Category Archives: history

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective

I’m a sucker for a good detective story.

So, apparently, was England during the Victorian era.

Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective goes into great depths investigating the murder of 3 year old Francis Saville Kent, the baby of Road Hill House, where the higher class Kent family lived.

Jack Whicher was one of the eight original detectives of the newly formed “detective branch” of Scotland Yard, and was only called in after local authorities botched the investigation. Local police were certain that the child’s nursemaid was involved in the crime, for no other reason except that people of higher classes didn’t commit crimes (and so the whole Kent family was excluded from investigation from the get-go). The only family member who garnered some suspicion was the head of the household, Francis’s father, Samuel Kent, who local police believed was having an affair with the nursemaid. There was no evidence of this affair.

Whicher ended up focusing on the family, and due to suspicious circumstances (such as a missing nightgown) finally settled on 16 year old Constance Kent, Francis’s half sister, as Francis’s murderer. Constance’s mother had died some time prior, and Constance, along with her brother, felt much left out of their father’s life with his new wife. But sadly, due to the whole “aristocrats – especially aristocratic ladies – don’t commit crimes” attitude of the times, the papers and public opinion supported Constance, and Whicher returned to London with his reputation in tatters – it took quite some time for it to recover.

He was eventually vindicated though; Constance confessed to the murder some 3 years later, and was imprisoned for it, at least for awhile.

Constance never explained why she did it. It’s been suggested she was mentally unbalanced, but Summerscale concludes that her confession was probably false and it was made to shield another person – most likely her brother, William Saville Kent, another relic of their father’s first marriage. They shared a close sibling relationship and at the time, Constance’s options in life were much more limited than William’s. William went on to become an early marine biologist. The motive of the crime was believed to be jealousy of Francis’s position as their father’s favorite, and the attention Samuel gave to his second wife’s children rather than his first wife’s children.

If William or Constance killed Francis, the other was most likely some kind of accomplice in the matter. But it was only ever Constance who ever got real blame or who ever gave any kind of confession. If her family did care about her reputation, they certainly never made an effort to clear her name while she was alive.

I enjoyed this book a lot more than I thought I was going to. It was well researched and well read, and it read like a true crime book. It was fun to learn how murder fascinated Victorian England, and that this was one of the first murders that captivated the whole country.

I also had an affinity for Jack Whicher. He’s been dead over 100 years, but he was still very good at his job, inspiring more famous detectives, such as Charles Dickens’s character Inspector Bucket.

Any true crime fan should read this book. It’s like, the original true crime. Sure, it’s not true crime exactly, but it is a good whodunnit: a murdered toddler, a dashing detective, and a great plot twist. How can you turn that down?

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American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America

I originally decided to listen to this book because I wasn’t paying attention and thought it was a book about Native American history.

It wasn’t. *sad trombone noise*

But American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America might be the most important history book I’ve ever read in regard to understanding my own country.

Do you ever wonder how the United States ended up the way it did with no one dominant way of thinking throughout what is supposed to be one country? There are huge differences of opinion, from region to region, about individual liberty vs. the public good, the second amendment, the separation of church and state, etc… why is this?

Author Colin Woodard argues that there isn’t, and never has been, one United States and that the United States has always been, with a few very important exceptional time periods, a series of smaller, regional nations that have managed to get along just well enough to call themselves one country. There’s always the complaint that the United States, in particular, is superrrr polarized and it didn’t used to be like this.

Woodard argues it’s always been like this.

Woodard brilliantly explains the different “nations” in North America, taking us back through the colonial period, with different parts of the new continent settled by different people with very distinct political and religious traits. Because of this, different regions with unique challenges handled their business differently. As it became more important for them to stand together against common threats to their well being (the British control of the colonies, for example) they managed to pull it together long enough to win the Revolutionary War and then go back to being distinct regions again.

