British espionage historian Cook gives a thorough hammering to the outlandish career of a man often considered the archetype of the modern spy.
Credited by Ian Fleming as the inspiration for James Bond, Sidney Reilly was a suave spy, fond of fine living and the lover of too many women to count. This biography starts, appropriately enough, with murder—or rather a likely murder, since the author scrupulously separates fact from conjecture at every stage of a work buttressed by staggering research. In 1898, Cook tells us, Russian émigré Sigmund Rosenblum may have poisoned the husband of his lover, then married her for her money and for the opportunity their union gave him to morph into Sidney Reilly. Cook follows Rosenblum/Reilly’s trail like a hound to the scent, picking up snatches of it here, losing it there, only to find it again. His life was all foggy deception; even this dogged biographer can’t determine exactly where in Russia he was born, or whether it was in 1872, ’73, or ’74. After leaving his homeland, he worked as a patent medicine salesman in London, then in the service of Scotland Yard’s Special Branch tendering information on the Russian émigré community. Though the level of detail can be drowsy-making, Cook’s subject holds the attention. Yes, Reilly served the Secret Intelligence Service, though he may well have spied for the Japanese against the Russians as well. He supplied meat-and-potatoes intelligence for the British, but he was also looking out for himself and the opportunities spying afforded him to live the high life. “Seeking to lay the foundations for an Anglo-American syndicate to invest in a post-Bolshevik economy” led him into deep water and a sting operation, and Reilly’s years as an international operator came to an abrupt end in 1925 with a couple of bullets courtesy of the Russian secret police.
A mythic figure cut down to size to reveal the self-serving rascal beneath the bon vivant. (Illustrations)