Top critical review
A fleeting peak into the life of a cryptic spy-master
20 July 2017
The subtitle of this fascinating biography proclaims that Maxwell Knight to the MI5's greatest spy-master. While this may or may not be the case, Knight - a leading light at MI5 between the 1930s and 1950s was incontrovertibly the strangest. Charismatic, funny and possessed of an instinctive talent for the arcane act of running spies, Knight was also an animal obsessive who in his 50s became a well known BBC natural history presenter. He shared his home with a reeking menagerie - with various exotic pets including a Himalayan monkey and a bear named Bessie. He had three marriages, but consummated none of them, probably because he was terrified of sex. And despite helping them break up Nazi spy rings during the War, he was himself an enthusiastic fascist who maintained such sympathies until at least the 1930s. Henry Hemming has done a superb job of peeling back the layers covering this most veiled of spies, even if he doesn't quite solved the conundrum posed by his subject.
Knight's espionage career had unlikely origins. After a stint in as a dissolute jazz musician, he was recruited in his early 20s by a private intelligence agency, who set him the task of infiltrating the British Fascisti, the UK's first self-proclaimed fascist party. Knight rose quickly, becoming the party's director of intelligence and helping to recruit a young William Joyce (later the Nazi propagandist Lord Haw-Haw). The fact that he sympathized with the views of those on whom he reported must have made his rise easier. In 1931, aged 31, he was recruited by MI5, and negotiated permission to run his section - M section from his flat, with his monkeys in attendance Hemming's thoughtful biography brings to life an endearing figure whose fame within MI5 lasted well into the Cold War.
Actually, despite his reputation as a master spook, Knight's record was patchy. He was easily distracted by his hobbies, which also included writing pulp fiction and dabbling in the occult. And as section head at MI5 he failed, for instance, to expose the Cambridge spies recruited by the Soviets. While Hemming's biography is rich in sub-plot and cameo characters, its main character remains shadowy. Ironically, it is only in fiction that Knight today stands in plain sight. As one of the models for Ian Fleming's 'M' and for Jack Brotherhood in John le Carré's A Perfect Spy.