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

4.22  ·  Rating details ·  2,221 ratings  ·  256 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, 614 pages
Published 1999 by Harper Collins (first published June 12th 1998)
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Start your review of Between Silk And Cyanide: A Codemaker's War 1941-1945
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 calle
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
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.

Steve Merrick
Nov 19, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Aug 12, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Alger Smythe-Hopkins
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
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
Oct 31, 2012 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Leo Marks worked in SOE during the Second World War, and this book is an account of what happened to him during that time. Marks writes with great humor (his father owned 84 Charing Cross Road), and sympathy. He is also respectful of the women he works with - doesn't look down on them acknowledges their intelligence. One of the funniest sections of the book has to do with monthies.

I just wish there had been years at the top of each chapter.
Nov 28, 2008 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Dec 15, 2012 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. ...more
Aug 23, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A fascinating and captivating first hand account of WWII codes and coding from the person most responsible for them. Leo Marks was recruited into SOE after being rejected by Bletchley Park, but became responsible for both creating the codes used by British agents, and the decoding or deciphering of those agents messages, even when they weren't properly encoded. Between Silk and Cyanide gives a detailed account of the SOE's Signals division, and the creation of codes to allow their agents to comm ...more
Tom Leland
Since it was a "national bestseller", and has plenty of 5-star reviews on Goodreads, there's obviously something great here for many -- not for me. I just couldn't get myself to give a damn about the minutia of the coding and the endless bureaucratic intrigue. He's got that brilliant Brit wit, though even that got tiresome. Starting skimming at around page 240. ...more
Nov 12, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A war memoir that somehow magically combines humor, intelligence, tragedy and triumph in one epic story. Leo Marks is a self-deprecating coding genius, who constantly pushed the envelope for what he believed was right and important, all for the sake of the lives of the agents whose codes he worked to decode and transcribe. This is a must-read for any WWII buff.
Feb 27, 2013 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
Zella Kate
I've always been fascinated by cryptography and British espionage during WWII. (I blame repeatedly reading this book as a teenager:

I stumbled across a reference to Marks's book recently and was surprised I had never heard of it before. It's easily one of the best wartime memoirs I have ever read. Though Marks was, essentially, deskbound for the duration of the war, his account of his time developing codes for the SOE (a secret organization that instigate
Mar 04, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Michelle Diener
Sep 03, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
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 in t ...more
May 09, 2010 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
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
Apr 21, 2017 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
Take the cyanide -- it'll be more humane than reading this mess. If you care deeply about bureaucrtic intrigue in mid-century British intelligence agencies, laced with bad poetry, endless puns, inside jokes, false modesty, and a hazy explanation of cryptography, this is your book. I'd have never finished this unedited excuse for a memoir had I not paid for it. Let my pain be your salvation, and look elsewhere. ...more
David Crosby
Feb 26, 2008 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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. ...more
Kursad Albayraktaroglu
This is a truly fascinating, absolutely amazing book for any student of WWII history and espionage. Through a series of interesting events, Marks rose to the position of chief of codes for SOE at the age of 22; and was responsible for encryption keys used by Allied spies dropped behind German lines in Europe during WWII. The title "Silk and Cyanide" refers to the precarious balance that existed between the security of these keys (which were printed on silk to make them easy to conceal) and the s ...more
Jan 23, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
I listened to the audio version of this book. Because my mother was a decoding agent for MI5 during the war, and my father dropped into occupied France with the Jedburghs, a division of OSS, this book had special meaning for me. Mr. Marks could well have trained my father on how to send coded messages back from France. So I was particularly fascinated by all the thinking that went into the training of the secret agents. I was also heartened to learn of the deep concern that Marks and other membe ...more
Aug 21, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This was an absorbing and fascinating book. Also, dare I say, entertaining, even though the subject matter was anything but. I attended the author talk held by the Smithsonian and Leo Marks was so riveting to listen to (he died in 2001). I also visited Bletchley Park a year or so after reading the book.
Melanie Fraser
This could have been very dry but it was written with humour.

The way poems were sometimes used in the coding process was fascinating as was the background information about the SOE and other UK secret organisations.

It would have been better if it wasn't so very long but I'd recommend reading it a bit at a time!
Cindy Mathieu
Aug 01, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
There's a reason this book is still in print. Its a interesting read. You don't have to follow along with all the decryption explanations in order to get the author's drift. Highly recommended! ...more
Jul 07, 2010 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Alan Cohen
Sep 02, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
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Leo Marks was a British playwright also famous for his cryptography work.

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Here’s some trivia for your next vacation get-together: The concept of the summer “beach read” book goes all the way back to the Victorian...
30 likes · 12 comments
“He began the interview by asking what my hobbies were.
"Incunabula and intercourse, sir."
It slipped out and wasn't even accurate; I'd had little experience of one and couldn't afford the other.”
“There were only three things which SOE's agents could anticipate with confidence. That their parachutes would open, that their L-tablets would kill them, and that their messages from London would be accurately encoded.” 0 likes
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