Between Silk and Cyanide: A Codemaker's War, 1941-1945
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Between Silk and Cyanide: A Codemaker's War, 1941-1945

4.18 of 5 stars 4.18  ·  rating details  ·  810 ratings  ·  137 reviews
In 1942, Leo Marks left his father's famous bookshop, 84 Charing Cross Road, and went off to fight the war. He was twenty-two. Soon recognized as a cryptographer of genius, he became head of communications at the Special Operations Executive (SOE), where he revolutionized the codemaking techniques of the Allies and trained some of the most famous agents dropped into occupi...more
Paperback, 624 pages
Published September 12th 2000 by Free Press (first published 1998)
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Rose
This is a fantastic book. It is gripping, educational, and funny, and comes highly recommended.

At the age of 22, Leo Marks joined the Special Operations Executive, which managed resistance, espionage, and sabotage operations in Occupied Europe. His path to becoming an SOE cryptographer was not particularly smooth. First off, his interview with the code-breaking school did not get off to a good start, when the interviewer:

...began the interview by asking what my hobbies were.
"Incunabula and int
...more
A.L. Sowards
I added this to my to-read list last year, when a goodreads friend (thanks, Christie!) said it was among the best WWII books she’d read in 2012. Now that I’ve read it, I have to say that it’s among the best I’ve read in 2013.

The book begins with Leo Marks going off to war—to codebreakers school. He spends too much time trying to find shortcuts, so his instructors decide he’s not quite good enough for Bletchley Park (where the British are busy breaking German codes), but maybe a new outfit called...more
Meaghan
I admit that all the jargon about codemaking and codebreaking went over my head, but Marks's self-deprecating humor and engaging writing style kept me going so I finished the whole book in just two sittings in less than 24 hours. People who like World War II books will love this -- it's thrilling and suspenseful but without the violence. I did not envy the coders, and even less so the field agents, and I admired Marks for kicking and screaming and agitating so much to try to make their lives eas...more
Steve Merrick
I was despairing when I finally reached this gem of a book. Its one of the nightmares when you are researching subjects like Special Operations Executive, (British wartime organization with the brief from Churchill to set Europe Ablaze! sending agents hither and dither across Europe the SOE did just that.) There is a dearth of books mostly bad written about it, Yet before I get side tracked by that, I can say that this is one of the funniest and thought provoking books about espionage that I hav...more
Chris
If you love math, wordplay, puzzles in general, and tricks for navigating intense wartime bureaucracies, this book is for you. As for me, I was mainly interested because I recently learned that my great-aunt did coding during WWII. For me the most interesting parts were about the FANY (First Aid Nursing Yeomanry - who did espionage and many of whom were trained and supervised by the author) and stuff about how the war was won, and at what cost. While Marks' story was invaluable history, as a boo...more
Rachel
Wow, this book was great! Eric's been trying to get me to read it for ages, and I finally got around to it.

Leo Marks was the cryptographer who revolutionized the British codes during World War II. He invented many of the codes used by the British during the war, briefed many of their agents, and organized systems for decoding "indecipherables" -- coded messages that were garbled to the point that they couldn't be decrypted. He also turns out to be an excellent writer (he's also a screenwriter an...more
Mairi
I wish I could give it six stars. Or ten.

Without reservation or exception, this is the best book on WWII coders or WWII spy stuff in general that I have ever read and one of the best books I've read in a long time. Marks's style is easy and engaging. If I didn't have to pace myself, I would've devoured it much faster. As it stood, I ended up coming back to work after lunch late a couple of times.

I cannot possibly recommend it highly enough if you're interested in the subject matter.
Skyring
The science of codebreaking and codemaking is usually a subject guaranteed to glaze the eyes of all but the most devoted. Technical details abound and the reader is led through lots of alphabet soup.

Usually.

Not this time. The codebreakers of WW2 were an eccentric lot, it turns out, all brilliant, many fatally flawed. Leo Marks (son of the bookseller who established the famous 84 Charing Cross Road shop) is no exception. Brilliant.

