Richard Overy

Our Secret History

The Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5

By

Allen Lane/The Penguin Press 1,032pp £30 order from our bookshop

There is a bittersweet story towards the end of Christopher Andrew’s magisterial centenary history of the security service that has all the ingredients one might expect from this spy-catching narrative. In 2001 a disgruntled British Aerospace security guard tried to sell secrets to the Russians. He sent a document to the Russian embassy with a Post-it note attached, telling the embassy staff that if they were interested he could supply more documents and encouraging them to contact him on his pager. Soon a Russian intelligence officer contacted him. ‘Volodya’ met the guard at a hotel in central London. Volodya was, of course, an MI5 agent. A concealed microphone failed to work and the security service photographer had his view obscured by a hotel piano, but the guard did enough to ensure his arrest and subsequent conviction. When the details were known, the Russians objected to MI5 impersonating a Russian security agent.

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

Follow Literary Review on Twitter

  • Last Tweets

    • The mystery of Jack the Ripper's identity has long been agonised over. But what do we know about his victims?… ,
    • A piece of Literary Review history from way back in 1983: John Haffenden talks to the great Iris Murdoch. ,
    • Britain’s only travelling lit fest, the Garden Museum Literary Festival is heading to Houghton Hall, Norfolk, for a… ,
    • 'The 19th-century German sage is not my idea of a pleasant travel companion' goes hiking with Friedr… ,
    • If you want ideas about what to read next, sign up to our free email newsletter, and get book reviews, archive mate… ,
    • 'The heroic male nude could not, I think, be used today to signify civic pride and glory', as Michelangelo’s 'David… ,
    • 'Munch’s later works show us a man liberated from the torments that gave rise to some of the best-known early works… ,