Monday, November 8, 2010

Five best books on Britain's Secret Service

Keith Jeffery is a professor of British history at Queen’s University, Belfast, and has written or edited thirteen books. His new book is The Secret History of MI6, the authorized history of the world's oldest and most storied foreign intelligence service, drawing extensively on hitherto secret documents.

At FiveBooks, he spokes with Daisy Banks about five books on MI-6, Britain's Secret Service. From their discussion of one book on the list:
From Russia With Love by Ian Fleming

There are so many James Bond books to choose from – what made you go for From Russia with Love?

The James Bond books represent the other end of the spectrum. These are cartoon characters in a way, but they produced the most famous single fictional spy who worked for MI6. Bond is very important. It is also quite difficult to extract the novels from the movies because we sort of visualise them. But From Russia with Love is on my list for two reasons. The first is it is the only one with an Irish angle and I am always looking for the Irish angle. And the second is there is a clear connection to Fleming’s work as an intelligence officer in the Second World War.

The Irish angle is Donovan or ‘Red’ Grant, a Smersh killer, who in the movie is a blond powerful figure who goes round killing people at the drop of a hat, which of course is one of those myths about the Secret Service that people are always killing each other just like that, and that everyone has a ‘licence to kill’…

According to the book, Grant, this Russian killer, is the son of an Irish mother and a German circus strongman. Now, in fact, a circus strongman really did exist. In April 1940 a German agent called Ernest Weber-Drohl landed in Southern Ireland, which was neutral during the Second World War, and he was captured by the Irish police and prosecuted in the Dublin district court for being a foreign agent. His defence was that he was a professional weightlifter who had appeared as ‘Atlas the Strong’ with a circus in Ireland before the war, and he had come back to Ireland to find his two illegitimate children.

And this was the kind of little news item which would have gone through to Britain because they were so worried about German spies in the Second World War. Ian Fleming was the personal assistant to the Director of Naval Intelligence at the time, and it seems to me almost inconceivable the item didn’t pass across his desk, because the co-incidence of writing about it in From Russia with Love is just too strong.

What do you think it is about Ian Fleming which so encapsulates the British Secret Service in the public’s view?

It’s the combination of the debonair skill of the English gentleman, and his light-footed ability to move through the highest levels of society without any kind of problems, with fantastic technical expertise, backed up with the most improbable gismos of one sort or another. And although Bond gets wounded or into trouble, he always manages to come out on top in the end.

You have been doing some proper research into the British Secret Service: are the books complete fiction or do certain elements of this really exist?

It is not complete fiction. There was a man called Biffy Dunderdale whom Fleming knew and who was the MI6 Head of Station in Paris in the 1930s. He was a man of great sangfroid and style who liked fast cars and pretty women and was quite an important figure. He travelled under the name of John Green, and was a glamorous figure a bit like Bond. On the other hand, one of the reasons he was in the Service was because he spoke Russian like a native, as well as other languages, which was definitely something you needed – and still do – and something James Bond never seemed to be able to do.

And how do you think the Secret Service differs from something like the CIA?

They [the CIA] are just an enormously bigger organisation and have a lot more resources. They started from almost nothing in the Second World War. They are much better backed up in terms of technical back-up and resources. But they don’t operate in the same way as people like James Bond, who was a bit of a loner, relying on his native wit to get by. You do get some people like that on the American side but they don’t have that languid air of effortless superiority which certainly epitomises Bond and, by default, our perception of the Secret Service.
Read about the other books on the list.

From Russia with Love
also made John Mullan's lists of ten of the best chess games in fiction, ten of the best punch-ups in fiction, and ten of the best breakfasts in literature, and a list of eleven presidents' favorite books.

--Marshal Zeringue