Cheeseburger Gothic

Operation Mincemeat, by Ben Macintyre

Posted September 13, 2013 into Book Club by John Birmingham

I chose this book because Andy Inatkho recommended it on MacBreak Weekly. In fact he recommended it a couple of times, and I've found that my own tastes tend to run in the same nerdly directions as his, so here we are. I loved this book. I found myself returning to it on Audible whenever I had a spare couple of minutes and will probably procure myself a hard copy at some point. It is shelf-worthy.

As a quick note on the audiobook version, it took me a couple of minutes listening to adjust to John Lee's narration, having just come off his reading of Alastair Reynolds. I find that the sound of a narrator's voice tends to trigger a lot of memories associated with the last thing you heard them reading. Having said that, I think he was a much better choice to read this one than the Reynolds title, with a much a much better command of the various accents in play.

The story, of course, is magnificent. It had already been told in The Man with No Name by Ewen Montagu, one of the principal protagonists. However, Montagu agreed to leave out a lot of critical details, and to include others that would mislead the public because of the still sensitive nature of some of the revelations, including the connivance of the Spanish military and intelligence services in helping the Germans during the war.

The first couple of chapters of the book, which set the scene in wartime London, reminded me of the opening moments of Brideshead Revisited. Not that I've ever read the book, or even watched the whole series. But it always seemed to be on in the background when I was a child and I do recall the way is evoked the social life of upper-class England in the pre-war years. Macintyre has done excellent, top shelf work here in historical journalism. It's not easy. You can spend days tracking down the smallest detail which appears in only one line and is often missed by the reader in the great flow of all the surrounding detail as it rushes by.

One of the real achievements, I thought, was the way he captured character with almost Dickensian exactitude.

Ewen Montagu, in particular, was a great 'character' from the world of the pre-war elite, but one who just happened to be real, while the role of James Bond's creator, Ian Fleming, added a weird, almost fantastic element to the telling. But you got used to that the further into the book you read. I particularly enjoyed the way in which the story touched tangentially on English popular culture of the postwar period again and again. The variety show, for instance, attended by Montagu, Cholmondeley and their dates, including the 'girlfriend' of Major Martin, in which some of the minor performers turned out to be major celebrities of the postwar period. Or the name Goldeneye, which Fleming bestowed on his Caribbean compound, and which was one of 007’s shorter stories. It was originally Operation Goldeneye, a Fleming plan to run insurgents in Spain should it enter the war on Hitler’s side.

The incidental characters, submarine captain Bill Jewell, the US Army ranger, Bond's future boss M, all of the spies and counter spies in Spain, they were all worth the price of admission on their own. Taken together they’d be an unbelievable cast for a thriller novel – except of course they were all real. There was even a bit of a Weapons of Choice moment for me when reading the passage where Churchill is briefed on the op, in his jammies, in bed, puffing on a fat cigar.

There were a number of lessons that rang very strongly with me. The way the German’s talked themselves into being deceived, resonated with real force. After nearly coming a cropper early in my magazine writing career I adopted the motto that the story you most want to hear is the story of which you should be most skeptical. The Wehrmacht and Hitler really, really wanted to believe in all the various phantoms the British sent their way and in giving into the desires they doomed themselves.

I couldn’t help casting a modern movie of this tory in my imagination. A slightly younger Sam Neill as Montagu. I think Guru Bob’s suggestion of John Cleese for Cholmondeley was brilliant. Kate Beckinsale as Pam (because Havoc). Maybe Kenneth Brannagh as Fleming.

And Jason Statham as Bill Jewell. A submarine captain who can round house kick a German torpedo boat.


12 Responses to ‘Operation Mincemeat, by Ben Macintyre’

John Birmingham has opinions thus...

Posted September 13, 2013

All right then. I'm off to the rugby club.

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pitpat reckons...

Posted September 13, 2013

I grew up with books like this from Esacape from Colditz, The Arnhem bridge battle- The bridge too Far, the enigma code. This book sits firmly in that tradtion in my mind. And yet during my read through I kept on thinking of Black Adder.

