The Secret Front Line: Robert Hutton’s Agent Jack

Hutton, Robert. Agent Jack: The True Story of MI5’s Secret Nazi Hunter. St Martins, 2018.

 You may remember that last year I reviewed Kate Atkinson’s Transcription a novel that dealt through fiction with at least part of the intelligence operation during World War II that worked to observe and neutralize British Nazis. Robert Hutton’s Agent Jack reveals the true story of how Eric Roberts, originally a bank clerk, led pro-Nazi Britons to believe they were reporting directly to the Gestapo in Berlin when in fact they were revealing everything to MI5.

After the war, Roberts was for a short while seconded to MI6 in Vienna and then immigrated to Canada where he lived on Salt Spring Island, BC, became a local historian, wrote some fiction and kept his secrets until his death in 1972. Hutton reveals a man keenly aware of being something of a misfit in MI5. You’ll remember from my review of Adam Sisman’s. John Le Carré: The Biography, how both branches of the intelligence service were in the past staffed primarily by Oxbridge graduates from British public schools. Roberts was neither.

Hutton also focuses on another misfit in the book: Victor Rothschild. As a Jew, Rothschild would still have been regarded by the British establishment as something of an outsider despite his wealth and education at Harrow and Cambridge. Certainly, he had to face discrimination: Hutton cites Rothschild’s experience in 1934 of being refused service in a London restaurant because of his ethnicity (82). Perhaps we forget or like to forget that before WWII Nazi ideology had support in England. Hutton reminds us of the “muted suspicion that permeated all levels of society [in Britain]. While there were no longer any legal barriers for Jews, they would struggle to get into the better regiments in the Army (83).

Rothschild was given the rank of Colonel in MI5, and it was in his capacity as chief of the counter-sabotage section B1C that Rothschild met Eric Roberts. Hutton gives a detailed account of how Rothschild and Roberts worked to discover the suspected “Siemens Kriegsnetz” (117). In fact, there were no spies at Siemens in England, but what they did discover was “there were certainly people at large in Britain who felt more loyalty to Germany” (118) than to Britain and who were prepared to work for Germany if they could. It was with those people that Eric Roberts as Jack King would spend much of the war.

Agent Jack reads something like a fictional spy thriller eliciting an engagement with the reader somewhat different from what one expects from simple biography. Hutton’s style verges on the conversational at times, but the work is by no means light-weight. At the beginning of the work, Hutton includes a helpful list of the many people he writes about; there are also some photographs. Further, he scrupulously details his sources, and in a note on “Sources” at the end of the book compares the gradual release of MI5 files to “tipping thousands of jigsaw pieces onto the floor” (283) and his task was to put together a picture for which he does not “have all the pieces” (284). He assures us, however, that “every word in the book that appears inside quotation marks was either spoken or written by the person to whom it was attributed” (284).

What those people said is in many cases highly disturbing. As Hutton points out in his “Note to the Reader” at the beginning of the book, “since 1945, Britain has told itself a story about the war” that isn’t the complete truth. “Underneath the spirit of the Blitz, . . .[Eric Roberts] uncovered another set of loyalties” (xi). It’s probably easier for us living seventy-five years after the end of WWII to deal with those divided or different loyalties than it would have been for those living through the war. Even now, however, it is hard to read some of the hatred expressed by “Jack King’s” supposed German agents.

As well as his explanation of his sources, Hutton also details briefly what happened after the war to those he writes about. Eric Roberts’ children remained ignorant of what he actually did in the war until decades later. Some of Roberts’ colleagues remained with MI5; others didn’t. The war against Nazis became the cold war against Soviet Russia, and it was fascinating to discover that Roberts had actually expressed concerns about the loyalty of Anthony Blunt long before he was confessed to being a member of the Cambridge Five.

All in all, I found Agent Jack a fascinating and absorbing book.






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Paris à deux: Daylight Ghosts in Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog and Sebastian Faulks’ Paris Echo.

Barbery, Muriel. The Elegance of the Hedgehog.  Galliard, 2006. Trans. Alison Anderson. Europa, 2008.

Faulks, Sebastian. Paris Echo. Bond Street-Doubleday Canada, 2018.