I won’t say that I didn’t know anything in this book. In fact, I probably knew most of it. But the information is laid out in such a concise, clear way that you smack yourself in the face and say “Of course! Why didn’t I think of that!?” when thinking about why the South and the Northeast seem to be at constant political odds, and why the rest of the country seems to be constantly aligning with either side to shift the balance of power.

I don’t read/listen to a lot of books where I think I’m doing something patriotic. I mean, you can argue the philosophical merits of reading as patriotism all day, but for most of us (those of us not living in an authoritarian state, anyway), reading is just reading and you aren’t doing anything ridiculously heroic. I’d argue reading this book is actually patriotic. I believe it could be so vital to the understanding of the United States they should use it in high schools.

And I give zero fucks about bettering high schools.

(Of all my bleeding heart, blue state causes, I’m really not big on education…which I know is terrible and kind of a betrayal of my home regional nation. I don’t stay informed enough about the education system to formulate an opinion and prefer to die on other hills – the environment and animal rights hills, for example. It’s not that I don’t think education is important, it’s just not something I’m going to get personally involved in. I will, however, vote for a political candidate who supports bettering the educational landscape. I have trusted friends who pay attention and give their opinions to me on this.)

But yes. I think we’d be a better country and understand each other a lot more if we all read this books. So American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America? Read it. Listen to it. For a better #MURICA.

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Agent Zigzag and Double Cross

I listened to two books by Ben Macintyre earlier this year. I first listened to Agent Zigzag: A True Story of Nazi Espionage, Love, and Betrayal and then listened to Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies. It should have been done in reverse order but hindsight is 20/20. For clarity’s sake, I’ll explain them in the order I should have read them.

Double Cross was a detailed look at how a series of spies and double agents were crucial to the success of D-Day, widely considered to be the turning point in the war, and about how the Double Cross program is easily one of the most effective espionage operations in history. Basically, the Abwehr (German intelligence) never figured out that the Allies had cracked the code for their Enigma machine and MI5 had very little trouble picking up the spies that arrived in the UK. The spies were captured, and were usually easily persuaded to spy for the Allies instead.

There is a full but not complete list of double agents on the Double Cross Wikipedia page: either their information is still classified or nobody knows much about them. But the book focuses mainly on these spies in particular:

Johnny Jebsen (Artist)
Roman Czerniawaski (Brutus)
Juan Pujol Garcia (Garbo)
Mathilde Carre (Le Chat)
Nathalie Sergueiew (aka Lily Sergeyev) (Treasure)
Dušan Popov (Tricycle)
Eddie Chapman (Zigzag)

The book details how the spies were recruited, turned, and maintained by their case officers. All of them were eccentric, and in some ways very needy and needed careful handling by their case officers. They were originally used for less important tasks, but as the war went on, British Intelligence came up with the idea of using the spies to mislead the Third Reich high command about an Allied invasion of Europe. Through a carefully orchestrated, escalating series of falsehoods the spies informed their German contacts that an entire army (a large portion of which didn’t actually exist except in the reports sent through the spies) were probably going to land in northern France somewhere, probably mostly at Pas de Calais. The spies reported minutia, but accurate minutia (such as insignia on uniforms) and details that gave their German handlers confidence in their information.

As we all know now, when the D-Day invasion finally came, the bulk of the Allied forces landed at Normandy. Because of the false information the spies were able to pass to German intelligence, German forces were spread too thin to hold off the full scale Allied attack at Normandy, and afterwards, the Allies quickly advanced through France and into Europe.

Of all the spies mentioned in the book, Popov was probably my favorite to hear about. At the start of the war he was a lawyer, but he was a promiscuous playboy from a wealthy family and staunchly anti-Nazi. Germans considered him important because of his family and business connections in France and so recruited him, and he became a double agent not long after that. He’s considered one of the primary inspirations for Ian Fleming’s James Bond character, throwing money around and womanizing during his missions.

