It seems that all good spy novels have some, if not all, of the following predictable elements: the lovable rogue coming to the aid of his country, the villain with the ingenious plan to bring down the enemy of his Fatherland, and the daring night drop over enemy territory. Let’s not forget the Byzantine plot to hide the secret cipher system and the sabotage of a factory critical to the war effort.
And of course, any spy novel worth its salt must have romance. Frequently the lovable rogue falls for the beautiful girl who may, or may not, be collaborating with the enemy. (Should he tell her the truth and risk being exposed as a spy?)
All of these devices are common and perhaps a little dull. One element that would help raise such a book a rung to two over the pedestrian crowd is the element of doubt. For instance, is the lovable rogue truly fighting for his country, or is he really a traitor? Agent Zigzag by Ben Macintyre has all the expected ingredients, that helpful element of doubt, and one monumental surprise that puts it at the top of the heap; it’s not a novel, it’s a biography.
In 1939 Eddie Chapman was arrested for “housebreaking and larceny” and imprisoned on the island of Jersey. In less than a year Germany had occupied the island. Chapman immediately offered his many illegal skills to the Third Reich. The Abwehr, the German foreign intelligence and espionage service, was convinced that a native Englishman would make the perfect spy. He could sabotage plane factories, gather results on bombing missions, transmit information to his German masters while blending perfectly into the general population. The fact that he was an accomplished safe-cracker and well rounded criminal was an added bonus.
The Abwehr spent three months training Chapman in the black arts of sabotage, poisoning and secret communications. The German Air Force then arranged for a diversionary bombing raid over London, and Chapman was dropped out of a specially designed Focke-Wulf plane over the village of Mundford. A few minutes before midnight, December 16, 1942, Chapman parachuted onto English soil ready to spy, bomb and poison his way into the history books. And by the end of the war Agent zigzag had destroyed the De Havilland plane Aircraft Company at Hatfield, smuggled himself back into Europe via Portugal, destroyed the troop ship City of Lancaster with explosives disguised as lumps of coal, seduced a member of the Norwegian underground and finally parachuted back into Great Britain.
Except he didn’t. The De Havilland plant continued to produce the Mosquito bombers that so bedeviled the Luftwaffe and the City of Lancaster was never sunk and survived the war. (However, he most definitely did seduce a member of the Norwegian underground.) So how did Chapman manage to convince the Germans that his fiction was reality? I could tell you, but I always hate it when someone tells me how the novel ends and this is one biography you don’t want spoiled.