Book Review: Agent Zigzag: A true story of Nazi Espionage, Love, and Betrayal

The Second World War remains the most important conflict in human history. It's massive bloodshed has determined the fate of nations to this day. It's 6 years of warfare brought forth great leaders, horrific villains, heroes and demons. There were also the kind of adventurers who shine in the time of conflict, misfits and outlaws who are created for war. Agent Zigzag: A True Story of Nazi Espionage, Love, and Betrayal  by Ben Macintyre chronicles the life of one such character.

Agent Zigzag aka Eddie Chapman was a professional crook in interwar London who rose to become one of the stars of the Double Cross (XX) system run by the British Intelligence services. The XX system was designed to recruit captured Nazi spies landed in England and make them double agents in His Majesty's Service. A spectacular story of deception, misinformation and sleight-of-mind emerges from the archives of this arm of the British services. Alongside Tricycle and Garbo, Zigzag (all code names) was one of the prime drivers of the show. This book does a stellar job of narrating the story of Chapman and has done some great research into his time with the Nazis and his great fortitude in asking to serve as a double agent himself.

Chapman's character comes into full bloom in the pages of the book as the author supplies engaging narration and documents conversations between the main characters. From this style emerges a picture of a cruel, witty gangster who was unwittingly thrust into the hands of the Abwehr - one of Hitler's Intelligence agencies. The book takes us through the period on France where Chapman was trained in sabotage, small arms and explosive by the Abwehr. He managed to convince them that he was heart and soul Nazi, while apparently ready to go back into the fold of his mother country. Once back in England, to perform sabotage and general mischief to deter the British war effort, Chapman managed to make himself an indispensable part of the XX roster. He even went back into France, lived (and loved) in Quisling's Norway and managed to come back with some great intelligence for the British war effort.

While probably not the most important spy of WW2 (Richard Sorge probably has claim to that), this book brings out a portrait of a conflicted, adventure seeking egomaniac. While his loyalty to his country, his family and his German trainer conflicted at times, he rendered some extraordinary deception services which threw off German intelligence especially with intel (or bad intel) on the V-1 and V-2 rockets.

The author is definitely fascinated by Chapman's character. What could have been a shorter monograph has been blown up into quite a big read. The pace is very brisk though and the author manages to keep you occupied throughout. It's a perfect easy-reader to get started with if you are interested in the XX history.

Well worth the read - 4 stars.


Book Review: Napoleon: A Life

Napoleon Bonaparte - Emperor, Conqueror, Revolutionary -  is a figure greatly embellished by history. Equally reviled and worshipped, Napoleon is perhaps one of the best documented and most researched historical characters. The Napoleonic wars were fought in a period of a printing boom. This was a time of diaries, memoirs and busy letter writing. Andrew Roberts does a great job tying these different strands to present a well-documented and thorough portrait of the great man in Napoleon: A Life
Love him, hate him or find him absurd, this book leaves you with the impression of the monumental achievements of Napoleon. While not an Alexander or a Genghis Khan, Napoleon was able to latch on to the Great Revolution and ended up fashioning France to his image. The book takes you on quite a fantastic voyage from Corsica through Metropolitan France, Egypt, Italy, Russia, Elba and St. Helena. It walks you through the different events in his life. To name a few - the Brumaire Coup, his Italian victories, his Russian debacle his exiles and his Waterloo. Each chapter of the book traces a high note of Napoleon's life - success or failure, the Emperor was always a powerful personality. The book does a great job bringing together biographies of Napoleon's enemies, vassals, his own letters (of which there are an incredible number), memoirs of the victors and the vanquished and academic documents from many years. A striking feature of the book is the description of the the different battles that Napoleon fought. The tactical maps are decent and will make for a good reading for military history buffs.
The enormous size of the book is definitely intimidating. At 800 pages, it tries to tie up way too many sources to offer a complete picture. In the eyes of the author, this complete picture is complimentary. Material from Napoleon's own words are used to justify poor judgement and excuse indiscretions. Some of the battle movements are clumsily explained and it feels like a hastily summarized view. It especially loses momentum in detailing his many defeats especially before his first exile.
Overall, this is a pretty good one-stop reference on Napoleon. Verdict: 3 stars. Borrow if history is not your thing, or buy if you are missing a work on Napoleon