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Between Silk and Cyanide: A Codemaker's War, 1941-1945 Hardcover – June 9, 1999


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 624 pages
  • Publisher: Free Press; First Edition edition (June 9, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0684864223
  • ISBN-13: 978-0684864228
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.4 x 1.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (142 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #474,777 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

At the age of 8, Leo Marks discovered the great game of code-making and -breaking in his father's London bookshop, thanks to a first edition of Poe's The Gold-Bug. At 23, as World War II was being played out in earnest, he hoped to use his strengths for the Allies. But Marks's urgent, witty memoir, Between Silk and Cyanide, begins with his failure to get into British Intelligence's cryptographic department. As everyone else on his course heads off to Bletchley Park ("the promised land"), he is sent to what his sergeant terms "some potty outfit in Baker Street, an open house for misfits." In fact, the Special Operations Executive's mandate was, in Churchill's stirring phrase, to "Set Europe Ablaze," and Marks's was to monitor code security so that agents could could report back as safely as possible. When he arrived, the common wisdom was that it was easiest for men and women in the field to memorize and use well-known poems.

Unfortunately, since the Germans had equal access to the classics--"Reference books," Marks quips, "are jackboots when used by cryptographers"--Marks thought agents should write their own poems (or use his) instead, several of which are cheerily obscene. After all, no son or daughter of the Fatherland could ever know the rest of a verse that began "Is de Gaulle's prick / Twelve inches thick," and continued on in a similar, shall we say, vein. But Marks soon felt that original doggerel was just as dangerous, since even slight misspellings could render messages indecipherable and risk agents' lives. His first solution? WOKs (worked-out keys) printed on silk. An operative would use one key, send the message, and immediately tear off the strip. Marks had a hard time proving that swaths of silk would save his people from swallowing their "optional extra," a cyanide pill. His efforts were dead serious, but often landed him in comic terrain.

In one of the book's great set pieces, Marks visits Colonel Wills--surely the model for Ian Fleming's Q--in order to sort out the best ways to print his code keys. Before solving this minor problem (invisible ink!), Wills showed Marks several new projects--one of which involves an exotic array of dung, courtesy of the London Zoo. This gifted gadgetmeister planned to model life-sized reproductions of these droppings and pack them with explosives, personalized for all parts of Europe, Africa, and Asia. "Once trodden on or driven over (hopefully by the enemy) the whole lot would go off with a series of explosions even more violent than the ones which had produced it," Marks explains.

Despite such larky sentences and sections, the author never loses sight of the importance of his vocation, and Between Silk and Cyanide is as elegiac as it is engaging. Marks knows when to cut the laugh track, particularly as his book becomes a despairing record of agents blown--lost to torture, prison, the camps, and execution. Readers will never forget the valor of Violette Szabo, Noor Inayat Kahn, and the White Rabbit himself, Flight Lieutenant Yeo-Thomas. Poem-cracking, as Marks again and again makes clear, was far more than a parlor game. --Kerry Fried

From Publishers Weekly

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.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Customer Reviews

Once I started reading the book I was hooked.
David Furey
What makes Mr. Marks' book so different is not only the story he tells, but his natural gift for writing.
sneaky-sneaky
On technical and historical matters also, this book is of interest at several levels.
Jon Richfield

