Review: M – Maxwell Knight, MI5s Greatest Spymaster by Henry Hemming

It used to be that only James Bond would do when it came to undercover spy heroes – as far as I was concerned the cigarette smoking, gun toting, lady killing James Bond was the only spy worth their salt. For me, Ian Fleming invented undercover agents.

But then John le Carré turned up with George Smiley – a spy with a completely different kind of skills: administrative competence. A humdrum espionage agent in the most enthralling way. Yes, when Smiley stepped through the pages of Call for the Dead, he changed what I expected from a spy novel:

“When Lady Ann Sercomb married George Smiley towards the end of the war she described him to her astonished Mayfair friends as breathtakingly ordinary.”

So what of the real characters who occupy this shadow world? Where do they fall on the Bond-Smiley spectrum? Both Fleming and le Carré worked for the Secret Service, and later used them as inspiration when they were writing their novels, so there must be some kind of truth in them both, right?

In M- Maxwell Knight, MI5s Greatest Spymaster (a mouthful of a title if ever there was one), Henry Hemming casts some light on a spymaster who influenced them both: Maxwell Knight.

Maxwell Knight, rumoured to be inspiration for Ian Fleming and John le Carré, is one of Britain’s greatest eccentrics – keeping a bear in his house, marrying three times, leading a jazz band, writing spy books, fascinated by spiritualism, and eventually a world famous naturalist. That he ended up as a spymaster along the way is one of the stranger quirks of history:

“…mistrustful of intellectuals and elaborate political creeds; indeed there were times when he seemed to believe in little more than his country”

Hemming shines a light on on one of the weirdest characters the modern world has to offer: cut off from his family for being a bon vivant in his younger years, he worked as an undercover agent for a private company, before eventually settling in to his role at the centre of the British security services, and writing the book on what it takes to be a spy:

“I am convinced that more information has been obtained by women agents, by keeping out of the arms of men, than ever was obtained by sinking too willingly into them… Closely allied to sex in a woman, is the quality of sympathy; and nothing is easier than for a woman to gain a man’s confidence by the showing and expression of a little sympathy.”

It is fascinating stuff. Not just the story of one of Britain’s least prominent but most influential eccentrics, it’s the story of how the government tried to stem the rise of Communism, then Fascism, and then Communism again.

Its a feat of research too – Hemming has pored over declassified documents, searched shipping manifests and passenger lists, and scraped information from electoral rolls. No stone is left unturned.

If there’s a fault with M, it’s that we’ll never really know how much of this is true. For all of Hemming’s meticulous research, the documents never reveal the full story. Phrase like “may have been“, and “we can imagine” get used a lot as Hemming searches for ways to bring to life this enigmatic character. But I guess that’s the point of M, right? We’ll never really know what he was like, we’ll just have to hope that this book is a close rendering.

Oh I’d recommend this book easily enough – a perfect “Dad” read if ever there was one. As for where he sits on the Bond-Smiley scale? Well I’m pleased to say he’s closer to Smiley – it would be difficult to feel safe in a world where security was entirely entrusted to the hands of James Bond, wouldn’t it?

Still, Horowitz is back later this year with a new Bond novel – his last effort, Trigger Mortis, was immense – which might just tip me back in favour Fleming’s man.

So what do you think? Have you read it? Did you like it? Would you recommend it?

Let me know in the comments!

If you’re after similar inspiration, but want it fictionalised, then here are some classic George Smiley’s:

Review: A Murder of Quality by John le Carré - George Smiley is back with the perfect case for these long winter nights...

Review: Call for the Dead by John le Carré - John le Carre's first book introduces George Smiley - It's a decent thriller that is funnier than you'd think...


On the Other hand, if you’re Team Bond, then here are a few for you:

Review: James Bond in Trigger Mortis by Anthony Horowitz - James Bond. No, no, no, give this one a chance -you’ll like it I promise. It’s the start of a new Bond. Or I think it’s the start of a new Bond, anyway. Well, maybe not that new. For a start, he still doesn’t care about your scientifically proven link between smoking and cancer: But he does […]

Review: Solo by William Boyd - It’s a new Bond novel (I know, I never thought they still did them either). Boyd does a cracking job here – I read it in the space of two days and thought it was lots of fun. A real page turner. Strangely, I think it’s still set back in the sixties (though I’ve no reason […]


8 thoughts on “Review: M – Maxwell Knight, MI5s Greatest Spymaster by Henry Hemming

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