Posted by Simon Parke, 09 October 2017, 7.19am
In WW2, people gave up whatever they were doing, and had to do something else.
So maths dons became intelligence experts; housewives found themselves in bomb factories; accountants were now soldiers, and in the case of Eddie Chapman, a crook became a spy.
In Ben Macintyre’s Agent Zigzag, we meet a man who is careless, guiltless, godless, charming, rootless, generous, brave and dangerous. And also perhaps the most remarkable double-agent of the Second World War.
Lover, Traitor, Hero, Spy is the book’s strap line.
It’s not a story you could make up; it’s way more implausible even than the 2nd series of Dr Foster.
One reviewer says: ‘Had Macintyre presented this as a novel, it would have been reckoned far too unlikely.’
Testimony to this is the story of Chapman’s mate Anthony Faramus on the occupied island of Jersey. Arrested for a very minor crime, he eventually found himself in Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp, truly one of the worst.
Liberated half-dead in 1945, he was unable to make a life of it in England, went to Hollywood - end ended up as Clark Gable’s butler.
As I say, you couldn’t make it up and Macintyre doesn’t need to, as we follow Chapman’s story from English criminal (he is wanted by police for a number of armed robberies) to German spy.
Fearing execution in a brutal French fortress, (inexplicably moved there from Jersey) he offers his services to the Germans; and after fairly alcoholic training, he comes to England as a Nazi spy, parachuted in over Leicestershire.
Home again - though he is a homeless soul - he gives himself up and is ‘turned’ by the British into a double-agent, ‘Agent Zigzag’.
The snobby intelligence services have mixed feelings about this crooked low-life. Though some see his value and his skills – he can charm most people - and in due course, he is sent back to Germany to learn what he can.
It is hugely dangerous, of course. There’d be no kind end if suspected, which he was; or caught, which he wasn’t.
But whose side is he really on? Both British and Germans ask the same question. While endless women continue to fall for his charm – Betty, Freda, the Norwegian Dagmar et al.
It is a story of remarkable adventures featuring a man who needed them. Here is endless courage - but it’s compulsive courage in a man who had to be on the edge, who needed daring and danger to exist.
As his handlers discovered, if life ever became calm, he became depressed.
He loved money, whether stolen or earned. He was on the payroll of both the English and German intelligence services. But he was also generous with it, seeking always to look after his women financially.
Then after the war, with the Allied victory, people went back to doing what they did before.
Women discovered they weren’t important in the work place anymore. Maths dons went back to their Cambridge common rooms. Chapman’s M15 boss changed direction completely, dropping everything to become a sheep farmer in Worcestershire.
While Chapman returned to what he knew best: being an adventurous crook.
A mad war was to be followed by a differently mad peace.
I commend to you an excellent telling of an unbelievable/sad/funny war time saga, full of fascinating characters suddenly doing things they’d never done before.
Agent Zigzag is published by Bloomsbury.