Between Silk
And Cyanide

A Codemaker's War
1941 - 1945

Leo Marks
(Free Press)
Certain books may pretend to be about a certain subject but, with examination of the "indecipherables," will turn out to be something completely different. Clarissa is less about 18th Century English county life and manners as it was the tale of the endless attacks on one poor woman's maidenhead. War and Peace is only partially about War, certainly not about Peace --- but about the Tolstoi's strange ideas about the ennobling aspects of a noble death. Portnoy's Complaint is only somewhat about growing up Jewish in 1950's America; more, it's about the screwy distortive effect of unbridled sexual hunger.

Between Silk and Cyanide is ostensibly about the world of secret codes and coding, and the subterfuge war of 1940 - 1945. In reality, it is about the coming of age of a slightly damaged, slightly neurotic, very funny, very insightful genius of code. And, I warn you, you don't want to get into it. Because it's one of those books that won't let go of us --- that sweeps us up to such a degree that we don't want it to, we beg it not to end.

Leo Marks came into the SOE --- Special Operations Executive --- when he was twenty-two. SOE had been created in 1940 by Winston Churchill to engage in acts of sabotage in occupied Europe. Marks' department was engaged in creating various codes that would buffalo the Germans and keep English and Resistance agents from being murdered in the field. He and his department built a vast system of communications with the underground in Norway, Denmark, France, Holland, and other occupied countries.

SOE succeeded --- brilliantly. Think of Hitler, in his last days, with atomic bombs in hand. The reason it didn't happen: SOE was directly responsible for the destruction of the heavy water plant in Rjukan, Norway. They also penetrated the long-range missile plant at Peenemünde and, with Marks' special instincts (he cites Freud and Lewis Carroll as inspirations) the discovery that the entire Dutch underground had been captured by the German (all messages received from them were being engineered by the Nazi equivalent of Marks, a Herr Giskes).

Part of Marks' job was to create codes that could not be broken --- even when agents in the field were caught and tortured. He describes at length how some of the codes came to him --- LOP, WOK --- along with the the security checks to protect against mishaps. To thicken the broth, Marks' enemies may have lived and worked on the continent, but there were, too, a few blocks away in London --- most obnoxiously, "C" --- the Secret Intelligence Service, which did its damndest, he tells us, to put SOE out of business.

§     §     §

There is something in the code world called "indecipherables." They are those messages that may have come through with atmospheric distortion; or the agent may have mispelled one of the five key words at the beginning; or he or she may have made an error in the transposition of the code groups.

Whatever brought them about, for Marks his joy and his love was to go after the "indecipherables" --- to make messages magically appear out of a sea of gibberish. One of his first acts in office was to declare to his workers, "There is no such thing as an indecipherable." And, true to his word, their rate went down from 95% to 10%.

Then there are the stories, the tales, the vignettes, the wisps of insight, the snapshots. Between Silk and Cyanide bristles with funny, pointed, and at time poignant, stories, all told by a true story teller:

    I told him about my uncle, a distinguished bookseller who pretended to be deaf to avoid military service. He managed to fool the doctors but was called before a military tribunal for his final examination. While he was busy saying, "Eh?" to whatever he was asked, someone fired a revolver. But he had been warned about this and didn't flinch. As he turned to go, someone dropped a coin. He still didn't flinch. But when he reached the main hall someone quietly said, "Got the time on you, Guv?" and he looked at his watch!

    He then ran for his life, chased by two military policemen, and rushed into a nearby delicatessen. Although the owner didn't know him, he must have been familiar with his plight because he raised the lid of a herring-barrel, and uncle jumped in. He hid there for several hours until it was safe to emerge, and managed to avoid conscription, but he stank for the rest of the war and on warm nights still did, according to my aunt.

Marks' writing is funny and wise and subtle, and in disguise. This masque is used in his writing --- but also in his code-world where it fakes out the opposition and gets him what he wants. It's the writing of a slightly out-of-kilter Jewish comedian, one who is almost too eccentric for the British war establishment to tolerate. (The tale about his uncle was told to Jack Benny, who Marks happened to meet in Cairo during the war. The back-and-forth between the two of them makes one wonder why the BBC didn't hire him on to be the English version of Benny.)

It is anything but a staid book about the world of codes and codebreakers. It is a tale of human doppelgangers, faking out people --- not only the enemy, but, in some cases, those who are ostensibly on Marks' side, and --- best of all --- the reader.

It is also intensely human, for our storyteller feels, and feels strongly, for those whom he is training. Some of those friends of his, who he trained for code-work when they would be working on the other side of the channel, would indeed be captured, would indeed be tortured, would indeed be put to death in the most agonizing way possible. The enemy was real, and scary.

In the midst of all this pain, or potential pain, and a hellish war --- which hung on the balance --- we find ourselves with a man who can be very merry, somewhat self-deprecating, and one who is dynamite with dialogue (he has in the years since his SOE days become a professional screenwriter --- and a good one). This is his meeting, in Oxford, with a Commander Hogg, another cryptologist, in charge of some mysterious but very important department having to do with an obscure instrument called "one-time letter pads:"

    The first words he addressed to me weren't so much clipped as stapled together.

    "Is it Marks with an 'x'.?"

    Dear God, one of those. "Not according to my birth certificate or my great-grandfather's! May I ask if it's Hogg with one 'g'!?"

    There was a short pause during which the room was filled with the stimulating throb of mutual antipathy. He invited me to sit down and brusquely informed me that he'd been asked by the head of SOE to suppy us with letter one-time pads, and to discuss the details in the course of our meeting.

    He looked at me with a "torpedoes away" expression. "I'm still not sure what you people do."

    "The Germans, sir. In every way we can."

    I was absolutely certain Captain Bligh didn't need a briefing from Fletcher unChristian about SOE or any other wartime anomaly. But I needed one about him. There must be some reason for his hostility other than good taste.

    "Who recommended letter-pads to SOE?"

    I admitted responsibility.

    "What experience have you had with them?"

    "None, sir."

    He said "Good God" so softly that unless the Almighty were in the room with us, of which there was increasingly little sign, he couldn't expect much feed-back from the supreme crow's nest.

    "Can I assume you know how they work?"

    I said that I believed I did; and he pounced at once: "Who explained them to you?"

    I daren't admit that until very recently I thought I'd invented them. "Dansey, sir. He used to be in charge of agent's codes."

    His expression said, "It's a pity he still isn't."

    "Do you usually recommend coding systems you know nothing about?"

    "No, commander. But I rarely hear of any as good as LOPs."

    He winced at the word. And continued wincing while I explained why letter-pads were ideally suited for agents' traffic.

    He waited until I'd finished the litany, then looked at me as if my bilges were leaking (One of them was.)....

So Marx travels in disguise. His writing style lies half-way between S. J. Perelman and Mark Twain (with the Marx Brothers thrown in --- is he a secret Son of Groucho?) Underneath this frolicking is something deadly serious. That is --- a country fighting for its life. He cared (and cares) for the war --- but that caring doesn't stop him from being very human.

--- L. W. Milam

Go Home     Subscribe to RALPH     Go Up