The circus provides perfect cover for espionage

The hall was before me like a gigantic shell, packed with thousands and thousands of people. Even the arena was densely crowded. More than 5,600 tickets had been sold. Cyril Bertram Mills started his circus career accompanying his father to European horse fairs in the 1920s. The two of them were soon familiar faces on the German circus scene, travelling between shows to recruit acts for London. The Munich Circus was a particular draw; but sometimes they hired out their circular wooden building to other local acts. The opening quote of this review comes from Adolf Hitler. Mills was at first dismissive of the Munich Nazi party leader, pointing out

An Oxford spy ring is finally uncovered

Oxford and Cambridge have many rivalries, but espionage has always been a one-sided contest between the two. Burgess, Maclean, Philby, Blunt and Cairncross were all Cambridge men. If this were put in Boat Race terms, Cambridge would have rowed halfway to Hammersmith Bridge before the dark blues had their blades in the water. Charles Beaumont’s excellent A Spy Alone (Canelo, £9.99) tries to redress the imbalance with its depiction of a richly imagined Oxford-based spy ring. His protagonist, Simon Sharman, is a former agent turned private security consultant. An Oxford man, he is approached when a Russian oligarch decides to donate some of his millions to the university. Sharman is

Keeping a mistress was essential to John le Carré’s success

Adam Sisman is sensitive to the charge that a book about an author’s unknown mistresses is simply an exercise in prurience. ‘I am not one of those who believes sex explains everything,’ he declares defensively. An affair with the wife of a close friend led to the ménage depicted in The Naive and Sentimental Lover But this admirably concise volume justifies its title. Sub-themes such as the practice and ethics of biography, and the emotional toll taken by spying, run through it. But its core relates how, when writing his 2015 life of David Cornwell (John le Carré’s real name.) Sisman was prevailed upon to delete details of his subject’s

The astonishing truth about 007

The novel as a form is a fundamentally capitalist enterprise. It was invented at the same time as capitalism – Robinson Crusoe tots up his situation in the form of double-entry bookkeeping. Its interests dwell on the disparate and unequal natures of human beings and feed off rivalry, social transformation, moneymaking, profit and loss. No rigid feudal society has managed to create an effective school of novelists; and having once struggled through Cement, Fyodor Gladkov’s classic of socialist Soviet literature, I would say that systems dedicated to forcible equality also struggle.   Evident, astonishingly, is just how much in the novels is based on events Fleming had witnessed or engineered

What we know about Beijing’s spies

32 min listen

Two years ago, Richard Moore, head of MI6, said that China was now the organisation’s ‘single greatest priority’. Parliamentarians and the British public have been starkly reminded of this by last week’s news that a parliamentary researcher had been arrested on suspicion of spying for China. On this episode, we won’t be commenting on the ins and outs of that case, but talking more generally about Chinese espionage. What forms does it take, what are its goals and how successful are the Chinese secret services at achieving those? I’m joined by a brilliant and knowledgeable guest. Nigel Inkster is the former director of operations and intelligence for MI6. He has

The forgotten world of female espionage

When the Germans occupied northern Italy in the autumn of 1943, they were pleased with the way that young Italian women, pedalling on bicycles around the country lanes in white socks and pigtails, smiled at them. The soldiers offered to help with their loaded baskets and gave them lifts in lorries. It took some months before they discovered that these smiling girls, known as staffette, were working as couriers, spies and carriers of weapons for the Resistance, then busy forming in the foothills of the Alps. When they realised their mistake, their reaction was often brutal. If caught, the women knew they would fare no better than the men. Prison

Russia’s long history of smears, sabotage and barefaced lies

Russian politicians often refer to something called the Dulles Plan. This document purports to capture the future CIA chief Allen Dulles explaining, in 1948, the US strategy to destroy the moral foundations of the USSR and bring about ‘the death of the most intractable people on Earth… the definitive, irreversible dying out of its self-consciousness’. If this sounds like a fictional villain’s expository monologue then that’s because it is. The text was taken from an antagonist’s speech in a 1971 novel, Eternal Call, which itself recalled a much earlier Russian forgery, the anti-Semitic Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The ‘plan’ was written and disseminated in 1993 in an attempt