The book makes clear that while most of these recruits were very strange, they were also very brave and, in their own ways, rather smart. Most of these people were in great danger of being found out. Jebsen was picked up on what is assumed now to be an unrelated charge (he had some shady financial dealings), tortured, and (presumably) executed by the Nazis, but never cracked about the Double Cross program to save himself. Some of the agents did their jobs so convincingly they were awarded the Iron Cross by Germany.

The book also explains that one of the reasons the Third Reich was so susceptible to this false information was because, in addition to a real lack of organizational structure – or maybe because of it – there was an internal power struggle going on between the German military/intelligence services and the German secret police. Hitler apparently didn’t entirely trust the German military, as he (correctly) believed the commanders weren’t entirely loyal to him. Loyal to his home country of Germany but not Hitler or the Nazi Party, the book particularly details the efforts Admiral Wilhelm Canaris to subvert Hitler’s plans, including (IIRC) approaching the British about peace negotiations. Spoiler alert: Canaris was eventually humiliated and brutally, grotesquely executed.

It also seems that Germany never really took intelligence as seriously as the Allies did, believing their forces and weapons superior. Their arrogance was a major part of their downfall.

Agent Zigzag, as you may have guessed, takes a more in depth look at Agent Eddie Chapman, who was something of a conman and petty criminal with an honorable streak. He was captured by Germans and volunteered to be a spy. He quickly became a double agent so he could see his former girlfriend and their daughter, but he remained good friends with his German handler after the war and didn’t much like betraying them.

He was motivated by both love and money and was quite difficult for his handlers to deal with. One of the reasons he became a double agent for Britain was he didn’t believe the Germans were paying him enough. His case officer, Ronnie Reed, was one of the very few people who knew how to deal with him effectively.

Chapman was part of a scheme devised to make the Germans believe they’d blown up an aircraft factory but the explosion was entirely faked. Chapman also frequently reported back to Germany that their bombs were hitting their central London targets but the bombs were actually missing by miles, causing far less damage than they should have.

I really enjoyed both of these books. Macintyre is an engaging storyteller and I like his subject matter. Don’t you feel like all the heroes of the war should be recognized?

After the war, the British government more or less discarded these people. They deserve a lot more credit than they get. Macintyre does a really good job introducing them and getting the audience to care about them, getting into their natures and characters.

Macintyre has another book called Operation Mincemeat, but I haven’t read it yet. I will add it to my list, as these two books were both so interesting.

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The Stalin Epigram

Woohoo, I’m finally reaching 2017 books. That’s actually THIS YEAR. I know it’s almost August. Still, go me.

The first book I read this year was called The Stalin Epigram by Robert Littell.

This book wasn’t what I thought it was going to be and for that reason was somewhat disappointing. While it does create an atmosphere of suspense, it really isn’t much of a thriller, which is what I thought I was getting. It’s based on the life of Osip Mandalstam, a widely admired Russian poet, who writes a satirical (and not so satirical) poem about Stalin during the height of Stalin’s power and purges (the 1930s).

Mandalstam writes a forbidden poem, reads it to a bunch of people, gets ratted out to the “Organs” (which is the name for the secret police) and he goes to prison, where he’s tortured, and then into exile with his wife. After he gets out of exile, he’s super jumpy and paranoid and depressed as you would be after being tortured and exiled, so he goes back to Moscow, where he isn’t supposed to go. He is discovered again, sent to a labor camp or a Siberian prison (this time without his wife) and he dies.

I don’t know what the point of this book was beyond telling a fictional account of something that’s well documented. The book is told through several points of view, the main one (to me) being that of Mandalstam’s wife. Other points of view are a weight lifter, one of Stalin’s bodyguards, an actress both Mandalstams are boning (again, more pointless sex writing, ugh), another Russian poet or two (both friends of Mandalstam) and maybe a few others.