At first, it may seem strange that I should bracket these two works together, and I admit that the pressures of time were of some consideration here. I have already read five books this year and I have yet to post about any of them. To say that sometimes “life gets in the way” is something of an understatement for my existence lately. However, when I thought to myself, “Why not consider the two “Paris” novels together, I realised that both works share way more than a setting that is integral to the overall effect of both novels. Quite apart from its plot structure and other elements, Faulks’ Paris Echo is a celebration of Paris, a love song to its neighbourhoods, to its atmosphere, its history, even as he reveals the Paris that tourists don’t see: the suburbs perhaps glimpsed by most of us from the windows of a taxi, working class suburbs inhabited by immigrants legal and illegal. He introduces the novel with quotations: one on history from Victor Hugo, another on the metro from Kafka, and the last from Baudelaire on Paris the “cite de rȇves” where “le spectre en plein jour raccroche le passant! (“Le Sept Vieillards” Les Fleurs du Mal. Qtd. Faulks). Barbery also gives a sense of contemporary Paris, of its class divisions, of its snobberies major and minor.

Both novels draw close attention to how point of view can be manipulated in the reader and underscore the fact of life that different people experience the same event differently. Barbery’s two narrators are Renée the autodidact concierge of an apartment building in the rue de Grenelle in Paris and the younger daughter of one the residents of that building, Paloma, a gifted child who hides her intellect from those around her but keeps a record of her “Profound Thoughts” and makes entries into her Journal of the Movement of the World. Faulks’ narrators are Tariq a Moroccan teenager from Tangier and Hannah an American historian researching life in France and especially in Paris during the Nazi occupation.

Further, both novels deal with how preconceptions and expectations conflict with what is actual, and with what is hidden and why, with the constraints of class and race. I found Baudelaire’s phrase “daylight ghosts” highly appropriate in connection with Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog given how often a concierge is regarded as a shadow person, a role not an individual.

Barbery’s novel is possibly more cerebral than Faulks’ work. Be prepared to remember what you can of phenomenology and semiotics, of Japanese art and film, of musical theory. Both novels deal with what we think we know and what we don’t know, what is true and what is fiction. They remind us to look beyond the superficial. In Faulks’ novel, the Paris Metro seems to function as a metaphor reminding us that what connects us is often something below the surface, that truth is often hidden beneath the masks we wear, the roles we play, that passion often lies beneath the veneer of calm.

So far, I have dwelt primarily on what the two novels share. There are, of course, differences. Barbery’s tone is ultimately more ironic than Faulks’. The Elegance of the Hedgehog is a critique of the present. Faulks’ novel while alive to contemporary problems focuses on how so many of those problems are rooted in the past, especially the colonial past. Where Barbery’s concerns are ultimately psychological and philosophical, then Faulks’ are political and sociological. Of course, the lines between these distinctions are never finely drawn but gently shaded; such shading providing a tool for summarizing the way in which the two novels contrast each other.

As I finish this post, however, I’m struck once again by just how well the two works do allow for comparison. I suppose if one were to attempt a sweeping generalization, then one could say that all good literature shares insights into the human condition and an understanding of the dangers inherent with not acknowledging the past, and it is that sense of empathy that remains with the reader when these two novels reach their conclusions.


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A Belated Miscellany: Short Reviews

Well, here we are: half way through January, and I’m only now finishing reviewing books I read last year. You can see the whole list on the 2019 page under the tab The Year’s Reading. That list actually records only the books I might designate serious, literary, or challenging in some way. I also read or reread lots of what used to be called light fiction.  Anyway, I list below with very brief comments the books I didn’t review in full over 2019. 

Barton, John. A History of the Bible: The Story of World’s Most Influential Book. Viking, 2019. 
A very good introduction to the subject, articulate and academic, yet highly readable. What struck me most was Barton’s even-handedness in his approach to the subject when dealing with differing interpretations of texts not only between Jews and Christians but among the various sects and denominations within the two faiths.

Beard, Mary. SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome. Liveright, 2015. Insightful, interesting, and as lively in prose as the writer is herself in her television presentations. A very useful background to the period, and despite Beard’s comments warning us against comparing our own situation to the end of imperial Rome, the book does make us think about the present and the decline of empires.

Gaiman, Neil. Stardust.1999. Morrow, 2016. A romp, a joy, all the usual experiences one expects from Gaiman.

