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

4.16  ·  Rating Details  ·  1,426 Ratings  ·  185 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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Community Reviews

(showing 1-30 of 3,000)
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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
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
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
Nov 19, 2011 Steve Merrick rated it it was amazing
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
Nov 16, 2012 Chris rated it liked it
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
Mar 26, 2009 Mairi rated it it was amazing
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.
Aug 16, 2016 Zora rated it it was amazing
What is it about the story that keeps me coming back to it? The story of how Hitler was defeated, especially the role of the French underground and British spies and regular English girls doing amazing things on the homefront, this to me is the greatest story ever told and likely always will be. Funny, touching, intellectually stimulating, here is a terrific addition to that powerful tale.

The title refers to the conversation had, when the author was asked why meager stores of silk should be used
Dec 21, 2014 Jeanette rated it liked it
Worth the detailed read about code breaking by SOE during WWII years for those who have patience and interest because it is dense reading. How the organization formed and what components melded during the get-go under Great Britain's distress were exceptional.

But this will appeal far more to people who love logic puzzles or maybe difficult math progressions. Because there is majority explanation in those pattern abilities here; enough which would make people who don't enjoy math go cross-eyed.

May 21, 2014 Alger rated it liked it
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
Nov 28, 2008 Rachel rated it it was amazing
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
Mar 04, 2015 Pedro rated it it was amazing
Between Silk and Cyanide was a wonderful recommendation I received and it really paid off. When you think about cryptography during WWII the names that come to mind are Bletchley Park and Alan Turing, but Leo Marks did a fantastic job too. He describes his battle with the bureaucracy to provide better codes to the agents on the field in a very humorous tone, also he writes very well and the book is very agreeable to read.

My only regret is not having discovered this book while my grandpa was stil
Jamie Collins
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
Michelle Diener
Sep 03, 2012 Michelle Diener rated it it was amazing
Shelves: research, wwii
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
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
May 10, 2010 Nathan rated it did not like it
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
David Crosby
Mar 24, 2008 David Crosby rated it it was amazing
Shelves: top-ten
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.
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
Jul 08, 2010 Skyring rated it it was amazing
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.


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
Jul 22, 2011 Christopher rated it it was amazing
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
Apr 06, 2013 Sean rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Alan Cohen
Sep 02, 2013 Alan Cohen rated it it was amazing
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
Susan Swiderski
May 09, 2013 Susan Swiderski rated it really liked it
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
Jun 27, 2014 Steve rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, warfare
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.
Feb 10, 2016 Katie rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: england
This is exactly the type of unique experience I wish people would routinely write strong nonfiction about. Marks's interesting and evocative writing really humanizes the process of cryptography and puts a lot of my own problems in perspective. He's funny, in a way that isn't annoying, and smart, also in a way that isn't annoying.

Reading the book also made me want to be really good at my job (perhaps an unintended consequence since Marks stopped his own work following the end of the war, but it h
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
Jan 16, 2011 Jerry rated it really liked it
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
Mar 17, 2016 Kit rated it liked it
I seem to be on a small WWII jag, having just read this and Kate Atkinson's A GOD IN RUINS. I also recently visited Bletchley Park north of London (the real story is way more interesting than the movie.)
The book BETWEEN SILK AND CYANIDE is by the son of the couple who owned and ran the London bookshop at 84 Charing Cross Road (made famous in part from Helene Hanff's book of that name). Marks was clearly a brilliant codemaker and codebreaker--but he was funny and only in his early 20s at the ti
Susie Craig
I enjoyed reading this book and experienced sadness, frustration and admiration for the Marks and his team, and the many brave individuals who relied upon codes for survival.

Marks writes of his experiences starting as a young and enthusiastic but naïve cryptographer with the SOE (special Operations Executive) in London, and working there over four years to become head of Communications. There are many poignant moments in his story and his concern and admiration for the agents dropped into Europe
Gordon Hilgers
Jan 21, 2015 Gordon Hilgers rated it it was amazing
Lots of hoopla about the Enigma machine's contribution to breaking the Nazi code during World War II tempts us to forget that code-making, as opposed to code-breaking, was just as important. In this fascinating book written in 1998, Leo Marks, the son of the proprietor of the famous bookstore at 84 Charing Cross Road in London, the operations of the British Signals Operation Executive (SOE)detail Marks' remarkable contribution to the making of codes the Germans could not break.

What's especially
Jul 05, 2015 Cat. rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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.
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Goodreads Librari...: Book description needs fixing 2 17 Dec 04, 2014 04:10AM  
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  • The Wolves at the Door: The True Story of America's Greatest Female Spy
  • Sisterhood of Spies
  • The Secret Life of Bletchley Park: The WWII Codebreaking Centre and the Men and Women Who Worked There
  • Station X: The Codebreakers of Bletchley Park
  • Operatives, Spies, and Saboteurs: The Unknown Story of the Men and Women of World War II's OSS
  • You're Stepping on My Cloak and Dagger
  • Agent Garbo: The Brilliant, Eccentric Secret Agent Who Tricked Hitler and Saved D-Day
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  • The Irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington
  • The Double-Cross System The Incredible True Story of How Nazi Spies Were Turned into Double Agents
  • Agent Zigzag: A True Story of Nazi Espionage, Love, and Betrayal
  • The White Rabbit: The Secret Agent the Gestapo Could Not Crack
  • Most Secret War
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Leo Marks was a British playwright also famous for his cryptography work.
More about Leo Marks...

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