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Between Silk and Cyanide: A Codemaker's War, 1941-1945 Hardcover – June 9, 1999
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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
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.
- Publisher : Free Press; 1st Edition (June 9, 1999)
- Language : English
- Hardcover : 624 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0684864223
- ISBN-13 : 978-0684864228
- Item Weight : 0.035 ounces
- Dimensions : 6.5 x 1.5 x 8.5 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #157,092 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
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I got this book out of the library on a Friday, read it until midnight, picked it up on Saturday and didn't put it down until I was done, and ordered my own copy on Sunday. It was that good.
Style: Marks has a unique and, frankly, hilarious style. His sentences are full of word plays and other jokes -- including both groan-worthy puns, a deeply clever internal monologue, and a frank and humorous assessment of not only himself but also the people he met throughout his travels. I've read in other code/cipher related books that cryptographers and cryptanalysts are prone to this sort of word play; here is evidence of the truth of that!
Information: I had previously read two books about cryptanalysis, one which touched on WWII, so I had some background going in. However, Marks's emphasis is very unlike what I'd read about before. I was, however, never confused. He didn't spoon feed the reader, and sometimes I had to keep reading for a page or two to see where he was going, but he did provide the necessary foundation to the uninitiated. Not only did I learn an immense amount about both code-and-cipher making and breaking, I also got a real feel for the environment of the time. Not only do I *know*, I also now *understand*.
Readability: as mentioned above, I'm immensely picky. That being said, I can plow through thick, dense tomes when need be. There wasn't the need. This read as easily, if not quite as quickly, as fiction. I was completely absorbed through it, frequently excited, sometimes tense, often amused, and invariably pleased with the smoothness (and well-editedness) of the prose.
Characters: remarkably well drawn. Marks doesn't use this book to try to make himself look good. He admits his faults, openly acknowledges when he acted inappropriately, and shows us conversations in dialogue -- even when they are unflattering to him. He shows the good and bad of himself and of those around him. Better still, he manages to present the people he disliked not as evil because they disagreed with him, but simply as people who had different ideals and didn't happen to get along with him. This was vastly refreshing.
Length and content: I've seen it mentioned in other reviews that some of the content, such as the historical content, could have been cut. Well, maybe if you know a whole lot about the topic. I didn't. I really needed all of that information -- and moreover, I found it extremely interesting. Remarkably in a book for this length (I think it took me about 8 hours to read, I think. I'm a pretty but not ultra fast reader, but non-fiction always takes me about twice as long as fiction), I never found myself bored, nor did I find my attention wandering. Apparently, I was spoken to several times and never noticed. I'm a fan of cutting when necessary, but I think this book would have suffered greatly from it. I'm not saying I think it should be longer, but I do think it was the right length.
Well, the five stars says it all, doesn't it? I would, without hesitation, recommend this book not only as an excellent introduction or supplement to anyone interested in codes . . . but also just anyone who wants a really excellent read.
Top reviews from other countries
A fascinating book. 600 pages that chronicle the operations of the SOE as seen from the perspective of their senior coding expert. Marks was undoubtedly a genius who struggled with his superiors in his attempts to improve the coding systems used by SOE agents so as to reduce the number of indecipherable signals, protect the signals from the German decoders, and reduce transmission times. The Germans’ direction finding equipment was highly efficient. Marks briefed a number of agents now well known to us, Noor Inayat Khan, Violette Szabo, Nancy Wake among them. He mentions, in passing and in chilling tones, the tragic fates of several who fell into the hands of the Gestapo. The book tells us how two competing groups operated agents in France, how the Polish contingent retained their independence, often to the detriment of the Allied war effort, and how the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) consistently opposed everything the SOE tried to do. The meat of the book concerns Marks’s campaign to get his superiors to accept the unpalatable fact that the entire network of agents in Holland had been captured and ‘turned’ from an early date. The writing style is a delight and an object lesson for any writer; his unique voice comes through on every page, his liberal use of humour bringing him into close, intimate contact with his readers. The pages are populated with a bewildering array of names which stretched my powers of recall. Also, his attempts to explain the technical aspects of his job failed this reader at least. On the one hand, his layman’s explanations left me with too many questions, but on the other it would have required a book five times as long to give me a full understanding of the intricacies of coding systems. The paperback version was so poorly formatted that I had to buy the eBook to complete it. All in all, it was heavy going, and I nearly gave up a few times, but I’m glad I persisted to the end. 4 stars.
He was the only child of indulgent parents, with whom he lived throughout the war, earning the unwarranted suspicions of neighbours who thought he was a draft dodger. He worked prodigious hours, fortified by his mother's black market sandwiches and cream cakes.
The story he tells is immensely important, and so far as I know he is the only cryptographer who also briefed agents face to face, that has written about his experiences. His writing style is odd, rather that of a pain in the arse sixth former. Yet he was good enough to write film scripts after the war. His poems, used early on as the basis for codes, range from the frankly pornographic to the outstanding. One, 'The Life that I Have', is deservedly famous. The poem was originally written for a girl friend, and he describes how it came to be used by one of the most celebrated agents.
He is good at conveying, in quite measured tones, the mounting fury he felt as he came to realise the extent to which the Dutch secret army had been compromised by the Nazis. The few people with whom he was able to discuss his suspicions did not believe him, and he was forbidden to speak to those who might have believed him and acted. Fifty years after the war, questions of whether this disaster was down to cynicism, betrayal, or incompetence were still a live issue.
He goes into some detail about a few of the agents he briefed, including Yeo-Thomas, Odette Hallowes, Noor Inayat Khan, and Violette Szabo. He admired all of them, was awestruck by Noor, and fell for Violette.
All a long time ago, but not that long. I knew Noor's brother, so feel a tenuous connection.
As for what happened to Violette's chess set - well that is one of many points where I had to pause to regain my composure.
I have laughed, nearly cried, admired and learnt a great deal about the machinations of wartime covert work. I already knew of The White Rabbit, Odette and many others who undertook this arduous work. Now I know if others, many of whom paid the final price that we may live out lives in freedom.
To them I say Thank you, to the rest of us I say Read, Learn and enjoy a cracking war story of a very secret department.