Espionage dominates the best recent crime fiction

The best espionage novels cater to our fantasies while still persuading us of the authenticity of their worlds. Of the titles published this year, two stand out in the field, and each author understands that, in fiction, veracity is not the same as authenticity. In Hemingway’s words: ‘All good novels have one thing in common. They are truer than if they had really happened.’ An extended chase, beginning in Siberia, is a kind of Russian version of The Thirty-Nine Steps White Fox (Bantam, £18.99) is the concluding volume of a trilogy of thrillers by Owen Matthews, one of the best of many western writers on Russia. It can happily be

Spy planes and infiltrators: a history of the CIA in China

47 min listen

The Chinese Communist Party likes to blame its domestic political problems on foreign interference, and it has done so since the days of Chairman Mao. But sometimes, does this paranoia, this narrative, have a point? Or at least during the depths of the Cold War, when the United States, via the CIA, was countering communism across the world through so-called ‘covert operations’. My guest today is Professor John Delury, a historian at the Yonsei University in Seoul, and author of a new book looking at the history of the CIA in China. It’s called Agents of Subversion, and I’d highly recommend it because some of the incredible exploits detailed in there

A complex, driven, unhappy man: the truth about John le Carré

It is often said that the age of letter-writing is past. This forecast seems to me premature. I have edited three volumes of letters, in each case by writers labelled (though not by me) as ‘the last of their kind’. Yet here is another one, and I feel confident that more will follow. Few now write letters, but those who still do tend to take care what they write. And it will be some decades before we have used up the legacy of the living. John le Carré, who died almost two years ago at the age of 89, was one such. His work is likely to be reassessed over

A belter of a podcast, featuring a mad South African: Smoke Screen reviewed

I go back and forth on tobacco companies. On the one hand, they are merchants of death. On the other, cigarettes are fun and delicious. On the one hand, they push cigarettes on children, which is unconscionable. And on the other, I remember how I would gather in the park with other children to collectively venerate a ten-pack of Marlboro Lights, our soft, pink fingers shivering and struggling with the lighter mechanism, our untutored lips puffing ineffectually at the speckled filter, all of us beginning to grow woozy from the acrid smoke filling our virgin lungs as we stood there and thought: this is the life. Luckily, Smoke Screen sidesteps

Berliners were punished twice – by Hitler and by the Allies

‘Nationalism is an infantile disease. It is the measles of mankind.’ Albert Einstein’s deft avoidance of the question put to him in 1929 – whether he considered himself a German or a Jew – was prophetic of what would happen to his country in the following decade. He was just one of the many stars of Berlin, Europe’s dazzling, decadent centre of the arts and culture, whose spark would be dimmed or extinguished by Adolf Hitler. Capturing the history, people and spirit of Berlin, arguably the beating heart of Europe, can be a tricky proposition, as I know. Sinclair McKay has wisely kept to analysing the city through the prism

Snafu at Slough House: Bad Actors, by Mick Herron, reviewed

Reviewers who make fancy claims for genre novels tend to sound like needy show-offs or hard-of-thinking dolts. So be it: here’s mine. Anyone who tries to understand modern Britain through its fiction but overlooks Mick Herron’s satirical thrillers merits a punishment posting to the critics’ version of Slough House. That noxious midden of a building opposite the Barbican, its leprous chambers groaning like ‘the internal organs of some giant, diseased beast’, is a sort of landfill site for failed spies. Herron first opened its flaking doors in 2010 with his novel Slow Horses. Seven books later, his squad of borderline sociopath rejects from polite espionage has risen to the dignity

A master of spy fiction to the end — John Le Carré’s Silverview reviewed

Literary estates work to preserve a writer’s reputation — and sometimes milk it too. The appearance of this novel by John le Carré less than a year after his death seems almost suspiciously opportune, but whatever the publishing expediency involved, it is a very fine finale. Julian Lawndsley is the 33-year-old owner of a bookshop in an East Anglian seaside town, having fled the City, where he has made both his fortune and his name asa canny trader. Any echoes of The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald soon fade as we discover that Lawndsley knows virtually nothing about books and even less about the customers he sells them to — until

