940: Between Silk and Cyanide by Leo Marks

by Gerard

940.548641: Marks, Leo. Between Silk and Cyanide: A Codemaker’s War, 1941-1945. New York: Touchstone, 2000. 600 pp. ISBN 978-0-684-86780-9.

Because World War II was so expansive (it wouldn’t be called a world war if it wasn’t), it cannot be confined to one section of country-specific history. Since 940 includes general works on the history of Europe, all works on WWII are placed here. 940.5 is anything after 1918; .54 is military history of WWII; .548 is other military topics; .5486 is unconventional warfare of the Allies; and finally .548641 means specifically in Great Britain. It was a big war.

Leo Marks, son of the famous Benjamin Marks (co-owner of the equally famous Marks & Co. bookstore in London), contributed to the British war effort by supervising a special team of cryptographic analysts known as SOE (Special Operations Executive). His job was to ensure that all communications from assets throughout Europe was proper, secure, and error-free. Having several complaints about the current system of using poem codes for encoding messages, he spent his first years devising new ways to code, including worked-out keys (WOKs), letter one-time pads (LOPs), and mental one-time pads (MOPs). Granted, I was only moderately capable of understanding these types of codes.

While Marks’ penchant for vivid and humorous story-telling had already been evident in his plays of the 50’s and 60’s, but his wryness is at his fullest in Between Silk and Cyanide. There may be bits and pieces that are more dramatized than most, you still get a sense of mainland activities from Marks’ point of view. They were tense times, and Marks does not pull any punches when unthinkable events occur — the death of one of their agents. Every day he had to live with the responsibility of ensuring that agents in the field were not captured or tempted to use their L-tablets (cyanide pills). Marks is as inventive as he is tender, and some of his Jewish humor can get a little old at times, but this book offers a very different look at life during the war. It takes a while to get through, but it’s worth it.