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Between Silk and Cyanide: A Codemaker’s War 1941–1945 Paperback – 3 Apr 2000
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The secret of SOE's code war revealed for the first time...'As a comedy about the British at war, Leo Marks's book ranks with the fiction of Anthony Powell and Evelyn Waugh.' Observer * This is the witty, engrossing and highly personalised account of Leo Marks's experiences during the Second World War. He worked for the SOE -- responsible for placing, monitoring and communicating with all British secret agents working in enemy territory. Marks played a crucial role, re-inventing how agents sent coded messages back to London and using every trick in the book to get his way. * Between Silk and Cyanide is a great mixture of high level espionage, cynical commentary on government power struggles, human feeling for the agents risking everything for the war effort, and a keen sense of the absurd. 'Leo Marks never made it into the field himself. But his memoirs are as explosive as any sabotage conducted by those who did...Leo Marks never once loses contact with the personal courage and sufferings of the agents in the field, the reality which so shames the Whitehall warriors in the eyes of posterity...His tale is by turns fiery, scabrous, infuriating and deeply tragic.The eyes mist over, the throat constricts; the heart thumps. I found Between Silk and Cyanide impossible to put down.' DONALD CAMERON WATT, Independent 'Irrepressibly witty and readable chronicle of a Candide in the madhouse of secret bureaucracy...It's made up of reconstructed dialogue and amazing anecdote. Many readers who think they are allergic to Maths will be astounded to find themselves reading and even grasping the devilish poetry of figure-ciphering...But at the centre of the Book is the black mystery of the worst disaster of Britain's secret war. The fun and satire of Between Silk and Cyanide sparkle against a dark background of anger and grief.' Neal Ascherson, Observer
From the Back Cover
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. In 'Between Silk and Cyanide, 'his critically acclaimed account of his time in SOE, Marks tells how he revolutionized the code-making techniques of the Allies, trained some of the most famous agents dropped into France including Violette Szabo and 'the White rabbit', and why he wrote haunting verse including his famous 'The Life I Have' poem. He reveals for the first time the disastrous dimensions of the code war between SOE and the Germans in Holland; how the Germans were fooled into thinking a Secret army was operating in the Fatherland itself; and how and why he broke General de Gaulle's secret code. Both thrilling and poignant, Marks's book is truly one of the last great Second World War memoirs.
"FASCINATING AND POIGNANT . . . IF YOU ONLY BUY ONE BOOK THIS YEAR, MAKE IT THIS."
PAUL ROUTLEDGE, 'Daily Mirror'
"Leo Marks never made it into the field himself. But his memoirs are as explosive as any sabotage conducted by those who did. Compulsive reading . . . Never once loosing contact with the personal courage and sufferings of the agents in the field, Mark's tale is by turns fiery, scabrous, infuriating and deeply tragic. The eyes mist over, the throat constricts; the heart thumps. I found 'Between Silk and Cyanide' impossible to put down."
DONALD CAMERON WATT, 'Independent'
'"Between silk and Cyanide' is a mesmerising account of World War II. 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 to unravel the puzzle myself and I found it difficult to put the book down until the drama had come to an end."
"An irrepressibly witty and readable chronicle of a Candide in the madhouse of secret bureaucracy. As a comedy about the British at war, this book ranks with the fiction of Anthony Powell and Evelyn Waugh . . . , the fun and satire of 'Between Silk and Cyanide' sparkle against a dark background of anger and grief."
NEAL ASCHERSON, 'Observer'
"A brilliantly funny, savage, often desperately moving story."
ELIZABETH BUCHAN, 'The Times' Book of the Year
'Between Silk and Cyanide' is the witty, engrossing wartime story of Leo Marks, a cryptographer of genius who transformed code-making and code breaking for SOE from 1942 to 1945, and went on to write the script of the cult film, 'Peeping Tom'See all Product description
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This original book by Leo Marks is about his wartime career in the Special Operations Executive and images of some of its agents are used on the cover. He was not a field agent as were most of its personnel but a backroom boffin. Coming from a family business of antiquarian booksellers in London's Charing Cross Road, he was a self-taught cryptographer of considerable skill although then only 22 years old and an amateur unlike the cryptanalysts working at Bletchley Park who were mostly Maths graduates from the major universities, PhDs or professors in Maths or Physics.
Although there are many other factual books about SOE they tend to be about its field agents, some of whose names became known post-war, and their operations; the backroom functions such as those of the cryptographer or the designers of the specialised tools, radios and devices used by the agents tend to be often overlooked. Without those backroom personnel SOE's functionality would have been rather limited and many of their tasks made more difficult or impossible. There are also other books about cryptography but they are mostly theoretical and few are similar in content to this.
There are a few included illustrations but they have relevance and do not overload or detract from the author's story. For its different insight into SOE, backroom rather than frontline, this could be a valuable addition to a collection of wartime histories. It would also complement any other book or books that cover SOE's fieldwork, or indeed, cryptography.
A very different take on its subjects and a very worthwhile addition to a book collection. It does not rely upon mathematical theory and is therefore very user-friendly.
He was the only child of indulgent parents, with whom he lived throughout the war, earning the unwarranted suspicions of neighbours who thought he was a draft dodger. He worked prodigious hours, fortified by his mother's black market sandwiches and cream cakes.
The story he tells is immensely important, and so far as I know he is the only cryptographer who also briefed agents face to face, that has written about his experiences. His writing style is odd, rather that of a pain in the arse sixth former. Yet he was good enough to write film scripts after the war. His poems, used early on as the basis for codes, range from the frankly pornographic to the outstanding. One, 'The Life that I Have', is deservedly famous. The poem was originally written for a girl friend, and he describes how it came to be used by one of the most celebrated agents.
He is good at conveying, in quite measured tones, the mounting fury he felt as he came to realise the extent to which the Dutch secret army had been compromised by the Nazis. The few people with whom he was able to discuss his suspicions did not believe him, and he was forbidden to speak to those who might have believed him and acted. Fifty years after the war, questions of whether this disaster was down to cynicism, betrayal, or incompetence were still a live issue.
He goes into some detail about a few of the agents he briefed, including Yeo-Thomas, Odette Hallowes, Noor Inayat Khan, and Violette Szabo. He admired all of them, was awestruck by Noor, and fell for Violette.
All a long time ago, but not that long. I knew Noor's brother, so feel a tenuous connection.
As for what happened to Violette's chess set - well that is one of many points where I had to pause to regain my composure.
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It is a spellbinding read and a must for all interested in this period of our...Read more