The writing was fine, and the characters were interesting and varied, but nobody seemed to really do anything. Like I said, there was no point. The author, I think, has put some pretty serious research into Mandalstam, which is why I thought we were going to get more spy story paranoia and not just “Hey this is what happened.” I think Littell might have actually visited Mrs. Mandalstam in the 1970s before her death to accomplish some of this research, and included his thoughts on the conversations and what they were like after the novel was finished, but again, I’m not sure of the point.

I skimmed a lot of this book, which I guess is why I can’t remember much and entirely missed the point. Like my previous read, this wasn’t great. It was okay. But the font was much smaller, and it was at least 100 pages longer. It took me three months to finish and I put it down for extended periods.

Overall, I wouldn’t recommend it. It doesn’t seem to really know what it wants to be. If you do choose to read it, you won’t regret wasting your life. It’s not that bad. You may, however, find it to be generally disappointing.

The National Parks: America’s Best Idea

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This book was a companion to a Ken Burns documentary on PBS that I caught a few years back. Dayton Duncan I believe wrote the book with Ken Burns.

I loved it. And I’m going to plug this project, and the Park Service, and the parks.

I am a citizen of the United States, for those who care, and I’m passionate about animals, the environment, and public lands. I loved the documentary, and the book, but I have not been to many of the parks. My current list of parks I’ve visited is:
Zion National Park
Bryce Canyon National Park
Arches National Park
Capitol Reef National Park
Canyonlands National Park
Acadia National Park
Dry Tortugas National Park
Muir Woods National Monument
Golden Gate National Recreation Area

I have never felt healthier than when hiking through Zion National Park. Visiting Acadia National Park was the highlight of my 2016. I snorkeled at Dry Tortugas earlier this year. I can’t wait to head to Shenandoah and the Great Smoky Mountains. I am planning trips to Glacier, Yellowstone, Rocky Mountain, Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Great Sand Dunes, Mesa Verde, Grand Teton, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, and every other park I can possibly get to.

While I have always been interested in America’s great outdoors, this book and film combination really made me sit up and say, “I want to see America.”

The book, like the film, went into the details of how the parks came to be, who the major players were (John Muir, President Theodore Roosevelt, Stephen Mather, etc), and the changing role of the park service, focusing particularly on the first/oldest and some of the most visited parks: Yosemite, Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, etc…

Today, Americans overwhelmingly support their parks. Millions of visitors frequent the parks each year – more popular parks like Yellowstone are considering limiting visitor numbers because they’re so crowded and they have trouble keeping up. Even those Americans with no plans on visiting a national park believe they should be protected and preserved for future generations. And somehow, for some reason, the parks and the parks service are always under threat.

Americans have screwed a lot of things up over the years. It’s no secret. But we’ve done a lot of good things too. And this whole national parks thing? The idea that these fantastic places with these unbelievable landscapes and incredible wildlife belong to all of us, and not just to the privileged few? That is something we got right.

If you have the opportunity to take a good look at this book, and the documentary, do it. The scenery and wildlife aside, the National Park system, the fight for the common people to be able to visit the last wild places in America, to have a backyard to call their own, is the United States that inspires greatness, that dares the world to be better, that leads by example and says with an extended hand, “Come on, you can follow us.”

To know that country, to see what it is capable of when it’s being its best self, is well worth the time.

“There is nothing so American as our national parks…. The fundamental idea behind the parks…is that the country belongs to the people, that it is in process of making for the enrichment of the lives of all of us.” – President Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1936
“National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.” – Wallace Stenger, 1983

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The Inventor and the Tycoon: A Gilded Age Murder and The Birth of Moving Pictures

Edward Ball’s The Inventor and the Tycoon: A Gilded Age Murder and The Birth of Moving Pictures was another disappointing book to me. Not as disappointing as Last Words From Montmartre, but pretty disappointing all the same.

It wasn’t the quality of the information presented – it was interesting in that I learned a lot about the history of how moving pictures came to be. But this wasn’t the book I thought it was going to be.