Ben MacIntyre does a wonderful job of painting the picture, and then following the actors through. Loose ends are tied up and the narrative is an entertaining romp. The operation itself was a great example of good planning leading to good luck with the unknown but luckiest break being the actions of Von Roenne to go along with the deception.

This is the first piece of long form non-fiction that I have read outside work or study for a long time, aprt from a bit of Stephen Jay Gould which is arguably within my field, and I loved it. Still think Stephen Fry for Cholmondelay, and there has to be a place for Rowan Atkinson- maybe the corpse.

John Birmingham asserts...

Posted September 13, 2013

I thought maybe the undertaker for Atkinson.

pitpat puts forth...

Posted September 13, 2013
Much betterer. Certainly more lines

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MickH reckons...

Posted September 13, 2013


Sorry JB but I just didn't get to this book this time around, I'm still reading Ice & Fire! Phew! nearly finished it. Its taken my months.

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w from brisbane asserts...

Posted September 13, 2013

JB, I think more of the Burgers would have commented, but so many of us have had to, at some stage, sign that dashed Official Secrets Act.

It's all frightfully unfortunate. Would like to help, but can neither confirm nor deny etc. I think you know the drill. Would like to say more, but some of those MI6 chaps have absolutely no sense of humour.

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Surtac asserts...

Posted September 13, 2013

I loved this book too. I pretty much agree with JB's assessment at the top of the post, and I think I'll be adding a paper copy as well.

What really struck me, several times in fact, was that you couldn't make this up and deliver a believable work of fiction - the truth in this case was always stranger. Not so much in the events but the characters; the actors in the drama - the historical figures of Churchill, Fleming, Philby, Canaris and so on, but even more in the 'little people' involved: Ewen Montagu, Cholmondley, Bill Jewell and his WREN wife-to-be, Ivor Montagu and his wife Hell, the coroner, and the forensic pathologist, the undertaker and his brother, the various spy networks.

To me, it really did seem a classic example of the old adage that truth is stranger than fiction - the degrees of separation seemed so much smaller than today. Was the world really a simpler place in those days, or did it just seem so?

Macintyre did a brilliant job of telling this story imnsho.

And my LOL moment? The irony of Cholmondley working incognito as a technical expert on the movie of The Man Who Never Was. Comedy gold.

A great choice of book, JB. What's next?

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Barnesm has opinions thus...

Posted September 13, 2013

I apologise I ducked in to add my post earlier but it seems to have dissappeared .

Great recap by Birmo above as always. I suggest bendick Cumberbatch for Cholmondley and Martin Freeman for Montagu. Whenever I read the American Ranger speech I got a Bredan Fraser vibe.

But of course this is another example of how you could never have pitched world War II as a screenplay, too unbeleiveable as layed out brilliantly by Scott over at live journal

"....But then there are some shows that go completely beyond the pale of enjoyability, until they become nothing more than overwritten collections of tropes impossible to watch without groaning.

I think the worst offender here is the History Channel and all their programs on the so-called "World War II".

Let's start with the bad guys. Battalions of stormtroopers dressed in all black, check. Secret police, check. Determination to brutally kill everyone who doesn't look like them, check. Leader with a tiny villain mustache and a tendency to go into apopleptic rage when he doesn't get his way, check. All this from a country that was ordinary, believable, and dare I say it sometimes even sympathetic in previous seasons.

I wouldn't even mind the lack of originality if they weren't so heavy-handed about it. Apparently we're supposed to believe that in the middle of the war the Germans attacked their allies the Russians, starting an unwinnable conflict on two fronts, just to show how sneaky and untrustworthy they could be? And that they diverted all their resources to use in making ever bigger and scarier death camps, even in the middle of a huge war? Real people just aren't that evil. And that's not even counting the part where as soon as the plot requires it, they instantly forget about all the racism nonsense and become best buddies with the definitely non-Aryan Japanese.

Not that the good guys are much better. Their leader, Churchill, appeared in a grand total of one episode before, where he was a bumbling general who suffered an embarrassing defeat to the Ottomans of all people in the Battle of Gallipoli. Now, all of a sudden, he's not only Prime Minister, he's not only a brilliant military commander, he's not only the greatest orator of the twentieth century who can convince the British to keep going against all odds, he's also a natural wit who is able to pull out hilarious one-liners practically on demand. I know he's supposed to be the hero, but it's not realistic unless you keep the guy at least vaguely human.

