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From The Book Shelf – BETWEEN SILK AND CYANIDE by Leo Marks

I can thoroughly recommend this book. So can my husband, who I couldn’t drag it away from, and re-read the few final chapters again and again, and our friend, who had discovered the book and found it so amazing he forced us to read it.

If you find codes fascinating you will find this book Between Silk and Cyanide, A Codemaker’s War, 1941-1945 by Leo Marks fascinating.

Leo Marks is the only son of Benjamin Marks the part owner of that famous book shop at 84 Charing Cross Road in London. In 1942 Leo Marks who was always fascinated by codes, infact he was a genius cryptographer was hired in 1941 to work with the Signal’s Office (SOE) as an expert to assist British agents and foreign underground operators with their messaging to England on a wireless telegraphy (WT) set.

There has been a lot of coverage of Enigma and Aln Turing, but that is more about deciphering what the Germans were sending to one another. Very little has been written about how British Agents in the field got their messages and information back to England.

This book follows Marks as he saw and solved problems in the system and invented new ways of coding. Prior to his employment agents were putting themselves at risk if they had to repeat a message because the first message was indecipherable. Marks saw this as an ever increasing danger so changed how it was done. He trained all the agents in the new procedure prior to them being sent to join resistance groups in German held territories. Even he taught the ladies who spent hours each day working on the indecipherables from the agents.

Leo Marks is a well known Screen Writer having written the movie Peeping Tom, which has become a cult classic. And with all the details of what happened during those four years of the war Marks either had a diary, or an extremely good photographic memory.
But it is because Marks is a writer, this book is riveting and exciting to read. The details of code making are easy to follow, and the poetry he wrote for the agents to memorise and use in the field when sending their skeds are moving and apt.

The silk part of the title comes from the reams and reams of silk that was needed for the agents to write out their codes before transmitting. The silk was easily hidden and when used, could be burned. The cyanide? Well it was that one pill every agent carried to use if they were caught.

I found Between Silk and Cyanide, not only educational, but fascinating. I couldn’t wait to turn the page and find out how Leo got himself out of scrapes and how he solved so many problems that helped to keep the agents in the field safe.

This is a large book (600 odd pages), and although published in 1998 still a winner. If you can get hold of a copy you will be rewarded with a great tale about the Second World War from a completely different angle. There are still second hand copies around, and if you know someone you feel would find it enjoyable, it would make a great birthday or Christmas present.

Title: Between Silk and Cyanide – A Codemaker’s War, 1941-1945
Author Leo Marks
Publisher Harper Collins Publishers
Published 1998

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