Yet despite the “covert, sophisticated, eye-wateringly expensive” shenanigans of Stephenson and his staff, I can’t see that it amounted to much. Their projects sound like plots from The Goon Show: the forging of maps and documents to “prove” that the Nazis were going to invade Latin America, having first occupied Bolivia; the announcement by astrologers that Hitler’s demise was imminent; the spreading of the rumour that Germany was much weakened by a typhus epidemic; the dissemination of another rumour that the Nazis were in fact a front for the Sicilian Mafia and that Italian troops were “so terrified of fighting the British” they were all making appointments to see psychiatrists.
Hemming tells this racy story well. My scepticism is rooted not in anything amiss with his book, but in doubts about how far covert activities influence most great events, notably including US entry into the Second World War. Both Stephenson and Donovan had more than a little charlatanism in their make-up. As the author concedes, after the war the Canadian told fearful fibs about his role, inventing for himself the codename Intrepid.
There is, of course, a long-established association between writers and spies. Reading this book it is impossible not to wonder about Hemming himself, who has a personal connection to this story because Stephenson — a man of action as well as persuasion — once saved the life of Hemming’s father. This episode is outlined briefly in the preface and, pleasingly, Hemming’s grandparents later play a minor role in Stephenson’s stateside influencing campaign. So many accounts could make for a complex history, but Hemming is very much in control of his material. Bite-size chapters paint fascinating miniatures, often with a cliff-hanger to keep the pages turning... The result is fast-paced history, reflecting the tension, intrigue and humour that we associate with British derring-do of the 1940s... In Hemming’s sure hands, America’s uncertain progress towards direct engagement in the second world war becomes riveting history.
More than most, Henry Hemming has reason to be grateful to William Stephenson, Britain’s legendary spymaster in the US during the Second World War. Not only does he provide Hemming with the subject for his new book, but without him it is unlikely that the author would exist... Above all, this is fast-paced yarn. Our Man in New York reads like the film script of a 1940s thriller and it is no surprise that Hemming is already collaborating with producers. His subject may not have been, as others have tried to make him, James Bond. Yet as the creator of that character, Ian Fleming, once wrote: “James Bond is a highly romanticised version of a true story. The real thing is . . . William Stephenson.”