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Between Silk and Cyanide

This book has been called one of the last great war memoirs. It is a first hand account of Mark’s time working for the British Intelligence code bureau as a code cracker. This was back in the days when they still employed teams of young women to try to crack codes by brute force methods and Marks would often explain how they would only get an agent’s missent code cracked after 2,000 or 3,000 tries. The advent of computers into the world of math and science has rendered most of the practices in this book quaintly obsolete which is one of the reasons it makes such good reading. Another reason is that Marks’s father is the Marks who owned 84 Charing Cross Road, a famous British bookstore and peppers his text with anecdotes about that well-loved landmark.

As in many war memoirs, Marks is the hero of all of his stories and paints himself to be quite the character. Each chapter shows him going up against the military higher-ups who he is sure will fire him but he always remains employed and victorious. He is the codemaster responsible for the troops using silk code sheets [easily hidden, easily destroyed] to encode their agents' messages towards the end of the war. If I had one objection to this bok, it would be that looking at WWII -- an event of unspeakable horror for many members of my family as well as the families of others -- through the eyes of a desk-jockey, can be a bit off-putting. You see people making understandable mistakes, but ones that endanged the lives of others who are on the front lines and you wince over and over again.