Agent Zigzag: A True Story of Nazi Espionage, Love, and Betrayal by Ben Macintyre
Narrated by: John Lee
Genres: Non-fiction, History, Biography
Maturity Level: 3+ (some mention of prostitutes)
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Eddie Chapman was a charming criminal, a con man, and a philanderer. He was also one of the most remarkable double agents Britain has ever produced. Inside the traitor was a man of loyalty; inside the villain was a hero. The problem for Chapman, his spymasters, and his lovers was to know where one persona ended and the other began.
In 1941, after training as a German spy in occupied France, Chapman was parachuted into Britain with a revolver, a wireless, and a cyanide pill, with orders from the Abwehr to blow up an airplane factory. Instead, he contacted MI5, the British Secret Service. For the next four years, Chapman worked as a double agent, a lone British spy at the heart of the German Secret Service who at one time volunteered to assassinate Hitler for his countrymen. Crisscrossing Europe under different names, all the while weaving plans, spreading disinformation, and, miraculously, keeping his stories straight under intense interrogation, he even managed to gain some profit and seduce beautiful women along the way.
The Nazis feted Chapman as a hero and awarded him the Iron Cross. In Britain, he was pardoned for his crimes, becoming the only wartime agent to be thus rewarded. Both countries provided for the mother of his child and his mistress. Sixty years after the end of the war, and ten years after Chapman’s death, MI5 has now declassified all of Chapman’s files, releasing more than 1,800 pages of top secret material and allowing the full story of Agent Zigzag to be told for the first time.
Agent Zigzag was my first non-fiction audiobook, and I’m afraid I didn’t enjoy the experience as much as I expected to. I found the narrator, John Lee, to be a bit dry. Listening to him drone on and on and on about World War 2 was a bit like listening to an uninteresting lecture. That’s not to say he did a poor job. He pronunciation in particular was on-point, and I was impressed by his ability to imitate different accents. And his inflection was fine, giving me a clear idea of tone and personality. It just … never ended. He never seemed to pause for a breath. I needed time every paragraph or so to process what I’d learned.
The story itself was also not as interesting as I’d expected it to be. I mean, a double agent during World War 2, that sounds like exciting stuff! But mostly he just tapped out fake messages on his radio. If you’re expecting Bond, don’t. Apparently actual espionage is a lot less exciting than it is in the movies. Chapman placed himself in terrible danger, but to a 21st century reader who is well accustomed to action movies, the very little that he actually does seems sadly disappointing.
Pictures, I think, would likely have helped this book, and I imagine the hardback has some photos in the center. A lot of the details about places and machines gets a bit technical, and I don’t have a lot of background knowledge on that front. Some images would have been very helpful for me. But, obviously, with an audiobook that’s not exactly possible.
What I did love about Agent Zigzag is that, even now, Macintyre still doesn’t know what Chapman’s real motivation was. Was he truly a patriot, or was he just trying to make as much money as possible? It’s up to the reader to decide for themselves. Chapman was definitely a unique individual, and his personality is was makes this book so fascinating.
I definitely recommend this book to history buffs, especially those with an interest in WW2. I do not recommend it to causal history fans.