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Leading a Double Life: Agent Zigzag

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Has the recent roundup of Russian spies left you wanting to read up on the wide world of espionage?  Then I have the book for you: Agent Zigzag, by Ben Macintyre.

His name was Edward Arnold Chapman. The British police also knew him as Edward Edwards, Edward Simpson, and Arnold Thompson. He was a known member of a group of safe-cracking thieves known as the Jelly Gang. The German Secret Service knew him as Fritz. In Britain he came to be known as Agent Zigzag.
 
“The story of many a spy is commonplace and drab. It would not pass muster in fiction. The subject is a failure in life. The motive is sordid. Fear is present. Patriotism is absent.  Silence is not the equipment of a brave man, rather it is the reaction to a dread of consequence. High adventure just means nothing at all. The story of Chapman is different. In fiction it would be rejected as improbable.” These are the words of Lieutenant Colonel Robin “Tin Eye” Stephens in his final report that sent criminal Eddie Chapman on his way to a life as a double agent. It is Eddie Chapman’s life as a double agent for Britain and Germany during World War II that is the subject of Ben Macintyre’s fascinating and exciting book Agent Zigzag.
 
Eddie Chapman was a petty thief with no formal education. He had a fondness for wine and women. He enjoyed living beyond his means and found that the life of crime was the only way to support his extravagant lifestyle. Sadly for Chapmen, one of the unfortunate side effects of his lifestyle was jail and he spent a lot of time in prison. He read all 200 books in the Channel Islands prison library. Then he reread them. He taught himself French and German. He memorized the poems of Tennyson and became a follower of the philosophies of H.G. Wells. The Channel Islands though soon earned the unhappy distinction of becoming the only part of Britain to be occupied by Germany during the Second World War, which is how Chapman came to offer his services to Germany. Seeing an opportunity for adventure, not to mention the opportunity to save his own skin, he earned the trust of the German Secret Service and trained extensively in espionage and sabotage. After months of preparations he parachuted into Britain on a secret mission and he immediately turned himself over to the British Secret Service. He confessed his ties to the Germans and offered to do for Britain what he was supposed to already be doing Germany, thus becoming a double agent.
 
The Germans hailed Eddie Chapman as a hero and awarded him the Iron Cross. In Britain he was pardoned for his numerous past crimes, the only wartime agent to be thus rewarded.  Chapman had a strange spark of heroism, moral obligation, and sense of loyalty yet he was always looking out for himself. His vices were as strong as his virtues. A British Secret Service colleague described him in the following way: “One could give him the most difficult of missions knowing that he would carry it out and that he would never betray the official who sent him, but that it was highly probably that he would rob the official who sent him…” In short, he could be relied on to do whatever was asked of him, while being utterly untrustworthy in almost every other respect.
 

Eddie Chapman was one part James Bond and one part Jesse James. His was a life of excitement and danger and the rewards brought about by both, yet there was a complex internal struggle Chapman could not escape as he walked the fine line between fidelity and betrayal. If Ben Macintyre had presented this story as fiction it would have been deemed too outlandish and unlikely, but this story of Nazi espionage, love, and betrayal is all true. Agent Zigzag is compelling, meticulously researched, full of intrigue, and as action packed as anything Hollywood has to offer.

Agent Zigzag was one of The New York Public Library's 25 Books to Remember from 2007.

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