Agent Zigzag by Ben McIntyre

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Spy novels so easily veer into the realm of pastiche: eccentric agents, ludicrous code names, dodgy disguises and double crossing. This book has all of it by the bucketful.

But what is interesting about this book is that it’s not fiction. This is the biography of Eddie Chapman, small time crook turned double agent against the Germans in WWII.

Chapman is imprisoned in Jersey at the outbreak of war. He gets picked up by German spy agency Natshwe, trained up and parachuted back into Britain for some serious sabotage work. He then defects back to Queen and Country to misinform and spy on the Germans. And so Chapman goes back and forth over the channel, as his loyalty the zig-zags (geddit?) between the two sides, between moral man doing his duty and unscrupulous criminal.

The book is a little light on the nuances of character and human touches- the people seem a little 2D, almost stereotypes. It’s lacks the relatability that makes a brilliant biography. But the story is so sensational and powerful that maybe you really don’t need it.

Actually, my favourite part of the book is the epilogue and afterword, which show what these larger than life figures go on to do after the war ends. It’s fascinating to see these characters meld back into the mundane, people you could know in real life: teachers, hoteliers, layabouts.

My favourite fate is that of Chapman’s Norwegian girlfriend: a glamorous maiden aunt, still drinking and dancing in her old age. Very relatable.

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