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Ace of Spies: The True Story Of Sidney Reilly (Revealing History (Paperback)) Paperback – 1 Feb 2004
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Like Bond, Reilly drove the fastest and most luxurious cars, enjoyed fine living, and had numerous affairs, although his conquests had more material motives than 007's --The Times
Brilliantly cuts through the webs of lies that Reilly spun...a fascinating tale of dark deed, treachery and sculduggery. --BBC History Magazine
Makes poor 007 look like a bit of a wuss --The Mail on Sunday
About the Author
Andrew Cook is an author and TV consultant with a degree in history and ancient history and a former programme director of the Hansard Scholars Program, University of London. The author has written for the Times, the Guardian, the Independent, BBC History Magazine, and History Today. His has also written On His Majesty's Secret Service, To Kill Rasputin, Prince Eddy, Cash for Honours, and The Great Train Robbery.
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There is surprisingly little on the women in his life, with all the wives pretty much dismissed after the initial glow of their relationship had worn off. (Maybe that was how Reilly saw them too). The mistresses - even the longer lived ones - are given even shorter shrift. Pepita's attempts to discover the truth about Reilly's disappearance, - which take up half of an admittedly over-egged ghostwritten book by herself and Reilly - are not mentioned at all. Even more surprisingly, there is not that much on the Reilly/Lockhart plot to overthrow the Bolsheviks, which would have changed world history massively had it ever come off and quite a lot on his commercial dealings in the frst 15 years of the century, which are interesting but not as exciting as trying to change the world order.
While Robin Bruce Lockhart indulged freely in myth-making in the most famous account of Reilly's life (`Reilly: Ace of Spies'), and while Spence was over-enamoured of speculation and conspiracy theories, Cook sticks firmly to the facts as far as they can be established. Where he does indulge in a cautious bit of hypothesising, this is clearly flagged up. The result is a much diminished picture of Sidney Reilly. This is no super-spy who juggled with the fates of nations; this is a nasty little conman and psychopath who didn't hesitate to kill people who got in his way, and who came to the sticky end he so richly deserved. One really does not get the impression Cook particularly likes his subject (although he grudgingly admires his courage whilst facing his death). But in bringing Reilly firmly down to earth, he makes his version of events all the more believable.
This book certainly has its faults. The title is misleading, for a start. A better one might have been `Ace of Spies, My Foot!' as Cook doesn't think much of Reilly's achievements in the field of espionage, concluding he wasn't "in the conventional sense, a spy at all". And, as ever with these print-on-demand efforts, the quality of the printing, binding and proofreading leaves a lot to be desired, although moving the first paragraph of the preface to the end of the introduction is a new one on me.
Unlike a previous reviewer, I didn't find I needed to read each chapter three times, but there are definitely occasions when the story is clumsily put together. Cook's description of the pivotal Reilly Plot (or Lockhart Plot) is particularly skimpy and confused. For instance, he introduces a pair of Cheka agents as Buikis and Sprogis one moment, and refers to them as Schmidkhen and Bredis two sentences later, without thinking to explain that the latter are the aliases of the former.
My biggest whinge is that Cook seems unable to distinguish between the important and the trivial. He has been exceedingly thorough in tracking down every last shred of evidence and, boy, does he want us to know it! Thus we are treated to pages of excerpts from the archives of Blohm & Voss which concern Reilly haggling for a bigger consultant's fee, as well as the full text of a series of repetitive letters from Margaret Reilly to the authorities as she attempts to track down - or, rather, get money out of - her errant husband at the end of the War. Surely this kind of stuff could have been relegated to an appendix if not a footnote?
However, if this is not the final word on Sidney Reilly, it is in my opinion the most reliable single book on this enigmatic individual to date.
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.
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was a bounder, a con artist come chancer and not to be...Read more
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