Agent Zigzag: A True Story of Nazi Espionage, Love, and Betrayal
by Ben Macintyre
Reviewed by Mary Ann Gwinn
Who can account for the popularity of the spy thriller? I can't, and I've read dozens of them, fiction and nonfiction. But I've never read a better true spy tale than Agent Zigzag, the story of Eddie Chapman, a charming British criminal who metamorphosed into one of the most brilliant double agents ever run by the Brits.
Chapman had a string of petty offenses on his record -- safecracking, fraud -- when he was picked up by the Nazis on the British island of Jersey early in World War II (Jersey is one of the Channel Islands, bucolic bits of land that are British protectorates but closer to France. After Britain decided it couldn't defend them, the Nazis moved in). The Nazis threw Chapman in Romainville, a very nasty French prison with the nickname of "death's waiting room." Chapman's options were a) a concentration camp or b) spying for the Nazis; he chose the latter.
For a while. Beneath the skin of a pampered traitor beat the renegade heart of a patriot.
Chapman's story has been told before, but Macintyre has incorporated recently released information in files declassified in 2001 by the British secret service MI5. I hate to say anything much about the plot of Agent Zigzag because so much of the pleasure of the book depends on Macintyre's great gift -- that of timing. He is a wizard at it -- suspense, comic and otherwise. Just when you think Chapman is going to do the one thing, he does the other. Just when things are at their grimmest, something so unintentionally hilarious, ironic or poignant occurs, you have to set the book down for a while just to savor the moment.
The cast of characters makes one wonder if we weren't all better off when spy services were run by talented, eccentric civilians. "Doctor Graumann," the pseudonym for Chapman's German handler, was a wasted German aristocrat with a dubious allegiance to the Nazis and a deep affection for both his prize pupil and the finer things in life.
Col. Robin "Tin Eye" Stephens ran Latchmere House, a gloomy Victorian mansion that served as an interrogation/imprisonment center for "suspected spies, subversives and enemy aliens." Of Stephens, who was "ragingly xenophobic," spoke seven languages and never removed his monocle, Macintyre writes: "He was a superb judge of character and situation; he never lost his temper with a prisoner, and he condemned the use of violence or torture as barbaric and counterproductive." Those were the days.
There's nothing in Agent Zigzag that makes war seem glamorous, but it does indelibly reinforce the principle that people can rise to the occasion, even if the circumstances are very low indeed. Tom Hanks has secured the rights to produce Agent Zigzag, the movie. All bets are that it will be a great film. It couldn't possibly be better than this book.
Mary Ann Gwinn is the Seattle Times book editor and a director of the National Book Critics Circle.