I love mystery fiction, but every now and then along comes a superb non-fiction book that shouts for attention. Such a work is Ben MacIntyre’s new Operation Mincemeat: How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured an Allied Victory (Harmony).
If you saw the 1956 British film The Man Who Never Was, you know the basic story: the body of a British officer, apparently the victim of a plane crash, is washed up on the shores of Spain, a briefcase chained to his wrist. Spanish General Francisco Franco’s nominally neutral government discovers that the briefcase contains documents pointing to a British invasion of Greece or Sardinia--not Sicily, as the Germans had come to believe.
Operation Mincemeat was an amazing British hoax, dreamed up by a mastermind, played in the film by Clifton Webb but a character based on the two outstanding espionage officers--Ewen Montagu and his MI5 colleague Charles Chomondeley--who really did all of the crucial plotting.
Employing all the ferreting skills he used so well in his previous book, 2007’s Agent Zigzag, MacIntyre delves into recently released official records to flesh out his dramatic yarn. For example, the hoax was based on a previous example known as the Haversack Ruse, invented during World War I by Richard Meinertzhagen, an ornithologist, anti-Semitic Zionist, big game hunter, fraud, and English spy. T.E. Lawrence called Meinertzhagen “a man ... willing to harness evil to the chariot of good.”
A couple of other delights from MacIntyre’s research: the wonderfully named Sir Bentley Purchase, the cheerfully black-humored coroner of St. Pancras, who (illegally) colluded in the procurement of the all-essential body; and this minor detail--which may be one too many treats, but what the hell: “The chariot (carrying the body of homeless Welsh vagrant Glyndwr Michael) continued through the center of the town and past the Teatro Mora, which was showing Pygmalion, starring Leslie Howard.”
As one UK reviewer enthused about MacIntyre’s Operation Mincemeat: “His book is a rollicking read for all those who enjoy a spy story so fanciful that Ian Fleming--himself an officer in Montagu’s wartime department--would never have dared to invent it.”
READ MORE: “‘Operation Mincemeat’: The Man Who Was,” by Steve Coates (The New York Times).