Morton, Kate. The House at Riverton. 2006. Pan 2015. Not as tightly crafted as The Clockmaker’s Daughter but engaging, this novel also deals with echoes from the past.

Murray, Nicholas. Andrew Marvell: World Enough and Time. Little Brown-Abacus, 2000. Worthwhile examination of Andrew Marvell and his place in English letters and politics with good supporting material and sources.

Pearce, A. J. Dear Mrs. Bird. Scribner, 2018. Highly enjoyable read about a young woman with aspirations to serious journalism and her experiences as an Agony Aunt in London during the early days of WWII.

Runcie, James. The Road to Grantchester. Bloomsbury, 2019. If you want to know how Sidney Chambers was called to the priesthood, then this book will tell you. In many ways, this is a far more serious book than Runcie’s other Grantchester books and reads far more like a novel of self-discovery than a whodunnit with a clerical collar.

A new year of reading awaits us all. Happy Reading. MV.







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Look Back With . . . ?: Nick Hornby’s Funny Girl

Hornby, Nick. Funny Girl. Riverhead, 2015.

Probably the Nick Hornby novel I’ve enjoyed the most, Funny Girl, Hornby’s 2015 novel is about Barbara Parker from Blackpool, winner of the Miss Blackpool beauty contest. After a moment’s consideration, she rejects the title and the resulting responsibility that would have kept her in Blackpool and goes to London instead. There, she works at Derry & Toms in Kensington until she becomes Sophie Straw the star of a BBC comedy series.

Hornby divides the novel into sections each with its own title, and each covering an important period of Barbara/Sophie’s transition from beauty queen to television soap star. The last section of the book brings us to the near present and reveals where the creators of Barbara (and Jim) are decades after the last series finished. Hornby also gently plays with our expectations of fiction in his references to actual figures from the BBC and the inclusion in the book of pictures of actual persons and events from the early sixties. Further reinforcing the apparent veracity of the fiction is the promotional material issued by Penguin, which captures perfectly the style of the early sixties.

In many ways, it was this evocation of time and place that engaged my attention most in the novel. While the story traces Barbara Parker’s translation into comedienne Sophie Straw and focusses on the developing relationships among Barbara/Sophie and her co-stars and producer, and while Hornby handles his characters and plot with his usual sensitivity, empathy, and good humour, it is Hornby’s insightful and accurate capturing of the time period that draws the reader into the fictional world and convinces her of the veracity of his insights.

He offers a wry backward glance at Britain in the sixties and at the shifting tectonic plates of British sensibilities. This is Harold Wilson’s Britain. The world of television sit-com allows working class Sophie to work with Cambridge educated Dennis. This is the BBC still infused with concern for the morals of the nation and not paying its workers as much as its ITV competition would. This is the world where for most a joint still means roast lamb, beef or pork, cooked to shoe leather quality on Sundays. Other social classes, foreign food, ambitious women, divorce: these are somehow incomprehensible to some even as others grab every opportunity the emerging new order offers. The sexual revolution is bewildering even some of the young. Anyone remember those paper union-jack tote bags declaring “I’m Backing Britain”? It’s a Britain with only one sanctioned radio broadcaster, two television channels, and a £50 per annum limit on access to foreign currency. At the time when Barbara leaves Blackpool for London, homosexuality is still illegal.

At the end of Funny Girl, Sophie doesn’t “want 1964 back” (452). Does anyone? Much has changed in the last fifty or so years, but as I read Funny Girl I was also watching the unfolding events leading up to the recent election in Britain. I couldn’t help wonder about nostalgia and optimism, emotions as poignant and influential now as they were then. I finished the novel with a certain sense of foreboding because despite the affirmative ending of the work in terms of Sophie’s personal narrative, Funny Girl made me contemplate a past that actually wasn’t as golden as some would have us believe and a future my vision of which becomes increasingly dystopian.

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Pause for thought? Cecelia Watson’s Semicolon.

Watson, Cecelia. Semicolon: The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark. Ecco, 2019.

If syntax interests you, then you will probably appreciate Semicolon. You may also really enjoy the illustrations by Anthony Russo with their quirky reference to the woodcuts associated with the earliest printed books and the development of moveable type. If you suffered in your undergraduate English courses, then you may never want to consider the semicolon again. After all, given that so much business correspondence now depends upon our ability to present our ideas as bulleted text while our personal correspondence relies on emoji and the kind of idiosyncratic speed writing used for text messages, why do we need to present a fluent, logically thought-out and fluently presented idea? For some of us, no doubt, our response to the semicolon could be expressed as follows: 🙄 😴 🤮.

