In 1850 when William Melville was born in Sneem, Co. Kerry, there was no British secret service. There was the Secret Vote, used by the Foreign Office to pay the pensions of retired agents, code-breakers and letter-openers and as an embassy slush fund; and there were intelligence departments of the War Office and the Admiralty that grew and shrank according to need. But there was no permanent, established capacity for espionage or counter-espionage, and no secret — or, as they came to be called, political — police.
By the time Melville died in 1917 there was M15 for counter-espionage, MI6 for espionage and the police Special Branch for conducting investigations and arrests. Melville, known within the intelligence establishment as M and in public as ‘the King’s detective’, was either formative or instrumental in the early work of all three. He was also a friend and admirer of Houdini and the case officer of Sidney Reilly, the so-called ‘Ace of Spies’.
The impoverished baker’s son from Ireland joined the Metropolitan Police in 1872. After early years amongst the rough and tumble of daily crime in south London — and it was pretty rough — he became one of the founding officers of the new Special Irish Branch. Established in response to the 1881 Fenian bombing campaign, its remit soon broadened to include the international anarchists who were later to be brilliantly and pathetically evoked by Conrad in The Secret Agent. Special Branch work depended on agents and Melville was clearly a gifted recruiter and handler. ‘Above all,’ he wrote in a brief memoir, ‘the mysterious manner should be avoided. It only engenders distrust. A frank and apparently open style gains confidence … people as a rule are not averse to seeing you again. One can joke and humbug much in a jovial manner; one can talk a great deal and say nothing.’
He was posted to Le Havre to liaise with the French. During five years there he learned the language well enough to interrogate in it and to persuade foreigners he was a native. (His written English, incidentally, was testimony to a level of basic education sadly uncommon now.) He returned to find VIP protection added to Special Branch duties and over ensuing years received plaudits (and gifts) from everyone he protected, including British royalty, the Kaiser (whose life he probably saved), the Tsarvitch and the Shah of Persia. (The latter solemnly advised decapitation of a British nobleman who was visibly wealthier than the royal family.)
Meanwhile, ‘ordinary’ work continued and in 1893 Melville became Head of Special Branch. He was outstandingly successful, combining good basic police work, shrewd understanding and astute public relations to become not only a terror to those we now call terrorists but a respected public figure. His methods, at times, would not bear contemporary scrutiny: he ‘fitted up’ the dynamite plotters of Walsall, harassed the bereaved and arrested a harmless inventor who, in response to a £10,000 reward offered by the government of New South Wales for a method of destroying rabbits, patented small bomblets to be tied to captured rabbits which were then supposed to scamper back into their warrens and blow up the others. He also allowed Sidney Reilly to escape charges of counterfeiting and turned a blind eye to a murder Reilly very likely committed.
But the overwhelming majority of Melville’s victims were guilty and his career was characterised more by firmness, fairness, hard work, loyalty and, increasingly, understanding and humour. When proven wrong, he took it on the chin, as when Houdini visited him in Scotland Yard in response to a challenge to escape handcuffs. Melville, Houdini said, grabbed his arms, encircled them round a pillar, snapped the cuffs tightly round his wrists and headed for the door, saying he’d be back in a couple of hours. ‘I’ll go with you,’ said Houdini as the reopened cuffs fell to the floor. The astonished Melville shook his hand, gave him a written testimonial and became a life-long supporter.
In 1903 there was surprise at the sudden retirement of what the Times called ‘the most celebrated detective of the day’. In fact, he wasn’t retiring but transferring to the War Office payroll in order to co-ordinate the recruitment and running of foreign and domestic agents. There was to be no formal British intelligence service until 1909, when MI5 and MI6 were founded as the Secret Service Bureau, but in the years leading up to that the nascent service was Melville himself. Partly with Houdini’s help he became a master lock-picker and often operated under disguise, entering suspect premises as a sanitary inspector. After 1909 he worked mainly for the MI5 part of the Bureau, making a major contribution to that service’s first world war successes (arguably comparable to its outstanding second world war record).
In the early part of this book Andrew Cook affects a jarringly conversational style — people go for ‘a bite and a jar’, rooms are ‘comfy’, a man ‘had no life’ or ‘blew into town’, ‘Phew’ — but later he drops it and lets the strengths of his book show through. This well-researched and well-told story not only contributes significantly to the intelligence history of the period but gives an insight into how and why the apparatus of state security in this country has been generally effective. It is also an objective, credible and sympathetic portrayal of a remarkable man.
Alan Judd’s biography of the founder of MI6, The Quest for C, is published by HarperCollins.