Friday May 7th, 2010

Operation Mincemeat by Ben Macintyre

mincemeatRaves all around for a book that sounds irresistible, Ben Macintyre’s Operation Mincemeat. The operation of the title occurred during World War II, when the British, aided by Ian Fleming and others who knew their way around a spy story, dressed up a dead body as a British naval officer and had it wash up on the shores of Spain. On the body were fake papers, which made it seem as if the Allies were going to attack Greece, rather than Sicily. Hitler moved troops accordingly, and the Allies took Sicily with greater ease.

Michael Idov, at The New Republic’s The Book, calls Macintyre’s latest “[a] nearly flawless true-life picaresque. . . . Operation Mincemeat is more than the sum of its Grand Guignol logistics. Along the way, this story of clever men in a cramped basement outsmarting an enemy horde becomes an entirely unexpected ode to intellect, civilization, and wit.”

At the Barnes & Noble Review, Katherine A. Powers calls it “a terrific book written with intelligence and story-telling brio. . . . Macintyre’s account of the plan’s refinement, execution, and remarkable success is fast-paced, witty, and quite as filled with plot twists and suspense as any novel.” She also calls it “a brilliant revisionist history . . . abounding in eccentrics, rum characters, and over-grown boys.” As for those eccentrics, Idov says, “This is the kind of book where every character, major or minor, comes with a set of splendid quirks, at least one of them involving animals. (Is history really so colorful?)”

In The New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell is as thrilled by the book as everyone else (he calls it “brilliant and almost absurdly entertaining”), and he uses it as the foundation for a longer piece about the spy game in general. Those behind Operation Mincemeat were cunning, but also lucky — key Germans involved in the story were eager to sabotage Hitler from within, unbeknownst to Mincemeat’s designers. Gladwell:

The deceptions of the intelligence world are not conventional mystery narratives that unfold at the discretion of the narrator. They are poems, capable of multiple interpretations. . . . A body that washes up onshore is either the real thing or a plant. The story told by the ambassador’s valet is either true or too good to be true. Mincemeat seems extraordinary proof of the cleverness of the British Secret Intelligence Service, until you remember that just a few years later the Secret Intelligence Service was staggered by the discovery that one of its most senior officials, Kim Philby, had been a Soviet spy for years. The deceivers ended up as the deceived.

Operation Mincemeat by Ben Macintyre
Harmony, 416 pp., $25.99