However, Cecelia Watson obviously believes this often denigrated punctuation mark deserves some attention. Within the relatively brief space of a small 5 x 7 pocket book of 214 pages, Watson devotes eight chapters plus an introduction and conclusion to discussing the semicolon. Her title explains much of what the book examines. Eighteen of those 214 pages are single spaced small font end notes, and six and half of them are the index.

As Watson points out the semicolon is problematic. To use or not to use? Would a period be better? Does its use reveal a subtle elitism in the prose that it adorns? She quotes Vonnegut amongst others on their distaste of the semicolon. I give a little more detail, here, than she does:

Here is a lesson in creative writing.

First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.

            And I realize some of you may be having trouble deciding whether I am kidding or not. So from now I will tell you when I’m kidding.

            For instance, join the National Guard or the Marines and teach democracy. I’m kidding. (Kurt Vonnegut, A Man Without a Country. Ed. Daniel Simon Seven Stories P. 2005)

Although her tone is somewhat lighthearted at times, Watson is not “kidding.” She takes the semicolon seriously. Much has depended upon the semicolon. For example, the Chapter on “Loose Women and Liquor Laws: The Semicolon Wreaks Havoc in Boston” outlines some of the legal complications arising from whether the original drafters of legislation intended a comma or a semicolon in the text of laws. Then there were the “Grammar Wars” (Chapter 11) and the resulting proliferation of text books, which continues to this day, that initiated all kinds of debate over sentence structure and punctuation. Of course, some people such as Lewis Thomas in his much anthologised “Notes on Punctuation” (available in many sources but originally published in The Medusa and the Snail: More Notes of a Biology Watcher) suggests, “There are no precise rules about punctuation.” If that were actually the case, there would be no market for grammar handbooks, and this is one of the points Watson makes. She also draws on her own experience not only as a student but also as a teacher of writing.

I must admit to not having let this mark worry me unduly until I moved across the Atlantic, and then it loomed large

misuse of this punctuation mark could spell failure. So concerned was I that I didn’t dare use it until the third year of my undergraduate program. A few years later, while being oriented for my first year of teaching undergraduates Freshman English, I was told to fail papers that had three or more comma splices. But, I thought after a little research, many of the novelists we teach, especially if they are English novelists, comma splice with what seems to be almost hedonistic abandon.

I’m actually rather fond of the semi-colon now; it helps me link ideas and captures the sense of a reflective frame of mind. Independent clause following independent clause always feels a little over confident, even bossy. I’m even fond of colons used appropriately even though they do, like the buffers at the end of a railway line, bring you up to an abrupt halt, but it’s an abrupt halt at the platform end, saying something important: you are here: you’ve arrived: the adventure begins. I must admit, however, to feeling more than nauseous when the colon is not preceded by an independent clause and is just left attached to nothing but still attempting to introduce an important thought or list. It just has to work too hard without that full clause to precede it. But I digress. Watson’s book is about the semicolon.

There are some who see the semicolon as neither one thing nor the other but a strange combination of comma and period. I’d argue this is its great strength, linking ideas in a way that is far too much work for a comma but without the didactic finality of the period, or, as I was initially raised to denote it, the full stop.🛑This sense of being neither quite one thing nor the other holds true for Watson’s book as well. It is lively, humorous, and conversational and somewhat irreverent but also, perhaps because of its focus, rather academic, especially when one considers the footnotes that sometimes take up half a page or more. Just who, other than academics, writers, and that fast disappearing breed the imperious sub-editor of daily broadsheets worries too much about semi-colons. Poor, harried undergraduates perhaps. If you belong in one of these groups or somehow maintain a sense of humour about grammar and rules, you will find both sentence and solas in Watson’s book.


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Happily(?) Ever After: Reader, I Married Him. Ed. Tracey Chevalier.

Chevalier, Tracy. Ed. Reader, I Married Him: Stories Inspired By Jane Eyre. William Morrow, 2016.

