The adoring young children of the BBC’s kindly old animal lover “Uncle Max” would surely be surprised to discover he spent most of his life ferreting out the spies of England’s enemies working within her borders.
Maxwell Knight’s late-life blooming into a beloved broadcaster of naturalist programs was not a transformation, though, rather it was a revelation of a love of all creatures, big and small, he had harbored from as soon as he could venture on his own into the English countryside. Knight’s residence, usually a London apartment, always operated as a miniature zoo, even when he made it the headquarters of MI5’s fledgling domestic counterintelligence unit. In Henry Hemming’s Agent M (PublicAffairs, 2017), Knight is also shown to be an unforgiving adversary of those who would steal England’s secrets.
In a turn of events incredibly foreign to our modern system of credit checks and identity databases, Maxwell Knight got his start in the counterintelligence business as mole for a private spy ring ran by some of England’s upper class as a response to the rise of fascism in the homeland. He presented himself as a young adherent to the ideals of the British Union of Fascists and used the access he gained working for the group to pass secrets to his real employers, even engaging in burglary and, possibly, kidnapping to do so.
Knight’s true talent, however, turned out to be as a spymaster, an agent who places and runs spies. He specialized in turning brave young women into secretaries for communist organizations, with his greatest success made public by the sensational case arising out of the work of one such spy, Olga Grey.
Biography is a terrific way to encounter history and Agent M is no exception. Joseph Kennedy and John Le Carre make appearances along with many other well-known historical figures. Some authors struggle to strike a balance between the plodding recitation of the simple facts of a subject’s life and salacious speculation, but no so Mr. Hemmings. He uses the bountiful revelations of newly declassified documents and a superb writing style to paint a fascinating portrait of Knight. Our author does not draw conclusions that, while perhaps reasonable to infer, are not supported by verified events or the testimony of witnesses. Maxwell Knight, after all, lived so adventurous a life his story would hardly be improved by embellishment.