And flawed in that he had a deep attachment to the agents sent ov...more
Michelle Diener
This is quite frankly the best book I have read in months and months. An auto-biographical account by Leo Marks of his time as the Head of Codes for Special Operations Executive, the British war department created to 'set Europe ablaze' during WWII, it was unputdownable.

That everything actually happened made the story even more riveting. I have always been interested in codes and ciphers, and I found Mark's descriptions of how they created codes and how they broke them fascinating. Marks is such...more
Christopher
This is one of those rare books that really moved me - to tears, to laughter, and to some deep thoughts around cryptography and its role in one of the most epic conflicts in history - WWII.

The author, Leo Marks has a delightfully British style of prose that's witty, self effacing, and delightfully quirky.

While the book is semi-autobiographical, the story really revolves around the incredible game of chess waged between Mr. Marks and his opposite number in German intelligence "Herr Giskes".

Make n...more
Sean
This is a rare memoir, written with a unique voice. I've yet to reread Foot et. al. on SOE, but I intend to see just where Marx contradicts him. The destruction of evidence is one of the most shameful episodes in a long history of shame regarding SOE.

A number of things stand out: given that Marks presumably had ULTRA clearance, why wasn't he informed of the strategic ramifications of the code war until much later in the war? Given the several visits of SIS, it just seems odd they did not deign t...more
Alan Cohen
This was a fantastic book for me. It combined intelligence and wit from a genius who worked magic for the British in World War II. As I finished the book, I was saddened to see it end, as well as touched by the author's sensitivity and charm demonstrated repeatedly throughout. His personal retelling of the cataclysm that was World War II, the damage it did to those brave souls in the field and back home and the consequences of Total War, is mesmerizing.
Marks had a unique style in writing that pe...more
Susan Swiderski
Okay, so this isn't what I'd consider a "fast read", but who cares? For anyone with an interest in World War II history, this book is a treasure. Leo Marks, one of Britain's WWII codemakers, takes the reader behind the scenes and into the world of developing, and then teaching, clandestine codes to men and women who were about to be dropped behind enemy lines. He describes the arduous task of trying to crack the "indecipherables", or garbled radio messages operatives sometimes sent... some due t...more
Steve
4.5 stars. I couldn't put this down, and was very willing to give this book 5 stars up until the last few chapters. I would have preferred to hear more about the authors life after 1945, but it was not to be. The book started brilliantly, but then felt like it dragged along a little too slowly, but it was still enjoyable. There was some explanation of cryptography and code-breaking, but I would have preferred a more in-depth one.
Genean
I remember watching old WW2 movies such as Carve Her Name With Pride, He Also Serves Who only Stands and Waits and in reading this book uncovered who had been writing those film scripts - Leo Marks. Yet these stories have not emerged by way of any casual acquaintance, but rather through the living those moments with those concerned.
To read this book is to open eyes on a central figure who's advantage is not only to know such an assortment of brave Heroes but to sort through the often lumbering...more
Jerry
Like Peter Wright's book on the intelligence services of Britain and US after WWII, this book about code breaking in Britain during WWII is rare reading, not because the prose is perfect, or the organization taught, but because the author is so revealing of exactly how he felt and what he was doing. Because we are not in a "matched-set" war now, nothing in the current world is as intense, forensic, and challenging. Although tv and movies make the modern world seemthat challenging. The nearest an...more
Kay
So far the author has spent an awful lot of time patting himself on the back for being so clever. I hope he stops soon or this will be shelved with the "50-page rule" books.

(Update, June 2012: I never did finish this, but got about halfway through. The insufferable smugness just wore me down, plus I tired of the minutia. - how the hell did he remember every detail and conversation? It seemed suspect. Perhaps he took incredibly detailed notes, which I assume was forbidden. No one could recall the...more
Nathan
A bloated, blathering account of what should have been a fascinating subject. Marks's faults are manifold: he never gives us a clear picture of how he solved codes and leaves us in the dark for most of the book as to the exact significance of codebreaking in relation to the war effort as a whole. He's also rather full of himself, expecting us to be interested simply because being a codebreaker is Just So Cool!, and constantly making tired attempts at wit in order to leaven his dull account. 600...more
Alger
A deeply frustrating book, one that falls very short of the inside history of a hidden war that that it promises, and is instead a personal memoir of a very vain and unreliable narrator.

