A number of excellent nonfiction books have been written about the exploits of British Intelligence in World War II, some of them by the practitioners themselves. Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies by Ben McIntyre stands out among recent examples. The title refers to what was variously called the XX Committee, the Twenty Committee, or the Double Cross Committee, a high-level body in British government charged with mounting a number of secret operations to deceive the Germans about the location of the Normandy Invasion. Their work, code-named Operation Fortitude and kept secret for decades, was spectacularly successful. It may have made the difference between the success or failure of the all-important invasion.
Naturally, an historical event so rich in detail and possibilities has also given rise to many spy novels as well. The most satisfying of those I’ve read is The Best of Our Spies, by Alex Gerlis. Working on the foundation of historical fact, including some real-life characters as well as the locations where the action really took place, Gerlis has woven a deeply engrossing and suspenseful tale that does as good a job as any nonfiction book in conveying what Operation Fortitude was really like. Though the principal characters are entirely fictitious, the lives they led may well come as close as any historical accounts to the reality lived by some of the many intelligence officers and agents involved in the scheme.
The Best of Our Spies (Spies #1) by Alex Gerlis (2012) 620 pages ★★★★★
A World War II spy story that conveys authenticity
The best writers of espionage fiction — John le Carre, Charles Cumming, and Olen Steinhauer, for example — are careful to avoid turning their protagonists into superheroes. They write about, often wallow in, the moral ambiguity of their characters’ work. Gerlis does, too. Both Owen Quinn and the young Frenchwoman whose stories dominate the novel are problematic characters, deeply affected by the events around them. For anyone with any empathy at all, it would be difficult not to feel their pain.
Most of the action in The Best of Our Spies takes place over the four final years of World War II. The scene shifts rapidly from one chapter to another, moving back and forth from a number of locations in England, to a succession of French towns and cities as well as the headquarters of the Abwehr (German military intelligence) in Berlin. The novel is full of surprises despite the fact that the major events in the story are so well known.
About the author
In the last few years British TV and radio journalist Alex Gerlis has turned to writing historical novels about espionage. The Best of Our Spies was the first, in 2012. His second, The Swiss Spy, was published in 2015.
For additional reading
Check out my posts:
- 10 top nonfiction books about World War II
- The 10 best novels about World War II
- The 10 most consequential events of World War II
- 15 good books about the Holocaust, including both fiction and nonfiction
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