Book Review Thursday: Two World War II Spy Stories


I’ve been lax of late in writing here at Digging History as I’ve undertaken some ancestry and book research projects.  I’ve also been inundated with trying to keep up with library books I’ve had on hold all coming my way at the same time it seems.  In the last two weeks I’ve read two somewhat-related books about World War II spies – one about a woman who to many in the world of MI6 and OSS during the war was known only as “Cynthia” and the other about an American family living in Paris who joined the Resistance and paid a dear price.

The Last Goodnight

I am a fan of Howard Blum.  I eagerly wait for his new books to be released and make sure I’m in line to check it out as soon as I can from the library.  After seeing initial reviews of his latest book, I wasn’t so sure I’d like it or not.

Truth be told I had mixed feelings about the book – it was hard to decide if Betty Pack (a.k.a. “Cynthia”) was a true patriot or perhaps just a nymphomaniac whom the British and Americans exploited.  One reviewer suggested she may have been possessed of narcissistic personality disorder.  I’m not sure about that, but Ms. Pack seemed to have little or no compunction about “putting herself out there” as a temptress.

As a young woman she married an older man, a British diplomat, and almost immediately began cheating on him and did so throughout their marriage.  She seemed to fall in and out of love with men other than her husband on a mere whim.  In the end she did prove to be extremely useful to the Allied cause, pulling off one of the most stunning thefts of classified material which led to a victorious North African campaign.

She was sleeping with the man who worked with her on this project and eventually married him after Arthur committed suicide.  Yet, in time she would need a new adventure or “mission” as she called it.  Blum relied on the archived papers of another British spy, Harford Montgomery Hyde (another of Ms. Pack’s paramours), to craft the story – and most likely some of it was imagined rather than hard facts.  Still, I found the story interesting enough to continue even after what I considered a slow start.  Given the life Betty Pack led, Blum kept the narrative from being overly-salacious, however.

I normally give Howard Blum’s books an automatic 4- or 5-star rating because they cover such a wide range of history – not just the event he’s writing about but the surrounding history (from which I’ve derived some of my articles here).  This one had a narrower focus and was at first a little hard to get into.  Still, anyone interested in the “behind-the-scenes” covert work which helped bring about the defeat of the Nazis would find it a fascinating, though somewhat flawed, read.

Rating:  ★★★-1/2

Avenue of Spies

This book by Alex Kershaw, who has written several books based on true World War II stories, was quite different.  Although a true story it read much like a thriller, or as the Chicago Tribune characterized it, “classic narrative nonfiction.”

Dr. Sumner Jackson, a decorated American World War I veteran, was born in Maine but had remained in France following the conclusion of the Great War.  He had met a Swiss nurse, Toquette, and they fell in love, married and had a son (Phillip).  Much of the book is based on countless hours of interviews with Phillip Jackson.

Sumner Jackson worked at the American Hospital and he and his family lived in one of the most exclusive neighborhoods in all of Paris – Avenue Foch.  After the Nazis overran France and divided the country, many Nazis (and many of them ardent Francophiles) made their headquarters nearby and along the Avenue Foch.  The Jackson family, surrounded by the enemy on all sides, nevertheless decided to become part of the solution and joined the Resistance.

The family endured the same trials as others, although many residents seemed to have decided to acquiesce and let the Nazis have run of their fair city.  Kershaw tells the amazing story of how the Jackson family participated in a vast spy network right under the noses of the Nazis.  Despite all odds the family managed to “stay under the radar” and carry on their lives, although it would become increasingly dangerous.

When they were finally taken away and separated (Sumner and Phillip to one camp and Toquette to another), the story takes on much the same narrative as other books I’ve reviewed here about the Jewish Holocaust.  Their lives were filled with uncertainty yet they managed to survive (well, almost all of them) – Sumner especially dutiful in taking care of patients while imprisoned, despite his own precarious health.

While it did take me a bit to latch onto the narrative, I eventually found it a compelling read told through the eyewitness accounts of Phillip Jackson.  World War II brought out the best in true patriots during one of the darkest periods of world history.  Sumner Jackson and his family were some of the bravest.  Anyone interested in World War II espionage and intrigue will find this a great read.

Rating:  ★★★★

Have a GREAT day . . . someday it will be HISTORY!

  © Sharon Hall (Digging History), 2016.

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