Tuesday, March 03, 2015

non-work reading

I'm also reading things for my own interest. (I need to. I can't just read work stuff).

I recently finished a Poirot mystery, Murder on the Links. This was one of the earlier Poirots and is apparently where Hastings met his wife....it was pretty good but I remain unconvinced that Christie played by the "rules" for Golden Age mystery novelists (one of the big ones being, "don't have 'secret' information the detective is privy to that the readers are not")

Right now I'm reading a non-fiction book - Operation Mincemeat by Ben MacIntyre. This is an account of an espionage operation in WWII Britain - the Allies were preparing for an invasion of Sicily, by which they hoped to break Italy and begin to weaken the Axis. However, Sicily seemed to be a fairly "obvious" target and they guessed the Germans would figure out they were planning to invade - so they wanted to launch a disinformation campaign to convince them that Greece and Sardinia were the actual targets.

Charles Cholmondeley (pronounced "Chumley") dreamed up an idea that was clever but gruesome: take a corpse, dress it in a British military uniform, plant documents on it pointing to an invasion of Greece and Sardinia, drop it off (as an apparent victim of a failed parachute) somewhere the Germans were sure to find it, and hope it worked.

Well, the plan changed and altered over time - it got shifted to having the corpse in the ocean and wash up in a region of Spain known to have strong sympathy for the Germans (logistically, it was easier to drop a corpse in the water, apparently, rather than on land).

I find these kinds of spy operations interesting in an intellectual sense - how do they figure everything out (and there's a lot of discussion of how Cholmondeley (and his colleague, Ewen Montagu) invented a life for this "man who never was" - they pegged him as an upper-middle-class fellow, overdrawn at his bank, with an indulgent but rather Edwardian father, a fiancee, a serious nicotine habit....and how they invented things to give the nonexistent man verisimilitude.

(In fact, MacIntyre notes that novelists often come out of, or are drawn to, spy work - Ian Fleming, the author of the Bond series, was tangentially involved, as was a lesser novelist named Thomson (I actually have a copy of one of his books - The Dartmoor Enigma - on my shelves and may read it after I'm done with this)

One of the things they did was to create a fiancee for the man - they asked the young women working in the various war departments to submit photos. They wound up choosing (And in fact, the married Montagu wound up having something like a platonic love affair with) Jean Leslie - in fact, you can see the picture of her here. (The photo is striking to me. MacIntyre described her as something like "the classic British beauty, with alabaster skin and chestnut hair." The woman in that photo could have been one of my aunts on my mother's side, in her younger days....and as best I can guess from the photo and the description, her coloring was very like mine is. Perhaps that's the part of my heritage from which I get my looks....)

And all this is very romantic, and very interesting (all the unusual personalities at work in MI5 and the various Intelligence departments - and I wonder, does this kind of work attract eccentric people, or were the time and place just more welcoming of people letting their oddities out, or was MacIntyre playing it up for the sake of a good story - I can't imagine a description of a modern workplace focusing on the various eccentricities of the main players).

But at the same time, it doesn't take away the frisson of the awful. On one hand: at that time Britain was still essentially fighting for its life. Perhaps by the time Operation Mincemeat was actually carried out, the tide had turned and there did not seem to be so great a likelihood of Nazi invasion (in 1939 and 1940, people genuinely feared that - in fact, the men working at Oxford on making penicillin a medication that could be produced in large quantities, had plans to break up their equipment, burn their notes, and flee the country upon word of an invasion - "The Mold in Dr. Florey's Coat" is a pretty interesting book that covers that era).

But there was also the awful side of Cholomondeley and Montagu's idea: they'd have to obtain a corpse, have it fitted for clothing, plant the information on it, and have the drop performed. And this is where the whole ethical stickiness comes in - you can't let too many people in on the secret, and anyway, how would you convince the next-of-kin to allow THAT to be done to the remains of their loved one? In the end, they found a way around the family issue - but not really around the ethical issues. One of the medical examiners alerted them to the body of a young man, a man from Wales whose parents were dead, who was estranged from his siblings, and who apparently had no friends. He had come to London and apparently killed himself by eating rat poison. (The author mentioned that suicide rates went up in wartime, and what's more, many people traveled to London to do the deed - he surmised it was the anonymity of a large city that made it somehow "easier"). So there was really no family to object, and the man's body could be "repurposed" into that "man who never was." (One of those involved made the rather distasteful comment that Glyndwr Michael (that was his real name) was "more useful dead than he was alive"). Wartime ethics are different, and the ethics and attitudes of the era were different, but still, there is something slightly distasteful about the idea of taking a body and using it in that way. (Though, I suppose, given the number of lives the operation likely saved....)

It's a pretty interesting book - I'm about a third of the way through, in the middle of the discussion of how Glyndwr Michael was transformed into "William Martin" (and though the non-existent man was described as having been born in Wales, I can't help but note that his name was "de-ethnicized" compared to the name of the man who actually provided the body....).

I find the sort of mental twists and turns required of spy work (and also stuff like cryptanalysis, which is similar). It really does require a sort of literary mindset to come up with the deceptions.

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