Unfortunately, since the Germans had equal access to the classics--"Reference books," Marks quips, "are jackboots when used by cryptographers"--Marks thought agents should write their own poems (or use his) instead, several of which are cheerily obscene. After all, no son or daughter of the Fatherland could ever know the rest of a verse that began "Is de Gaulle's prick / Twelve inches thick," and continued on in a similar, shall we say, vein. But Marks soon felt that original doggerel was just as dangerous, since even slight misspellings could render messages indecipherable and risk agents' lives. His first solution? WOKs (worked-out keys) printed on silk. An operative would use one key, send the message, and immediately tear off the strip. Marks had a hard time proving that swaths of silk would save his people from swallowing their "optional extra," a cyanide pill. His efforts were dead serious, but often landed him in comic terrain.
In one of the book's great set pieces, Marks visits Colonel Wills--surely the model for Ian Fleming's Q--in order to sort out the best ways to print his code keys. Before solving this minor problem (invisible ink!), Wills showed Marks several new projects--one of which involves an exotic array of dung, courtesy of the London Zoo. This gifted gadgetmeister planned to model life-sized reproductions of these droppings and pack them with explosives, personalized for all parts of Europe, Africa, and Asia. "Once trodden on or driven over (hopefully by the enemy) the whole lot would go off with a series of explosions even more violent than the ones which had produced it," Marks explains.
Despite such larky sentences and sections, the author never loses sight of the importance of his vocation, and Between Silk and Cyanide is as elegiac as it is engaging. Marks knows when to cut the laugh track, particularly as his book becomes a despairing record of agents blown--lost to torture, prison, the camps, and execution. Readers will never forget the valor of Violette Szabo, Noor Inayat Kahn, and the White Rabbit himself, Flight Lieutenant Yeo-Thomas. Poem-cracking, as Marks again and again makes clear, was far more than a parlor game. --Kerry Fried
It is a great read,and offers an inside look at British coding during the 2nd World War.Published 9 months ago by Norma Fainbloom
"Between Silk and Cyanide" is one of the most fascinating, thought provoking memoirs of WWII I've ever come across. Read morePublished on Jan. 2 2004 by L. Alper
This is my favorite book in many categories, and second only to Neuromancer overall. This book is a moving, very human look at WWII espionage. Read morePublished on Oct. 1 2003
Marks's book is interesting, and very sad in places--the organization he supports with his coding efforts put spies into occupied Europe, and many of their agents were caught and... Read morePublished on Feb. 25 2003
Leo Marks is the son of the famous bookstore owner immortalized by romantic movie "84 Charing Cross Road". Read morePublished on Dec 29 2002 by R. M. Williams
An interesting tale by a young man who joined the Signals directorate right out of code school. I call it a tale because it is written in a novel-like format that makes it hard to... Read morePublished on Oct. 15 2002 by Kass McGann
Leo Marks writes a very entertaining autobiographical account of his important role in creating codes for the British during WWII. Read morePublished on April 5 2002 by bensmomma
Leo Marks has an interesting turn of phrase. He gives an interesting look behind the "Secret War" aspects of World War II. Read morePublished on March 2 2002 by Stephen A. Kallis, Jr.