Henry Hemming introduces us to Maxwell Knight a jazz playing naturalist with his own private menagerie who turns out to be a great talent spotter and spy runner for MI5. He is the model for Ian Fleming’s “M.” He marries three times, but none of them were consummated. In other words he was quite the quirky guy.
Hemming’s biography largely focuses on the 1920’s and 1930’s where Knight is recruited into a private spying operation that infiltrates the British fascisti. Knight is well suited for this because he largely sympathetic to their goals and was a firm anti-communist. There he meets William Joyce who would go on to become the pro-Nazi broadcaster Lord Haw-Haw in the 1940's.
When Knight formally joins MI5 his main focus is on Soviet espionage and its handmaiden the British Communist Party. There he pioneers the use of female agents and with the great work of Olga Gray he breaks a major Soviet spy ring that infiltrated the naval armaments industry. He stays focused on the Soviets until Italy invaded Ethiopia and then, and only then, does he wake up to the threat of fascism.
Hemming focuses on Knight’s successes, but Knight, despite suspecting Anthony Blunt, he completely misses the notorious Cambridge Five spy ring. He comes close to detecting the Soviet infiltration of the British nuclear program, but objectively he fails.
Hemming offers us great insight into the operations of MI5 and the life of one of its best agents. For those interested in this topic, though a bit long, his book is well worth the read.
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