So here we are in the morally ambivalent noughties looking back at the morally ambivalent forties. Increasingly we have learned that wars have heroes and villains on both sides (think Abu Ghraib; the Balkans; the Killing Fields; etc.) and that there are degrees of heroism and villainry. Perhaps because of the result, and the propaganda, and the Commando comics, we used to think of World War II as a simple good (Brits) v bad (Nazis) episode. Then we found out about Schindler, the Nazis' Mr Fixit who quietly set about saving Jewish families. Now we find the equally egregious Eddie Chapman: a violent English criminal who saved the lives of thousands of Londoners and helped to shorten the War. Like Schindler, pre-war, Chapman was an energetic chancer, perhaps surprised when the greater villainy of Nazism shook his sleeping conscience into action.
Ben Macintyre's characters positively leap off the page; most of all Chapman himself, plus his English and German handlers, and wonderfully-drawn cameos including the Enigma codebreakers, a rough-sleeping brainiac spymaster, a pair of hilariously world-weary London "minders", an explosive aristocrat, and a celebrity magician. Other assorted gangsters, molls and fellow agents, on every front of the war, seem to have had shared a love of partying hard as conflict raged around them - wartime images of austerity have tended to make us forget that, when they knew that any of them could die at any time, the risk-seekers chose to live life to the colourful max. Looking for a pattern to resolve the contradictions of Chapman's c.v., Macintyre repeatedly points to his phenomenal energy - it makes sense that a man with such an all-consuming love of life would pour this energy into dangerous pursuits. Whether, at any given moment, Chapman invested his energies in criminal "enterprises", libido, sabotage, or escapology, seemed rather to depend on how he made sense of the opportunities (and especially rewards) that presented themselves.
In amongst all the physical explosions, this book also explodes a number of tired conventions:
First, that all Nazis were sociopaths or psychopaths. We may already know that many Germans were hostile to Hitler but couldn't find a way to depose him directly. Yet Macintyre's fresh and empathetic account of Zigzag's German spymaster, Graumann / von Groning shows a quite different view of the Abwehr (think German MI5) than the one we might have expected; Graumann emerges as a cultured gentleman, possibly plotting deeper than his superiors realised, yet all the while flawed (like Chapman) by a tendency towards self-destruction.
There are other big and pleasant surprises: Best of all that, for all their efficiency with weaponry, the Nazis' espionage effort was, frankly, rubbish and no match for the very much greater ingenuity and applied skills of its British counterpart.
And again, although much has been written about the strategic influence of Bletchley and Enigma on the course of the War, I'd say that this book really shows, perhaps for the first time, the benefits of the Most Secret Sources findings for espionage work on the ground - effective fake-sabotage deceptions, the wholesale dumping of Nazi V-2 bombs, and the "feint" that cleared the way for D-Day to succeed. To modern eyes, the Zigzag handlers seem to have made unbelievably creative use of the Enigma eavesdroppings. How many of the modern world's risk-averse governments would have the balls to take such creative risks? Churchill earns our fresh respect with these disclosures.
There's also a fascinating, but subtly stated, commentary on the rather ugly undercurrent of class war within WWII British intelligence: The sense that some "gentlemen" didn't want Chapman, as an oik, to be allowed to succeed - and then, riotously, he succeeded for a long time in spite of this other, more pernicious, form of sabotage deployed against him. The pleasant surprise element here though is to find that the most senior handlers, Oxbridge men to the core, were his strongest supporters: They saw through to the "diamond in the rough" and rallied to protect him against the career saboteurs, to the extent that Churchill (himself a highly intelligent toff, of course) gave Zigzag a personal thumbs-up.
Among its many narrative surprises, and surprise connections, the book joyously saves until near the end an appearance by one I. Fleming (and his fictional alter ego) - deliciously also fixing the celluloid persona of a certain S. Connery to a real-world reference point. Riveting stuff, especially if, like me, you enjoy spotting when the worlds of fiction and reality overlap.
Actually this story is in many ways better than the best fiction - while it's self-evidently grounded in very thorough research, here, unlike so many other "history / biography" books, the facts never slow down the narrative drive. It's a thriller, none the worse (much better, in fact) for being a true story and it kept me keep reading well into the small hours to find out how it all ended. Get it! Then get it for all your friends, they'll thank you for it!