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Between Silk and Cyanide
Richard Bernstein - The New York Times
...[A]n enthralling book, one full of an eccentric charm....It is...consistently informed by an understated kind of moral passion, and that makes it not only a fascinating memoir but an inspiring one as well....Marks also tells the stories of several other agents he briefed or trained, and his portraits are always deft and touching.
Dick Stafford - The New York Times Book Review
...[A] spellbinding real-life thriller [that] presents a compelling insider's view of the shadow war....On D-Day the resistance performed miracles. That it did so owed much to Marks's work on ciphers. In the end, triumph outweighed tragedy. But the price was high. Read Leo Marks, and weep.
Occasionally in the novels of John Le Carre, spies grappling with moral compromise remember their legendary precursors, the agents who infiltrated France, Norway, the Netherlands, even Germany, during World War II.the bright stars he describes in 1974's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy as "that unrepeatable, fading generation who still, thirty years later, gave the Circus its dying flavor of adventure.' These wartime agents were urbane, reckless, effortlessly fluent in arcane knowledge and in foreign tongues. If they survived, it was by ingenuity and luck. If they died, it was heroically in obscurity and torture. They scattered such a radiance of charm and wit and bravery that readers might be pardoned for thinking they were creatures merely of fiction or over-fond remembrance. But as Between Silk and Cyanide makes quite clear, these were in fact real.if extraordinary.men and women. And although he spent the war in Britain as a code maker, the author of this fascinating memoir, Leo Marks, belongs among their mythic number.
At the age of twenty-two, Marks was recognized by Britain's Special Operations Executive as a cryptographer of genius. He had first discovered coding as a child, studying volumes on cryptography in his parents' famous bookstore at 88 Charing Cross Road. His parents believed he had a dull civilian job at the Ministry of Labour; and an anonymous neighbor sent him the white feather that symbolized shirkers and cowards. Mean while, Marks, disregarding insofar as it was possible the bumbling of the usual chain of command, had set himself several tasks. One was to crack the code used by DeGaulle's London government inexile, which he did rather easily. Another was to find a replacement for the dangerously outmoded "poem codes' that were used at the beginning of the war. These depended on each agent memorizing a verse."Every little breeze, whispers Louise,' "The boy stood on the burning deck,' "Hickory Dickery Dock'.and selecting words from it to use as a key. Its strength was that there was no code book to capture; its weakness was that this method of encoding generated so many errors that messages could be practically indecipherable, sometimes taking as many as thirty-eight thousand attempts to crack. Worse.and here is the cyanide of the title.the poem could be discovered through torture. There were supposed to be codes hidden within codes, so that agents could alert the recipients back home of their capture, but these too could of course be forced out of operatives.
So alert was Marks to the nuances of coding, that he judged the bona fides of an agent not simply on these security checks, but on a normal pattern of mistakes that became a sort of agent's trademark. A long series of errorless messages received from agents dropped into the Netherlands, code-named "Beetroot Parsnip,' "Potato' and other denizens of the kitchen garden, aroused grave misgivings. Coding was done in difficult conditions, in danger and in haste. The absence of mistakes was simply not possible, unless the network was blown. But, so lax were certain departments, writes Marks, that it was useless to inform the Dutch section of his suspicions.
Meanwhile, while he pursued this problem, there were agents for the rest of Europe and the Middle East to brief, to befriend, to be dazzled by. There was chirpy, impish Violette Szabo, a tiny Cockney gamine who rapidly became one of the most expert coders. "I also discovered,' Marks adds in a footnote, "that she was the deadliest shot her training school had yet encountered. Since she rarely had enough money to buy cigarettes, she used to win them at shooting galleries.' Another was the extraordinarily beautiful Noor Inayat Khan, the Parisian-raised daughter of a Sufi prince who had trained her to such a strict standard of honesty that when she was stopped by a British policeman who asked her where she was going, she blurted, "I'm training to be an agent. Here's my radio.want me to show it to you?' Somehow cured of the worst of her ingenuousness, she, like Violette, was sent to France. Like most agents, both were eventually discovered; Violette was executed at Ravens bruck, Noor at Dachau.
But before death or capture, they achiev ed much. Marks de tails some of the highly specialized devices agents took with them to maximize the damage they could do, devised under the supervision of a former art director at the Elstree Film Studios, Elder Wills. There were cunningly camouflaged poisons and explosives, including what Marks calls "an exotic collection of excretia'.hand-painted, explosive-filled, plastic forms modeled on waste products gleaned from the Royal Zoological Society. Mock horse manure was destined for Europe, faux camel dung for North Africa, simulated elephant droppings for the Far East. Each was designed, when trodden on or driven over, "to go off with explosions more violent than the ones which had produced it.' There were also, writes Marks, exercising the Saharan dryness of understatement that makes this book such a pleasure to read, "fountain pens guaranteed to write off whoever unscrewed them and loaves which it would be unwise to regard as the staff of life.'
Marks, who wrote the screenplay for a considerably more cold-blooded work, the creepy 1960 film classic Peeping Tom (directed by Michael Powell), in this memoir exhibits enormous warmth and respect for his comrades, while sharing his old friends' habit of downplaying his part in events. The result is that the unrelieved pressure of ego, which usually weighs on the reader of memoirs, is entirely absent. The six hundred pages of Silk and Cyanide, with the brief, intense era of secret heroism they document, pass rapidly, buoyantly, enthrallingly away. It is hard to come to their end without regret. .Penelope Mesic
A well-paced war diary, Markss memoir traces the strategically vital creation of secure codes for Allied agents operating in Nazi-occupied territories. Marks was in his early 20s during the war, a civilian with military rank in Britains elite Special Operations Executive, a prodigy immersed in a pasty world of subterranean old men. Though Marks rarely ventured out of his basement office, his book builds a delicate tension as he describes working frantically to develop codes that the Nazis could neither crack nor imitate, as they did with the standard Allied poem code. Markss contributions to such historically significant events as the destruction of Norsk Hydro, the heavy water plant on which the Germans pinned their hopes for atomic weapons, and to the concealment of preparations for D-Day, are effectively balanced against such workaday concerns as finding quantities of silk onto which codes could be photographed. Although Markss account is more anecdotal than researched, his unique position as chief developer of Britains secure communications, along with an impishness that led him to break De Gaulles secret French code (off-limits to the non-French Allies) or rib his older compatriots (Davies nodded so hard he almost lost a jowl) give his book an authoritative and laconic punch.
Library Journal - William D. Bushnell, USMC (ret.), Brunswick, ME
With dry British humor and all of the suspense of a spy thriller, screenwriter Marks tells of his remarkable career as a cryptologist with British Intelligence during World War II. As a codemaker and codebreaker for the super-secret Special Operations Executive (SOE) in London, Marks played a major role in the handling of covert operations throughout Occupied Europe. Marks was a wizard at cryptography but had little regard for authority or the lumbering wartime bureaucracy that often stymied his genius. On a whim, he broke General de Gaulles secret code, uncovering a startling and dangerous revelation. He invented a letter one-time pad code printed on silk that revolutionized encoded radio transmissions and ensured the operational security of SOEs agents. Most interesting, however, is how Marks discovered that the Dutch underground had been penetrated and compromised by the German Gestapo. Although the book is twice as long as it needs to be, this is the amazing true story of the little-known SOE intelligence section as seen by a man who lived the codemakers war. Recommended for all public and academic libraries