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

65 of 68 people found the following review helpful By Richard S. Sullivan on June 8, 2000
Format: Hardcover
First off I need to say that this was a fun read. The book was entertaining and informative. The author, Leo Marks, then in his early twenties, writes about his experiences as head of the British code section for the group who devised, sent and received, and translated codes for the men and women who went into Nazi occupied Western Europe to spy.
Marks, a man who is now nearly 80, should be commended for putting down this rare piece of history in writing, as most of the records of the London code group have long since been destroyed, his memory is all we have.
Ok, now this is a strange book. There is no doubt that is was written by Marks himself as no ghost writer could have concocted such a weirdly written text. It's annoying at first but one soon becomes used to it. For example, when describing a briefing he gave to a somewhat hostile audience:
"Mounting a mile long platform an inch at a time, I confronted a large Nubian with crossed arms, which turned out to be a blackboard. He had colored chalk chalks on his person where lesser men had testicles, and I wrote my messages on his chest in block capitals which were twice their normal size as I had half my normal confidence."
We have smiles parachuting from his eyes to his lips; he remembers the excitement and thrill of using the same loo that Churchill used; he remembers and recalls the figures (nothing to do with coding) of many of the women who he writes about. (He is a man of the 40's!) There is a gem on nearly every page. No ghost writer could ever concoct this menagerie.
We do learn a lot about the coding business, especially in making the codes. We learn about the men and women who volunteered to spy, organize, and become part of the Resistance.
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36 of 36 people found the following review helpful By Jon Richfield on March 11, 2004
Format: Paperback
First I must say this: if you have any interest in the interaction between, on the one hand, people willing to sacrifice themselves for their beliefs and their country, and on the other, office-political self-interest, read this book if you can. As an eye-opener, it bitterly counter-echoes Macaulay's "None were for the party, all were for the state." Irrespective of anybody's opinion, adverse or otherwise, read it if you want unusual material on several subjects, including Giske's masterful exploitation of his penetration of the WWII Dutch resistance. Read it also if you simply are interested in cryptology, the history of cryptology or the development of cryptology (or of cryptologists). Read it if you want a vivid portrayal of the fog of war as seen from the back room, the frustration, the obsession, the pressures, the fear and the grief. Prepare yourself to control your blood pressure if you have views (from EITHER perspective) on the subject of boffin versus boss. The book is a primary and secondary document of great interest.
"Between silk and cyanide" includes plenty of humour of all shades, mainly dark, but don't read it for fun unless you are totally insensitive; it deals with harrowing events in harrowing times and I found it very upsetting on several levels. It would be wasteful to read it in a hurry just because you are a fast reader. This is a labyrinth of a book and there are many mazes of twisty little passages, all alike, that you very likely will miss if you are not careful. Heaven knows how many I myself skated over in my innocence.
This is a large book, but that is not why it is not to be read at a sitting. Nor is the reason that it is hard to read; I had to stop repeatedly to rest and to digest (or recover from) the situations and implications described.
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29 of 29 people found the following review helpful By Dilip Balamore on June 20, 2005
Format: Paperback
Virtually everyone agrees that this is a brilliant book, but its particular attractiveness to me was in its idiosyncratic style. The author seems to have remained a schoolboy all his life (lucky man!) He cannot resist making a joke, if even the slightest of oportunities arises, and this appears, at first, to disrupt the straight-forward narrative. It takes some effort to get into his world, and to recognize his varieties of humour; to recognize also how he often laughs becasue he quite deperately wants to cry. Once one gets into his rhythm, however, it is his distinctive style that lingers and fascinates.

Actually, I did not want to write all this at all! Others have described the manifold virtues of the book, and done so better than I ever shall. I just wanted to answer one particular criticism of the book. Several reviewers have said that the cryptography, at the heart of the book, is not clearly enough presented, and that things have been glossed over.They say that they could not learn the techniques well enough to actually use. This is quite true, but Marks may not be the one to blame. Apparently, he wrote the book 10 years before it was published. Its publication had been blocked, I am given to believe, by the pleadings under the Official Secrets Act;various changes had to be made in order to make it eventually publishable. I am convinced that this is the proximate cause of the 'glossing over". He almost says so in a couple of places in the book.
Clearly, some of his 60-years old techniques are still worth keeping secret, even in this age in which comnputers dominate crytography.

Let me say, in passing, that I was in tears on reading his account of his 'final-briefing' of the most remarkable woman of them all: Violette Szabo. He too seems to have sensed her specialness,because he gave her his most special poem for her personal poem-code. I urge everyone to read Carve Her Name With Pride, and also her other biography.
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