Excerpt from Agent Zigzag by Ben Macintyre, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Agent Zigzag

A True Story of Nazi Espionage, Love, and Betrayal

by Ben Macintyre

Agent Zigzag
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2007, 384 pages
    Paperback:
    Aug 2008, 384 pages

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Chapman branched out into crimes of a more lurid nature. Early in 1936, he was found guilty of “behaving in a manner likely to offend the public” in Hyde Park. Exactly how he was likely to have offended the public was not specified, but he was almost certainly discovered in flagrante delicto with a prostitute. He was fined £4 and made to pay a fee of 15 shillings 9 pence to the doctor who examined him for venereal disease. Two weeks later, he was charged with fraud after he tried to evade payment of a hotel bill.

One contemporary remembers a young man “with good looks, a quick brain, high spirits and something desperate in him which made him attractive to men and dangerous to women.” Desperation may have led him to use the attraction of men for profit, for he once hinted at an early homosexual encounter. Women seemed to find him irresistible. According to one account, he made money by seducing “women on the fringes of society,” blackmailing them with compromising photographs taken by an accomplice and then threatening to show them to their husbands. It was even said that having “infected a girl of 18 with VD, he blackmailed her by threatening to tell her parents that she had given it to him.”

Chapman was on a predictable downward spiral of petty crime, prostitution, blackmail, and lengthening prison terms—punctuated by episodes of wild extravagance in Soho—when a scientific breakthrough in the criminal world abruptly altered his fortunes.

In the early 1930s, British crooks discovered the high explosive gelignite. At about the same time, during one of his stints inside, Chapman discovered James Wells Hunt—the “best cracksman in London”—a “cool, self-possessed, determined character” who had perfected a technique for taking apart safes by drilling a hole in the lock and inserting a “French letter” stuffed with gelignite and water. Jimmy Hunt and Chapman went into partnership and were soon joined by Antony Latt, alias Darrington, alias “Darry,” a nerveless half-Burmese burglar whose father, he claimed, had been a native judge. A young felon named Hugh Anson was recruited to drive their getaway car.

In 1934, the newly formed “Jelly Gang” selected as its first target Isobel’s, a chic furrier in Harrogate. Hunt and Darry broke in and stole five minks, two fox-fur capes, and £200 from the safe. Chapman remained in the car, “shivering with fear and unable to help.” The next was a pawnbroker’s in Grimsby. While Anson revved the Bentley outside to cover the sound of the explosions, Chapman and Hunt broke into an empty house next door, cut their way through the wall, and then blew open four safes. The proceeds, sold through a fence in the West End, netted £15,000. This was followed by a break-in at the Swiss Cottage Odeon cinema using an iron bar, a hit on Express Dairies, and a smash-and-grab raid on a shop in Oxford Street. Escaping from the latter scene, Anson drove the stolen getaway car into a lamppost. As the gang fled, a crowd of onlookers gathered around the smoking vehicle; one, who happened to be a small-time thief, made the mistake of putting his hand on the hood. When his fingerprints were matched with Scotland Yard records, he was sentenced to four years in prison. The Jelly Gang found this most amusing.

Chapman was no longer a reckless petty pilferer, but a criminal of means, and he spent money as fast as he could steal it, mixing with the underworld aristocracy, the gambling playboys, the roué actors, the alcoholic journalists, the insomniac writers, and the dodgy politicians drawn to the demimonde. He became friendly with Noël Coward, Ivor Novello, Marlene Dietrich, and the young filmmaker Terence Young (who would go on to direct the first James Bond film).

Young was a suave figure who prided himself on his elegant clothes, his knowledge of fine wine, and his reputation as a lothario. Perhaps in imitation of his new friend, Chapman also began buying suits in Savile Row and driving a fast car. He kept a table reserved at the Nest in Kingley Street, where he held court, surrounded by bottles and girls. Young remarked: “He was able to talk on almost any subject. Most of us knew that he was a crook, but nevertheless we liked him for his manner and personality.” Young found Chapman intriguing: He made no secret of his trade, yet there was an upright side to his character that the filmmaker found curious. “He is a crook and will always be one,” Young observed to a lawyer friend. “But he probably has more principles and honesty of character than either of us.” Chapman would steal the money from your pocket, even as he bought you a drink, but he never deserted a friend, nor hurt a soul. In a brutal business, he was a pacifist. “I don’t go along with the use of violence,” he declared many years later. “I always made more than a good living out of crime without it.”

Copyright © 2007 by Ben Macintyre.

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