In some ways, this collection’s title says it all. Chevalier has collected twenty-one stories inspired, if that is the right word and I’m not sure it is, by Jane Eyre’s line “Reader, I married him” from Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. She also includes, at the end of the book, information about the authors she has chosen and a short biographical note about Charlotte Brontë. Since there isn’t space in a post such as this to respond in detail to each story, I’ll list them at the end of this post, so you can look them up if you want.

Chevalier introduces the stories with a five and a half page forward giving a brief overview of the stories and considering why the line “Reader, I married him” has resonated so vibrantly since Brontë published her novel and explaining that she has “asked women to contribute to this collection” (4) because Brontë’s “ambition and imagination . . . paved the way for more women to write and be published” (4). She also makes a few assertions that I question at times. For example, Chevalier asks “how many novels acknowledge their readers?” and concludes that to be so addressed is “flattering—and memorable” (2). I’m not sure I agree. I’m not particularly flattered. In my perhaps solipsistic way I rather take it for granted that writers of fiction are writing so that I can read it. Further, I can’t help but think of eighteenth-century novelists who often break frame and emerge from behind their narrative to address the reader: sometimes delivering homilies and other times, as so often in Fielding, to pass wry commentary upon their characters’ actions. Brontë’s making Jane aware of her status of being a writer aware that she is being read is interesting and worthy of way more discussion and contemplation about the relationship between author, narrator and audience, but, right now, I refuse to be distracted from considering Reader, I Married Him.

As Chevalier informs us “always in these stories there is love—whether it is the first spark or the last dying embers—in its many heart-breaking, life-affirming forms” (6). Sometimes, there is marriage. Some such as Helen Dunmore’s “Grace Poole Her Testimony,” Francine Prose’s “The Mirror,” or Salley Vickers’ “Reader, She Married Me” enter the world of Jane Eyre and tell the story from a different perspective from Jane’s. Others, such as Susan Hill’s “Reader I Married Him” and Emma Donohughe’s “Since First I Saw Your Face” fictionalize actual historical relationships. The settings vary from nineteenth century England to a contemporary immigrant community in New York, a university in Turkey, small town Canada just after the Second World War, or a Texas waterpark.

Whether wryly amusing or verging on the gothic, the stories address issues of commitment, of the power relationships within love, issues of truth and untruth, fidelity and its opposite. Is this collection worthwhile? Yes. These are all stories that move the reader, sometimes inducing melancholy and at others making her laugh. Also, even if you haven’t read Jane Eyre (hard to believe I know, but there are those out there who have not, even some who have degrees in English Literature, and I suspect their number will grow as university curricula become less and less based on a generally agreed upon canon) each story is individually engaging and well-crafted.

I’m somewhat ambivalent about the short story. I always want more. I like to lose myself in novels. However, the short story in its very brevity provides more than just a way to fill in the time on a bus journey. The good short story provides a highly focused examination of a character, incident, or ongoing situation and comments upon it. I’d argue that they’re actually harder to write well than the novel because of the necessity for doing so much on such a limited canvas. The stories Chevalier has collected are all good short stories.

Stories included in Reader, I Married Him: Short Storied Inspired By Jane Eyre. All the stories were published in 2016 and are listed in the order in which they appear in the collection.

Tessa Hadley, “My Mother’s Wedding”

Sara Hall, “Luxury Hour”

Helen Dunmore, “Grace Poole Her Testimony”

Kirsty Gunn, “Dangerous Dog”

Joann Briscoe, “To Hold”

Jane Gardam, “It’s a Man’s Life, Ladies”

Emma Donoghue, “Since First I Saw Your Face”

Susan Hill, “Reader, I Married Him”

Francine Prose, “The Mirror”

Elif Shafak, “A Migrating Bird”

Evie Wyld, “Behind the Mountain”

Patricia Park, “The China from Buenos Aires”

Salley Vickers, “Reader, She Married Me”

Tracey Chevalier, “Dorset Gap”

Nadifa Mohamed, “Party Girl”

Esther Freud, “Transference”

Linda Grant, “The Mash-Up”

Lionel Shriver, “The Self-Seeding Sycamore”

Audrey Niffenegger, “The Orphan Exchange”

Namwali Serpell, “Double Men”

Elizabeth McCracken, “Robinson Crusoe at the Waterpark—




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Winter Solstice 2019




Winter Spirit: 8.5 x 10. Digital image created with Procreate® and Graphic ®  © 2019.

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