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The best books on Spies

recommended by Ben Macintyre

The Spy and the Traitor by Ben Macintyre

The Spy and the Traitor
by Ben Macintyre


The British public-school system, with its hidden homosexuality and feelings of loneliness, encouraged subterfuge and led to a generation of great spy writers and spies, suggests author and journalist Ben Macintyre. He picks the best books on spies.

The Spy and the Traitor by Ben Macintyre

The Spy and the Traitor
by Ben Macintyre

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You’re recommending the best books on spies and number one on your list is The Double-Cross System. This is a book about double agents in World War II, isn’t it?

Yes, it’s written by a man called John Masterman, who was an Oxford academic and historian and latterly became Provost of Worcester College, Oxford. In the Second World War, he was head of something called the Twenty Committee, the double-cross committee – it was an elaborate joke, because two Xs are 20 in Roman numerals. Their primary function was, when German and other Axis spies were intercepted, to work out how to use them as double agents. They were all picked up and offered a pretty stark choice between collaborating or execution. The unlucky 14 chose trial and execution. The rest all agreed to be double agents, and this was a critical part of the war.

It’s one of the great unsung victories of the Second World War. The double agents were used to convey a vast quantity of lies to the Germans. This network played a critical part in the run-up to D-Day by throwing huge amounts of disinformation which was swallowed more or less whole by the Germans.

Masterman was in charge of this committee which decided what could safely be fed to the Germans. They fed a combination of what they called ‘chicken-feed’, true information which was essentially non-nutritious, and a smattering of completely false information that would lead them in the wrong direction.

Masterman’s account of the double-cross system is the definitive account and, although it’s written in quite a dry way, it’s absolutely thrilling. It was very controversial when it was published because it was a complete revelation and the head of MI5 did not want Masterman to publish this still highly classified stuff. Masterman decided that it was in the public interest to publish it and he published it first in the States to make sure that it did come out. Many criticised him very vociferously for doing it.

Had he not signed the Official Secrets Act?

He had, and he bust it. And it was a very brave thing to do. In the end, the authorities decided it was such a success they couldn’t prosecute him. It would have been very odd to prosecute him because he was singing the praises of the security services at a time when their reputation was at rock-bottom. In 1976, we’d just had the revelations about Philby, Burgess and Maclean [who were Soviet double agents]. He wanted to make the point that, in fact, Britain had made this incredible breakthrough which really helped us win the war and nobody knew about it.

It’s a wonderful book. It’s just been reissued in a Folio edition with a new introduction by M R D Foot, and it stands the test of time. It’s still as exciting to read as it was when it written and, I suspect, as when it was done. It’s really just an extended version of a long history that Masterman wrote himself at the end of the war for MI5’s consumption. It wasn’t supposed to leave the building but he kept a copy. Masterman was himself a novelist. He wrote some rather successful detective novels, and that sort of writing infuses the way The Double-Cross System is written, which is why I love it.

Let’s move on now to your second choice, Christopher Andrew’s The Defence of the Realm, which is the authorised history of MI5, unlike Masterman’s.

This is the compendious, brilliant, chest-crushing, 1,000-page authorised history. It’s an authorised, not an official, history, which means that it’s authorised to the extent that Andrew was allowed access to all 400,000 MI5 files. There then began a debate with MI5 about what he was allowed to write. So it is a partial history; it cannot be the full history. Yet it contains astonishing stories, really remarkable insights into how MI5 was run.

In this country, we’ve always regarded MI5 as being a slightly dangerous operation that spies on private individuals, and a lot of mythology has grown up around it as a result. What Andrew does brilliantly is to give the lie to a lot of the conspiracy theory, the idea that this is a kind of rogue organisation that is not in control.

It reflects a particularly British sensibility. There’s a great sense of humour, a particular sort of character. There’s a hilarious bit in the book when the Bosch [the Germans] in 1917 are classified into different types of potential spies. There’s the AA which is ‘Absolutely Anglicised’, the BA which is ‘Bosch-Anglo’, and the BB which is ‘Bad Bosch’, which I completely love! It’s a strange world, chummy and clubby and quintessentially English, but the people in it weren’t dangerous, they were definitely doing their best. And there’s an honour to it, which is absolutely fascinating. The book brings that out brilliantly.

“Le Carré exemplifies the fact that spying and fiction-writing are not very different things”

There are wonderful eccentrics in there – a man that I particularly like called Maxwell Knight who went on to become a very famous BBC TV nature presenter but had run an extraordinary group of agents between the wars whose job was to penetrate fascist and communist circles. He was wildly eccentric, very homosexual, and he would wander around with his strange pets. He would take his pet bear, Bessie, for walks in Hyde Park. He wrote the definitive work on how to keep a gorilla. But he did a brilliant job of breaking up British fascism, for which he’s largely unknown in this country.

