capture and execution by the Bolshevics - lured back to Russia with the conviction that his access to influential people would protect him.
Andrew Cook, a professional historian, works assiduously from original sources quoting documents and sources others have not tapped. Indeed he takes pride in debunking what has clearly been a large amount of literature that has been generated by Reilly which Cook clearly despises as anecdotal. This attention to sources can make the book rather turgid in places but creates an impression of authority.