A couple of weeks ago I had the interesting experience of sharing an online stage with the renowned expert on espionage Nigel West (who also published a couple of crime novels drawing on his experience as an MP under his real name, Rupert Allason). Listening to Nigel prompted me to delve into a book published five years ago by Henry Hemming, a biography of the legendary spymaster Maxwell Knight.
I knew a bit about Knight from my researches into the life and work of John Bingham, who was one of his agents - as was John le Carre. Another of his agents was Bill Younger, whose The Hammersmith Maggot I discussed on Friday. Yet another was Jimmy Dickson, who wrote as Grierson Dickson (confusion in the past caused some people to think that John Dickson Carr was one of the spies, but the person in question was Jimmy Dickson, an author of much less renown). One of the many interesting points that Hemming makes is that Knight seems to have liked to recruit authors as spies. He also had a prejudice in favour of female spies, since he prized their observational skills.
M: Maxwell Knight, MI5's Greatest Spymaster is a book I enjoyed reading. He was an extraordinary character, with an obsession about pets that made him famous in later life. I have a copy of his book Talking Birds, which was amusingly illustrated by David Cornwell - alias John le Carre. He also wrote two thrillers in the 1930s, Crime Cargo and Gunman's Holiday, the first of which was dedicated to Dennis Wheatley. I've never come across them, but Hemming doesn't think much of the first and doesn't even mention the title of the second.
Knight's private life was unorthodox. He married three times but seems to have had little or no interest in sex - unlike quite a few of his agents. His first wife took her own life. He flirted with fascism as a young man - one of his pals was William Joyce - but was responsible for its defeat in Britain in the early stages of the Second World War. Hemming gives a good, rounded portrait of this mysterious fellow and does so in a very readable manner.