Monday, October 29, 2012

The real James Bond of WWII; The real serial killer of WWII

Considering that the last two books I read were both nonfiction about WWII, they couldn't be more different.

Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies by Ben Macintyre is WWII as farce.  The book details one convoluted British plan after another devised to dazzle and dismay the Nazis, including planting double agent homing pigeons.  But the German spymasters were all too busy lining their pockets with cash and chasing French mistresses to even notice the British efforts.  The star of the book is undoubtedly double agent/playboy Dusko Popov who truly found his niche amidst the war.  Given the codename "Tricycle" by his British handlers for his ambitious sexual exploits, he had tremendous success establishing a fake network of German spies and was shipped to the United States to see if he could repeat the feat there:

The FBI did not go in for jocular code names: Popov was "confidential Informant ND 63," an austere title that aptly reflects the bureau's chilly attitude. 
Held at arm's length by the FBI and prevented from conducting any active espionage, Popov went on a spending binge of epic proportions.  Hoover was already worried that the spy's playboy habits could "embarrass the bureau," and the scale of his expenses seemed calculated to do just that.  Within a short time he had acquired an apartment on Park Avenue, a summer house in fashionable Locust Valley on Long Island, a red Buick convertible, and another girlfriend, the French film star Simone Simon, who he had met before the war.  When challenged over his wild expenditure, Popov blandly insisted that he needed to maintain his cover as a wealthy roue.  Among the accoutrements he considered necessary for this purpose were a butler called Brooks, a half-deaf Chinese manservant called Chen-Yen, and a team of gardeners; he had his apartment refurbished by an interior designer and spent twelve thousand dollars on furniture, antiques, and several hundred gramophone records; he drank and danced at the Stork Club, skied in Sun Valley, Idaho, and motored south for a sunny vacation in Florida.  He also began an affair with an expensive Englishwoman, soon to be divorced, named Terry Richardson and set off a fresh spasm of disapproval within the FBI when he took her on holiday, since transporting a woman across state lines for "immoral purposes" was illegal under the ludicrous Mann Act.  The FBI suspected Mrs. Richardson might be a German spy but finally concluded she was merely a "gold-digger."
Popov was welcomed back to England, where he resumed his efforts to frustrate the Germans and to be the most interesting man in the world.  And he's just one of a menagerie of spies featured in the book, which is about half off at Amazon. (You can also find Popov's autobiography at ebay.)

Meanwhile, Death in the City of Light: The Serial Killer of Nazi-Occupied Paris by David King is WWII at its most macabre as it traces the exploits, capture and trial of a truly horrific serial killer.  The story is so fantastic that it would have to be toned down to work as a novel:  a mad doctor and his cronies pretend to be a resistance network specializing in helping desperate people escape Nazi France.  In reality, they kill the people they dupe in a disturbing execution house custom built in Paris:
Examining the beige wallpaper, which looked freshly applied, [the detective] peeled it back and discovered a viewing lens fitted in the wall at a height of almost six feet.  The purpose of the room was not clear, but there was already a disturbing hunch that this small place with its iron hooks, many decoys, and virtually soundproof walls might well be where the victims had met their demise. 
Or, were they patriots working in the French Resistance to kill Nazis and collaborators?  The book is full of mad doctors, drug addicted prostitutes, cunning gangsters, incompetent investigators, and lost treasure. $10 at Amazon.