Between Silk and Cyanide: A Codemaker's War, 1941-1945 Hardcover – Jun 9 1999
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At the age of 8, Leo Marks discovered the great game of code-making and -breaking in his father's London bookshop, thanks to a first edition of Poe's The Gold-Bug. At 23, as World War II was being played out in earnest, he hoped to use his strengths for the Allies. But Marks's urgent, witty memoir, Between Silk and Cyanide, begins with his failure to get into British Intelligence's cryptographic department. As everyone else on his course heads off to Bletchley Park ("the promised land"), he is sent to what his sergeant terms "some potty outfit in Baker Street, an open house for misfits." In fact, the Special Operations Executive's mandate was, in Churchill's stirring phrase, to "Set Europe Ablaze," and Marks's was to monitor code security so that agents could could report back as safely as possible. When he arrived, the common wisdom was that it was easiest for men and women in the field to memorize and use well-known poems.
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
From Publishers Weekly
A well-paced war diary, Markss memoir traces the strategically vital creation of secure codes for Allied agents operating in Nazi-occupied territories. Marks was in his early 20s during the war, a civilian with military rank in Britains elite Special Operations Executive, a prodigy immersed in a pasty world of subterranean old men. Though Marks rarely ventured out of his basement office, his book builds a delicate tension as he describes working frantically to develop codes that the Nazis could neither crack nor imitate, as they did with the standard Allied poem code. Markss contributions to such historically significant events as the destruction of Norsk Hydro, the heavy water plant on which the Germans pinned their hopes for atomic weapons, and to the concealment of preparations for D-Day, are effectively balanced against such workaday concerns as finding quantities of silk onto which codes could be photographed. Although Markss account is more anecdotal than researched, his unique position as chief developer of Britains secure communications, along with an impishness that led him to break De Gaulles secret French code (off-limits to the non-French Allies) or rib his older compatriots (Davies nodded so hard he almost lost a jowl) give his book an authoritative and laconic punch.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Top Customer Reviews
The title refers to his request for silk from his superiors in the War Office (silk was very hard to come by), stressing the importance by commenting that the choice for these agents was 'between silk and cyanide'.
The current system involved using well-known poetry as a Code; since this was easy for Germans to break, Leo started writing original poetry for use as Codes. And one of the most engaging items in his story are the poems he wrote, including "The Life That I Have", which has deservedly become well-known.
I found this book so fascinating that I am reading it for the second time. He writes with self-deprecating humour and a love of life.
The book presented a side of WWII that is not often heard--that of the courageous agents dropped into occupied territory to sabotage and to prepare the Resistance for D-Day. It was especially sad to note that often the author, while preparing them for deployment, knew that their capture by the enemy was imminent, because the enemy had already captured many of their comrades and was forging messages back to London in their names--however, Marks' superiors were unwilling to acknowledge this, for reasons which remain in debate to this day.
I have to agree with many of the other reviewers on several points. Marks' wit, while humerous at times, does tend to get old by the end of the book. The author was unnecessarily vulgar at times, as well. In addition, it was sometimes tedious to wade through all the acronyms and code-names.
"Between silk and cyanide" includes plenty of humour of all shades, mainly dark, but don't read it for fun unless you are totally insensitive; it deals with harrowing events in harrowing times and I found it very upsetting on several levels. It would be wasteful to read it in a hurry just because you are a fast reader. This is a labyrinth of a book and there are many mazes of twisty little passages, all alike, that you very likely will miss if you are not careful. Heaven knows how many I myself skated over in my innocence.
This is a large book, but that is not why it is not to be read at a sitting. Nor is the reason that it is hard to read; I had to stop repeatedly to rest and to digest (or recover from) the situations and implications described.Read more ›
Though Marks rarely ventured out of his basement office, his book describes how he worked frantically to develop codes that the Nazis could neither crack nor imitate. I would however, be interested to read an account of what went on in the SOE during these years from his supervisorâ€™s POV. I suspect that their accounts would be slightly different since over years memory can become very selective and self serving. I think that Marks with his tendency to ignore rules, to act on his own based on his own understanding of events, while well meaning, often did not take into account that he may not be aware of the whole picture. He must have caused the people in charge of SOE many a sleepless night. The term loose cannon comes to mind here.
The parts that broke my heart was account of the agents who were â€œblown,â€�lost to torture, prison, the camps, and execution. I will never forget the accounts of Violette Szabo, Noor Inayat Kahn, the girl who could not lie and Flight Lieutenant Yeo-Thomas, known as The White Rabbit. The incredible bravery of these people just cannot be imagined.Read more ›
Most recent customer reviews
Just 150 pages into the book when the binding completely fell apart.
I love books, don't mistreat them and have never had this problem before. Read more
It is a great read,and offers an inside look at British coding during the 2nd World War.Published 18 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
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