So it's pretty standard "shining amazing good guys who can do no wrong" versus "evil legions of darkness bent on torture and genocide" stuff, totally ignoring the nuances and realities of politics. The actual strategy of the war is barely any better. Just to give one example, in the Battle of the Bulge, a vastly larger force of Germans surround a small Allied battalion and demand they surrender or be killed. The Allied general sends back a single-word reply: "Nuts!". The Germans attack, and, miraculously, the tiny Allied force holds them off long enough for reinforcements to arrive and turn the tide of battle. Whoever wrote this episode obviously had never been within a thousand miles of an actual military.

Probably the worst part was the ending. The British/German story arc gets boring, so they tie it up quickly, have the villain kill himself (on Walpurgisnacht of all days, not exactly subtle) and then totally switch gears to a battle between the Americans and the Japanese in the Pacific. Pretty much the same dichotomy - the Japanese kill, torture, perform medical experiments on prisoners, and frickin' play football with the heads of murdered children, and the Americans are led by a kindly old man in a wheelchair.

Anyway, they spend the whole season building up how the Japanese home islands are a fortress, and the Japanese will never surrender, and there's no way to take the Japanese home islands because they're invincible...and then they realize they totally can't have the Americans take the Japanese home islands so they have no way to wrap up the season.

So they invent a completely implausible superweapon that they've never mentioned until now. Apparently the Americans got some scientists together to invent it, only we never heard anything about it because it was "classified". In two years, the scientists manage to invent a weapon a thousand times more powerful than anything anyone's ever seen before - drawing from, of course, ancient mystical texts. Then they use the superweapon, blow up several Japanese cities easily, and the Japanese surrender. Convenient, isn't it?

...and then, in the entire rest of the show, over five or six different big wars, they never use the superweapon again. Seriously. They have this whole thing about a war in Vietnam that lasts decades and kills tens of thousands of people, and they never wonder if maybe they should consider using the frickin' unstoppable mystical superweapon that they won the last war with. At this point, you're starting to wonder if any of the show's writers have even watched the episodes the other writers made.

I'm not even going to get into the whole subplot about breaking a secret code (cleverly named "Enigma", because the writers couldn't spend more than two seconds thinking up a name for an enigmatic code), the giant superintelligent computer called Colossus (despite this being years before the transistor was even invented), the Soviet strongman whose name means "Man of Steel" in Russian (seriously, between calling the strongman "Man of Steel" and the Frenchman "de Gaulle", whoever came up with the names for this thing ought to be shot).

So yeah. Stay away from the History Channel. Unlike most of the other networks, they don't even try to make their stuff believable".

Darth Greybeard mutters...

Posted September 14, 2013

Wow. History really is bunk. Meh. I haven't really paid any attention to reality for years anyway.

Anthony has opinions thus...

Posted September 15, 2013

The really scary thing is that the above makes total sense.

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Sparty asserts...

Posted September 14, 2013

Space Above and Beyond copied the op as well.

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Lulu mumbles...

Posted September 16, 2013
I only got hold of the book on Saturday, and I'm about half-way through.

Like many others here, I've been running a fantasy film casting session in my head as I've been reading. I agree with the suggestion of Benedict Cumberbatch as Cholmondley, although I'm not sure about Montagu - younger Stephen Fry, maybe? Dan Stevens ('Cousin Mathew' from Downton Abbey) as Bill Jewell; Jonathan Pryce as the pathologist Spilsbury; Gemma Arterton as 'Pam'.

The book is gripping despite the fact that we know the outcome. I mean, we all know who won WW2 (duh!) and it's clear early on that the operation will succeed, but you keep reading because you want to know *how* it happens, and because you can't quite believe the details and diversions. Seriously, a brother who spies for Russia? Cross-dressing? Treasure-hunting? Allied & Axis spies glaring at each other in neutral Spain? You couldn't make it up if you tried.

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