One of my biggest issues with this book was that the title was really misleading. The inventor (Eadweard Muybridge, spelled by the man himself in several different places), the tycoon (Leland Stanford, founder of Stanford University), the murder, and the moving pictures had what felt like almost nothing to do with each other. The guy who invented motion pictures murdered another guy who had an affair with his wife. He also kind of knew the tycoon who used his invention and who largely ripped him off but with whom he also worked on some small projects. For example: does a horse’s four hooves leave the ground at the same time while running? Together, they solved this mystery.

There was also a lot of jumping around in time. The author jumped around in location and year and I thought he was going to bring the two things together at some kind of intersectional point. As I said, the two men barely had anything to do with each other, only met a few times, and the inventor spent most of his life trying to get money out of the tycoon, but not even consistently. It was almost like it didn’t matter.

The murder wasn’t even that interesting. Older man marries a younger woman and goes away a lot, ignoring her, and leaving her alone. She has an affair, and the husband kills the boyfriend. HOW SHOCKING. I do have to admit, it was impressive how nonchalant Muybridge was about it. Got up, went looking for the boyfriend, calmly, shot him, turned himself in calmly, etc… all very matter of fact.

But overall, I just wasn’t much impressed by  The Inventor and The Tycoon. It just wasn’t coherent or interesting or connected enough to justify writing a whole book about it. It could have a been a chapter in either of their biographies, but a whole book? Nah. 

The War That Ended Peace: The Road To 1914

For the most part, I had a pretty good public school education. I did pretty well at most of my subjects and excelled in English and history.

HOWEVER.

There was (is?) one giant gaping hole in my history education. And that giant, gaping hole was European history from the French Revolution through the start of World War I.

No joke. I have no idea what happened. I barely remember them even mentioning it. Considering that World War I is still referred to as “The Great War” in Europe – or at least in Britain – I felt like this was a gaping hole I should start trying to fill, and this was a good opportunity to expand my understanding from “alliances! assassination of Archduke Ferdinand! powder keg!”

Seriously, that’s the extent of what I knew about World War I before listening to this book. Sooo, this book.

The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914 by Margaret MacMillan required a lot more listening time than most books I listen to; in page length it was 784 pages, and it required listening in the car as well as at the gym and at work, and I think I actually drove around listening to it at some point.

Anyway, the book introduced me to some of the players – characters – that led to the most destructive war the world has ever seen (yes, even more so than World War II). MacMillan painstakingly chronicles the cultures and leaders of Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, Russia, Britain, France, Bulgaria, Serbia, the United States, etc…in the years leading up to the start of the war.

Using quotes and correspondence, this book is thoroughly researched, and while I’ve seen a complaint that it could be repetitious, the repetition really helped me, because it’s hard to keep track of names you’re not familiar with.

I think what horrified me most as I got through this book was how easy World War I would have been to avoid if the personalities involved had just applied common sense and good judgement rather than ridiculous nationalism and a desire to have the biggest dick on the continent. Honestly, I could NOT believe how easy World War I could just have not happened. The entire 20th century would have been totally different.

This was an amazing book – well researched, informative, really laid the groundwork for me in understanding what caused the first World War. It was long, but worth the effort. I still don’t know much about 19th century Europe outside of this, but my public school education taught me that working backwards is a reliable method of problem solving. This book laid a really great foundation for further study of European history.

One Summer: America, 1927

My physics teacher in high school forced us to read a history book. That was the first time I’d heard of Bill Bryson. One of the books on the list was A Short History of Nearly Everything. That was not the book I read that year. I read Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. Because it was the shortest. I probably would have enjoyed Bryson’s book more, looking back on it, but I was 17 and an idiot.

Bill Bryson kept popping up though – in college classes and bookstore tables. Given that history books are some of my favorites to listen to at work (where I can learn a lot, not hear EVERY detail, and not lose track of the story), I decided to finally give Bryson a try and went with One Summer: America, 1927. I have been fascinated with the 1920s for a long time, and it’s the loose theme for my upcoming nuptials. Hemingway and Fitzgerald are two of my favorite authors and two of my favorites of their books take place in the 20s, so this book as my introduction to Bryson was a natural choice.