Under deep suspicion in Beirut, Kim Philby still carried on regardless

The story of the Cambridge spies has been served up so often that it has become stale — too detailed, too predictable, too firmly etched in Cold War monochrome. So it’s a good idea to seek another angle, through the warmer lens of a love affair involving its main protagonist Kim Philby and his wife Eleanor. It humanises the tale, particularly as it draws on a vivid and neglected personal source — The Spy I Loved— Eleanor’s own book centred on their romance in the Lebanese capital, Beirut. That was where Philby was despatched in 1956 to play out the penultimate act in a drama stretching back to the 1930s,

The disappearing man: who was the real John Stonehouse?

November 1974 was the month to disappear. On the 7th, Lord Lucan went missing, and a fortnight later John Stonehouse MP dis-appeared from a beach in Miami. Lucan was never found, so remains prominent in our national mythology. Nothing endures like a mystery. Stonehouse, on the other hand, was discovered in Melbourne six weeks later, living under an assumed name. His vanishing trick, so carefully rehearsed, had unravelled — partly due to Lucan, as it happened. Having been alerted to a suspicious Briton by a beady bank clerk, the Australian police thought he might be Lucan. Their first act after arresting their suspect was to lift his trouser leg to

The great betrayal of Ethel Rosenberg

Ethel Rosenberg was an exceptional woman. Born with a painful curvature of the spine to a poor family of Jewish immigrants and a mother who never loved her, she was determined to make her life matter. A talented singer, she won a place at New York’s prestigious Schola Cantorum and performed at Carnegie Hall. Having found clerical work, she helped organise strike action and then won a court vindication. Seeing the rise of fascism, she came to embrace the concept of communism, and when war arrived she campaigned for America’s entry. Ethel’s exceptionalism did her no favours, however, in paranoid post-war America. Although she focused on her children, she was

The first Cambridge spy: A Fine Madness, by Alan Judd, reviewed

For his 15th novel, the espionage writer Alan Judd turns his hand to the mystery of Christopher Marlowe’s death. The result is never less than engrossing, with Judd putting the scanty known facts about the great playwright to ingenious use. The story is narrated from the King’s Bench prison by Thomas Phelipps 30 years after Marlowe’s fatal stabbing in a Deptford rooming-house brawl. Phelipps is good company, a master cryptographer and key employee of the spy-master Francis Walsingham, yet a self-proclaimed ‘simple man’ who yearns to marry and settle down. These contradictions help make him as fascinating as the mercurial Marlowe, who he’s sent to recruit at Cambridge. Phelipps immediately

CIA spies lose faith

With its grim John le Carré atmosphere, communist Eastern Europe in the late 1980s was a melancholy, out-at-elbow place. The Estonian capital of Tallinn crawled with Russian money-changers (‘Comrade, we do deal?’). The television in my hotel room was detuned from capitalist Finnish to Soviet channels, but I was able to pick up Miami Vice from across the Gulf of Finland. Guests were not allowed to visit the 21st floor, which officially did not exist. The KGB apparently had an office up there where they monitored Helsinki radio waves and the hotel’s 60-odd bugged rooms. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the wallet-thin Minox camera had been invented in Tallinn

Demystifying the world of espionage

John le Carré once wrote sadly that he felt ‘shifty’ about his contribution to the glamorisation of the spying business. David Omand doesn’t deal in glamour. He was at the top of the Ministry of Defence and the Home Office, director of the code-braking Government Communications Headquarters, chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, and responsible for structuring the government’s current anti-terrorist organisation. He thinks and writes deeply about the intellectual and moral problems thrown up by a business that depends on stealing other people’s secrets. He knows what he is talking about. How Spies Think is engagingly readable, even though the arguments are complex. It aims, ambitiously, ‘to empower ordinary