Marks' greatest failing as a writer of memoirs is his false modesty, where he depreciates himself endlessly as a young a foolish boy whose only saving grace is his willingness to sacrifice his own best interests for the sake of the agents. Marks' greatest failing as a historian is his remarkable memory of events...more
Relstuart
One of the best books I've read all year.

The memoir of Leo Marks. A code breaker/code maker for the SOE during WWII in Britain. Bloody brilliant chap with a hilarious sense of dry, wry, British humor. A humorous excerpt:
My long lost corporal was waiting for me outside the NDO's office. His complexion was the colour of his uniform. "Very sorry sir. I was taken short."
I knew how he felt. I was born short. I thanked him for his help, but he continued standing there. I wondered if he'd taken short a...more
L.
Quite a funny book on a serious subject. He was involved in a major way with producing codes for Allied agents in Axis countries, outside of Germany & Italy, in Europe. Fascinating and frustrating. After the war, he became involved in making movies. Another odd connection is that his father was co-owner of the bookshop at 84 Charing Cross Rd. Now you know why I read that book. This one's better.
Liz
I LOVED this book! It gets way too dry and technical at times, it is really long of course....but the snarky author charmed his way into my reading time, I read this book and this book only for about 2 weeks. And I was sad when I finished it! The story is remarkable and very mysterious, the way he keeps it going no less so.
David Crosby
Good grief, what an excellent read. I'd settled down for what I assumed would be a dry but interesting read. Not at all, it was all about the characters, brought to life in a superb way. I was enthralled from start to finish, and only realised at the end that I had also been learning code breaking. Wow, will read again.
Wed
The author shows us a completely different battlefront from the traditional one of bullets, bombs and air-raid sirens. This is a covert war that's being waged. One where the objectives are to communicate with all possible stealth with the agents in countries controlled by the enemy, risking their lives night and day, in an all-out effort to keep them from discovery, torture and almost certain death. The codemakers, who are the stars of this true story, live their lives in the dark, intuiting the...more
Debbie
A whole chapter of numbers was too much for me.
Frederick Gault
Awesome non-fiction spy WWII code book.
Jamie
A fascinating memoir by WWII cryptographer Leo Marks, the son of one of the owners of the Marks & Co antiquarian bookshop made famous by Helene Hanff’s book 84, Charing Cross Road (a nice read for bibliophiles). At the age of 22 Marks was deemed unsuitable for Bletchley Park due to his “originality” and flippant sense of humor (much in evidence in the book) and was sent to work for the Special Operations Executive instead, where he supervised encoded messages to and from intelligence agents...more
Regina Lindsey
Between Silk and Cyanide by Leo Marks
4 Stars

This is the memoir of Leo Marks, who was head of the British code section responsible for translating the codes for the men and women who dropped into Nazi occupied Europe. At its core it is a treatise on code making and the turf war between SIS and SOE. While that may sound boring, Marks writing is full of humor and it is clear that he has reflected on his time with a great deal of objectivity, sharing an honest assessment of himself with the reader w...more
Maggieg
Thanks to Amazon for making this a bargain buy on the Kindle. Like many of the reviewers I found that some of the technical details about coding went over my head and all the complexities about the different directorates involved in wartime espionage and about which the author was necessarily vague were a bit frustrating. However, it was the character of the author himself which comes blazing out of every page that made this book such an amazing read. I fell in love with Leo Marks and now that I...more
R_
‘I’ll tickle your zonker for you, you cheeky little bugger,’ he roared. Leo Marks is a hoot! It might take you a couple of chapters before you start to "get" the humor that is such an important part of this author's style. (& the slang & the British Army lingo) Very dry, very British. I probably missed some references but the others were worth it. During WWII, the clandestine war raged in the shadows of the larger conflict. Marks, the son of a Jewish antique book dealer (at 84 Charing Cr...more
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Leo Marks was a British playwright also famous for his cryptography work.
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