I didn’t know anything about the book or Bryson (except that he kept popping up) going in, so the book, read by Bryson for the audio version, was surprisingly funny due to both content and Bryson himself.

Bryson uses several major events of the summer of 1927 as a lens through which to view American life, what it was and what it was going to become, while focusing on pop culture and the daily life of Americans during that time.

The major events focused on included:

+ Babe Ruth & the 1927 New York Yankees
+ Charles Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight
+ the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 (the one event in the book I’d never heard of)
+ Henry Ford and the transition from the Model T to the Model A
+ Calvin Coolidge’s presidency the ascendance of Herbert Hoover
+ the trial and executions of Sacco & Vanzetti
+ the release of talking pictures with ‘The Jazz Singer’

…these were not the only topics touched, but they were a major focus.

I was pleasantly surprised with this book. It was a lot more interesting than I had thought it would be, and it was a lot funnier than I thought it would be. Bryson grew up in both the US and Great Britain, and his dry sense of humor was quite appealing to me.

These were topics we’d barely touched in school (Sacco and Vanzetti, Lindbergh’s flight), and in some cases not at all (they skipped over Mississippi Flood entirely, as well as anything about Henry Ford that wasn’t “hey the assembly line…”) and I found the detailed dive into these topics, and their impact on American life, a fascinating alternative high school history class.

The book also explored the contrast between the 1920s Jazz Age and the 1930s Great Depression that was looming not far down the road. Bryson also doesn’t just speak to an American audience. Babe Ruth and baseball are huge parts of the book, and so Bryson takes time to explain why Americans are so obsessed with Babe Ruth (even 90 years later) and at least the basics of baseball.

My next Bryson book will be A Walk In The WoodsOne Summer: America, 1927 convinced me that I should definitely read/listen to another Bryson book.

The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History

Of the books I read in 2016, The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History by Rob Edsel (with Bret Witter) was one of my two favorites, and definitely my favorite non-fiction book.

The Monuments Men deals with the story of the newly created Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFAA) section of the military. Early on, the group was comprised of a handful of men, led by Lt. Commander George L. Stout. As their role expanded and members grew, most of these men and women with art expertise were to protect as much European culture as possible during the war – art, architecture, rare & valuable texts, etc…

One major thing that worked in their favor is that the Nazis didn’t destroy art/culture/etc.. They hoarded it. There was some kind of twisted logic in why these artifacts belonged to the Reich even though they were French, Italian, etc…in origin. But the size of the hoard was status. Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring had a particularly expansive collection of stolen property (which wasn’t QUITE looted). Göring always left some small payment or promise there of, and even though he was never officially connected with Nazi looting organizations, he ended up with a lot of loot.

While it sounds very dull, this was actually a great challenge, particularly early on. Many people didn’t believe that art was something worth saving when faced with defeating an enemy like the Third Reich. Many of the Monuments Men assigned to units had trouble getting the resources they needed to do their jobs. It frequently took mandates from President Roosevelt and General Eisenhower to get the Monuments Men what they needed.

But it wasn’t just men, it was women too. The book particularly highlights the efforts of French art historian and museum curator Rose Valland. Being a French woman, the Nazis mistook her for a harmless not-quite-idiot. As a member of the French Resistance who understood German, she secretly and painstakingly kept track of the art the Nazis plundered from both the French national collection at places like The Louvre, and private (many Jewish) collections. She documented meticulously what was taken, where it was taken, to which Nazi officer it had been sent and reported back to Jacques Juajard, Director of the French National Museums, on the status of the ongoing Nazi looting. She and Cpt. James Rorimer, who slowly gained her trust and with whom she became friends, were instrumental in recovering over 20,000 stolen works from Neuschwanstein Castle.

