WARNING: Reading Agent Zigzag may seriously diminish any respect you may have for James Bond movies.
Once you read Agent Zigzag by Ben Macintyre, you’ll probably look upon all that you’ve enjoyed about the fictitious James Bond character as just a cheap imitation of the real deal: Eddie Chapman, the first successful double agent—who was much greater than MI5, Ian Fleming, Sean Connery, EON Productions—and certainly more creative. This truly is an example of truth being stranger than fiction.
Chapman is first found in jail on a small British island just off the coast of France. World War 2 has erupted and Hitler has overtaken France, including the island where the protagonist is jailed. Chapman has just started a 3-year sentence for burglary and decides to use his time wisely by first reading every book in the jail’s library. And once finished with this self-imposed task, he reads them all again. He also learns French and German, wisely thinking that these languages may come in hand considering the close proximity to France and that the island is occupied by German forces.
This dedication to learning, which Chapman exhibits tenaciously throughout the book, may seem slightly odd since, as a child, he hated British-styled schools and would play hooky more often than attend. He thought there must be a better way to live and he was determined to find it—but, on his own terms.
Chapman eventually gets out of jail early and begins to immediately manifest new adventures. He acts upon the brilliant and equally insane idea of informing the top German officer on the island that he’s interested in working for the German army as a secret agent. But secretly he’s only interested in finding a way off the island. Eventually, the Germans take him up on his offer and, after first throwing him in one of the most severe prisons in France brutally run by the Nazi’s, he finds his way to a palatial chateau in beautiful French country. There he is trained as a top German secret agent by some colorful characters. Here Chapman continues his life of learning by absorbing everything to do with the life of a spy, while pampered by the Abwehr, Germany’s military intelligence organization.
This begins a series of equally interesting events that lead Chapman back to England, Portugal, France, Germany and Norway, making Agent Zigzag a great travel book of Europe during that momentous period of the 20th Century.
Agent Zigzag reads like a biography of Eddie Chapman’s life around WWII, but read like the actual events were unfolding before my eyes. I couldn’t help but see how my favorite James Bond scenes where somehow lifted from this extraordinary life. It was like I was getting a chance to relive all my favorite James Bond movie scenes—but at a much more sublime level. And I couldn’t stop thinking how a person could live such an interesting, creative and adventurist life.
What’s so interesting about Chapman’s well-lived life was it was like he was living in a dream world where he always seemed to manifest the most unusual and interesting paths. He lived a very dangerous life where the stakes were life, but Chapman seemed to treat it as a great adventure—the higher the stakes, the greater the reward. He marched to the beat of his own drummer. And in this fashion is how Great Britain’s MI5 gave him the agent’s name “Zigzag”. As the author puts it so eloquently, whenever one would zig in life, Chapman always zagged. This also explains how what surely would have been a short life for most, Chapman manages to live to a ripe old age. The name also describes well the path Chapman takes in life, a series of zigzags but always leading to the goals of his own making.
A final note: Agent Zigzag is also based on a plethora of recently released MI5 documents previously hidden by the British government.