[Part of the Great Catch-Up series]
I have some sympathy (but not a great deal) for spy novelists, because rhe genre suffers from the unique problem that the truth is inevitably stranger than anything an author could invent. The most successful spy novelists are ex-spooks themselves, who are able to spin thinly disguised riffs on their own experiences. And don't worry if those experiences are supposed to be top secret; the public would never believe that anything so extraordinary, so odd, could happen anyway.
There's kind of a chicken or egg thing going on here--does the spy business attract people who want to write spy stories? Or does working in the spy busimess bring out the author in people after they've been working in the trenches for a while?
Operation Mincemeat, by Ben MacIntyre, tells the story of, well, Operation Mincemeat, a piece of counterintelligence devised by the British during World War II. In a variation on the Trojan Horse, intelligence officers (including an able assistant with an active imagination named Ian Fleming) came up with a plan to drop the body of a dead British soldier, carrying false information meant to distract the Germans from the planned invasion of Sicily, off the coast of Spain in the hope that the body would find its way to German-friendly Spanish leaders would turn over the information to the Nazis.
This sounds a lot easier than it actually was. There were numerous details to cover--where exactly to drop the body so it would reach the Spaniards most likely to reach out to the Nazis, how to drop it without being discovered, how to write the letters so it seemed realistic that a soldier would be transporting them from one officer to another, what personal items the soldier would be carrying, not to mention the extremely sticky matter of how to obtain a dead body of a man who died in some way that was not easily identifiable (the unfortunate fellow they used died from rat poisoning, possibly at his own hand).
MacIntyre conducted an immense amount of research to find the real story behind Mincemeat, which had previously been told in fictional form. He draws both long and short portraits of the various players; for some reason, my favorite part of the book may have been his description of the extraordinarily priviliged life of Ewen Montague, the wealthy British officer who ran the operation (Montague, interestingly, had a brother who was stealthily watched over by British intelligence because of his brazenly open communist leanings. Ivor Montague also brought table tennis to Britain and spent much of his life developing the popularity of the sport. Yes, Ivor was a combination communist and table tennis evangelist.). MacIntyre has a sly wit, throwing in just the right offhanded remark to remind us both how silly and how serious this all was.
Yet somehow, no matter how brilliantly detailed, informative, and entertaining Operation Mincemeat is, I felt the same way after reading it that I felt after finishing MacIntyre's previous book, the acclaimed Agent Zigzag--an "Is that all there is?" kind of feeling. For all the importantce of these actions and there effect on the outcome of World War II, I somehow felt like there was not a there there, which seems wrong on my part. I'm not sure what it is that left me feeling a bit empty. As entertaining as MacIntyre is, and appreciative as I am on dry humor, maybe there is something like passino lacking from these books that makes me want to put them just a step below truly great. Nevertheless, I still wholeheartedly recommend Operation Mincemeat; just don't expect it to profoundly shake you. But maybe I expect too much from books.