With all the history and lore surrounding World War II, the fact that a lot of European culture and architecture was at risk of being destroyed is very easy to forget. With intercontinental travel easier than ever, it isn’t hard to take for granted the fact that the magnificent works of art from the Middle Ages and Renaissance eras is there every day in museums and that centuries old churches and palaces and architectural wonders are still standing.

But there was a time when this wasn’t necessarily going to be the case. And a lot of people, who frequently haven’t gotten the credit they deserve, worked very hard to make sure it was.

This was a fascinating, well written, satisfying non-fiction book, and like I said, definitely one of my favorites of 2016.

Argo: How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled Off the Most Audacious Rescue in History

Argo: How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled Off the Most Audacious Rescue in History is an autobiographical memoir by Tony Mendez and Matt Baglio, and was adapted by Ben Affleck into an Academy Award winning film of the same name. It was originally an article for Wired magazine, and was expanded after declassification of documents into a much more detailed story.

I go through phases periodically where I watch a bunch of movies and read their source material. In this case, it was was the other way around, where I audiobooked the source material first and then watched the film.

Mendez was a CIA technical operations officer in the 1970s, decorated and widely recognized for his work in evacuating 6 American diplomats during the Iranian Hostage Crisis. Called “The Canadian Caper,” the effort took the cooperation of the CIA, the Canadian government, and several Hollywood professionals, including makeup artists John Chambers and Robert Sidell, and Sidell’s wife, Joan.

Spoiler alert: they get the stranded Americans out of Iran. That wasn’t the most interesting part of this story.

The most interesting part of this memoir was finding out 1. how the CIA operated at the time and 2. how the whole thing sounded like amateur hour.

IIRC, Mendez was hired into the CIA as an artist. He copied stuff, did forgeries, etc… if the CIA had any kind of super advanced tech it wasn’t in this book, or it’s so dated to 2016 that I didn’t realize it was considered advanced tech at the time.

Originally an artist, it was clear Mendez’s role grew by the time the Iranian Hostage Crisis took place. Mendez’s main job was getting the American hostages to believe their cover stories enough to get them out of Iran, which was no easy feat. The key to being a convincing liar was believing the lie, and it was difficult to get the scared Americans to believe what they were saying about themselves, which was total BS.

It was an incredibly dangerous operation, because if they had been discovered there was a good chance they’d be executed. But again, what was really fascinating to me was how incredibly low tech it was. It was drawing up passports that passed inspection and coming up with a solid cover story – the cover story being they were Canadians scouting film locations in Iran for a science fiction film, called “Argo.” (Duh, right?)

The film that came from Mendez’s memoir is a very good film but it didn’t do a good job with 2 things. It took a loooot of dramatic license. There were a lot fewer imminent danger scenarios than depicted in the film, however, this was a film and you have to keep an audience engaged.

The other thing was the film seriously downplayed the role of the Canadian government in the rescue of the hostages. The Canadian Ambassador and Embassy played crucial roles in rescuing the Americans. Mendez gives this credit, the film doesn’t. The film also makes it look as the British and New Zealand embassies turned the American hostages away – this isn’t what happened. The British, in particular, took a great risk taking in the hostages, only moving them because it was deemed too dangerous for them to stay there. The British Embassy, IIRC, was the target of attacks itself. New Zealand had organized a place for the Americans to stay if they needed to change locations and drove the Americans to the airport when it was time to leave Tehran.

It’s understandable why a lot of this was changed for film purposes – it would have been a 4 hour film – but it was hurtful to these countries anyway. Affleck tried to smooth things over but it wasn’t much help. President Carter even commented (paraphrasing), “This was mostly a Canadian achievement. Ken Taylor (the Canadian ambassador) is the real hero of the story.”

Anyway, flawed film aside, Argo was a really interesting “inner workings of the CIA” book, which I highly recommend if you’re interested in contemporary world history.

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