The dramatic story of the remarkable British spymaster who may have been the model for the James Bond character M.
Maxwell Knight (1900-1968) recruited men and women who were quiet but intense, naturalists like him—though he was unlikely to find anyone as devoted to a wide variety of exotic animals. He looked for those who could work unnoticed, efficiently listening, remembering, and reporting what went on in communist and fascist organizations. Searching for a livelihood after World War I, Knight joined Sir George Makgill’s private intelligence agency. Makgill worked for industrialists worried about labor unions and the rise of communism. Knight’s first assignment was to join the British Fascists—which, in the 1920s, was not yet politically abhorrent—and to find potential recruits, an easy task given his mystical magnetism. At this time, he was friends with William Joyce, who would become, during World War II, the treasonous Lord Haw-Haw. They joined the paramilitary wing of the BF, where Knight learned the spy trades of kidnapping and his specialty, breaking and entering. In 1929, Knight was recruited by MI5 to fight communism, eventually leading the M Section. His “grey people” learned to become small and insignificant, remembering everything and hoping no one remembered them. Knight directed his people like he once ran his jazz band: moderating tempo, watching overall direction, and improvising when necessary. Hiring Anna Wolkoff to work as a secretary for the Communist Party was a stroke of genius, helping to break up a spy ring. Knight’s M section was more right-wing, daring, more maverick than others. It was also the most independent, economical, and unconventional. Many spy stories are page-turners, but the author proves that the story of one man can be equally thrilling.
Hemming has uncovered a man determined not to be known and in so doing, has provided us with delightful reading.