Bodyguard of Lies
Mr. Cave Brown is a very courageous man. He undertook the difficult task of writing a history of Allied deception during the Second World War at a time when the two essential sources for such a study were officially concealed. These two sources were, first, all material directly relating to deception, and, secondly, all material relating to cryptography and its results. In the course of his research he was able to penetrate these barriers indirectly. Then, while he was still at work, the ban was partially lifted and partially broken. F.W. Winterbotham was allowed to publish The Ultra Secret, or at least that part of it—the most jealously protected of all—which concerned the breaking by British intelligence of the German cipher machine called “Enigma”; and Sir John Masterman, undeterred by the bumble of bureaucracy, published his account of the Double-Cross System. The delays caused by the ban, and the labor which it has entailed, are obviously great, and we must respect the energy and industry which have enabled Mr. Cave Brown to produce, in the end, this enormous book.
The book is enormous partly because the subject is large and complex, partly because it has grown in his hands. In fact, it has become something like a general history of Anglo-American—and more especially (since the British were at it longer) British—intelligence in the Second World War. But it is far longer than it need be, first, because it has grown in an uncontrolled manner, so that the essential argument is buried in digressions, and secondly, because the author suffers from a fault (as I conceive it to be) which is only too common among modern historical writers, of “encyclopedism,” of insisting on telling us everything, whether it is relevant or not, Finally, having inflated an anyway complex subject to a huge and some-what flabby bulk, he has sought to rearticulate it by inserting into it a novel thesis: a thesis which, in my opinion, is quite wrong.
To the reader, the most obvious characteristic of Mr. Cave Brown’s writing is what I have called its encyclopedism. He piles on the illustrative (or irrelevant) detail. He cannot leave anything out. Every person mentioned must have a potted biography. Every place must be equipped with atmosphere, furniture, associations. He cannot use the word “Jubilee” (code name for the Dieppe raid) without adding that it was “the old Jewish word for a time of rejoicing and celebration announced by the sound of a ram’s horn,” or refer to the Balkans without adding that the name is “derived from the Turkish word for ‘the mountains.”‘ Moreover, these endless illustrative details, which journalists seem to regard as necessary to enliven their stories, are often wrong. Seldom, if ever, have I read a book containing so many unnecessary errors of description. Yugoslavia was not part of the Turkish empire in 1905. The Karel Borromaeus church in Prague is not Greek Orthodox. Etc., etc.
This passion for inessential detail seems to be inseparable from the “instant…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.