An unlikely tale of true espionage by London-based journalist/historian Hemming (Abdulnasser Gharem: Art of Survival, 2012, etc.) in which a nerdy Jewish kid becomes a kind of James Bond.
Geoffrey Pyke (1893-1948) found his calling in the face of Nazi Germany’s official anti-Semitism. He did not forget that as a British POW in Germany in World War I, though, he had been confined to a barracks reserved for Jews—and not by Germans but by his fellow British officers, masters of “the casual anti-Semitism of Edwardian England.” Still, he remained a loyal servant of the empire, gathering valuable intelligence that would have earned him a firing squad as a spy. Convinced that the educational orthodoxy was misguided, Pyke also attempted to start a network of schools to be funded by his wizardry in the stock market. Convinced that it was not enough to defeat the Nazis but to “make fools of them in beating them,” he gained the confidence of Winston Churchill and cooked up some elaborately improbable technologies, including “an unsinkable aircraft carrier made out of a cheap new material that could be produced quickly.” Along the way, Pyke fell into the communist orbit. “I am primarily an anti-fascist,” he insisted, but he would have been a candidate for execution by his own country had he not beaten his pursuers to the punch. Hemming examines the facts, augmented by “the release of previously classified documents by MI5,” surrounding the Pyke affair, suggesting that while his subject, a tinkerer and discoverer, journalist, and genius indeed, had given material aid to the Soviets, he may not have been so deeply involved as was supposed. Pyke has been dead for nearly 70 years, so modest rehabilitation is of less interest than the fascinating story surrounding his deeds—for, as Time noted, killing himself “was the only unoriginal thing he had ever done.”
Fans of Graham Greene and Alan Furst will revel in this well-told true-life story.