 No. 3 on your list is The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Is this the best John le Carré, do you reckon?

I think it sets the standard for all spy literature. It’s very hard to improve on The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. It’s the classic le Carré recipe of compromised individuals trying to find their way through a labyrinth of deception and self-deception and he’s set a standard there that no one’s really quite equalled. I think it’s very telling that the greatest writers of spy literature have all themselves been spies: Somerset Maugham, John le Carré, Ian Fleming, Graham Greene. And le Carré exemplifies the fact that spying and fiction-writing are not very different things. In both of them, the central element is to create a false world, and then try to lure either the reader or the enemy into it. That’s what The Spy Who Came in from the Cold does, and it’s about the moral confusions that come from this extraordinary capacity for self-deception and deception.

I suppose the other thing spies and novelists have in common is a real understanding of other people’s psychology. What makes le Carré’s novels so interesting is he really gets under people’s skin.

Yes, that’s exactly right. They are brilliant psychological works; they’re not just adventure stories. They are glimpses into the darker corners of the human heart and human motivation, and that’s the ultimate role of the novelist.

Book number 4 is The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers. Is this the first book in this genre, would you say?

Well, there’s some debate about it, but I think it is. It’s a ripping yarn, it’s just so exciting. I first read it when I was about ten, and I’ve re-read it periodically since and it combines two of the things that I love most. It’s a great thriller, but it’s also brilliant about sailing. And it was written tremendously early – it was published in 1903. He really invented a new way of writing about international affairs.

It was incredibly influential. It had a profound political effect because it pointed up the fears about Britain being unprepared for war with Germany. The essential plot is about a man who stumbles across a German plan to invade Britain and it woke up a generation to the fears of German militarism. It’s terrifically old-fashioned in lots of ways: the main character is called Carruthers. I sometimes wonder what happened to those people called Carruthers, Cholmondeley and Montague with their long moustaches, who fought the good fight. I suspect the answer is they didn’t breed very much.

And they died in the First World War.

Yes, and those who were left died in the Second World War. But it combines derring-do, open air and a kind of lovely, thumping sense of duty that is very British as well. It sets the tone for an awful lot of what follows. I don’t think we’d have had James Bond in quite the same way if we hadn’t had Carruthers first.

OK, finally we have Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale, then. Why that one?

I think it’s the best of them, and it’s wonderful because it reveals what I think is the essential Bond. The film Bond is very, very different from the character that Ian Fleming invented. The real character was unknowable. There’s something rather creepy and peculiar about the original James Bond and you get that in buckets in Casino Royale. He’s a tough man and he’s absolutely ruthless. He’s a rather distant character and when Vesper commits suicide at the end, he feels nothing. He says: ‘The bitch is dead.’

It was 1953 and it was very remarkable for the time, because Bond was so cruel. He’s horribly tortured in the book and there are some very grim moments in it. But I also think it’s Fleming’s best writing. It wings along – it’s very hard to stop reading. It’s also brilliant at place. He manages to summon up the smoky stench of a casino in a way that no one else has ever managed to do. And it was incredibly glamorous. Here was Britain emerging from the depredations of war in a time of great austerity and here was a character on an apparently limitless expense account, having guilt-free sex and ordering dry martinis in the most glamorous places. It was a wonderful bit of escapism for the time. It’s a tour de force and by far his best novel.

Now all these books are about British spies. Is there an equivalent catalogue of great American spy books?

I don’t think the Americans do it nearly as well as we do. Yes, there are lots, but they’re all fairly derivative and I don’t think they have the same psychological depth. The British are particularly good not just at spying but at writing about spying. I think it’s to do with the natural theatricality of the British character and also a public-school system that for many generations encouraged a covering-up of what you really felt and thought. Hidden homosexuality, hidden feelings about loneliness. The British class system encouraged a certain amount of subterfuge.

I think there’s an imaginative flair too. If you look at Iraq and Afghanistan, most of the more elaborate ruses that have been pulled off are British. Nobody does it better.

February 10, 2019

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Ben Macintyre

Ben Macintyre

Ben Macintyre is Associate Editor at The Times and writes a weekly column on history, espionage, art, politics and foreign affairs. He is also a bestselling author of non-fiction history books.

Ben Macintyre’s books are some of the first in the genre of seriously researched, but popularly written, biographies of spies.

Ben Macintyre

Ben Macintyre

Ben Macintyre is Associate Editor at The Times and writes a weekly column on history, espionage, art, politics and foreign affairs. He is also a bestselling author of non-fiction history books.

Ben Macintyre’s books are some of the first in the genre of seriously researched, but popularly written, biographies of spies.