Self-aware. Self conscious. Self induced.

Operation Mincemeat

cover image

The rule of thumb is that if you have to explain a joke, it isn’t funny. But if you do explain a joke, then I know how it works.

Operation Mincemeat was the name of an intelligence plan carried out by the British against the Germans during World War II, designed to fool them into thinking that the Allied assault from North Africa would not be going through Sicily – where all rational people assumed it would go – but instead through Sardinia and Greece, and any references to Sicily were merely decoys. They made up some fake documents, put them in a briefcase that they handcuffed to a corpse that they found in London, threw it into the water off the Spanish coast, and hoped that

  • (a)the corpse would be found by the Spanish
  • (b) the locked briefcase would inspire interest
  • (c) the Germans would find the documents, having obtained them from the Spanish and
  • (d) the Germans would believe the documents were real.

Other reviews (at GoodReads, for example) note the “excess” of background information. I disagree that there is too much. MacIntyre is trying to sell this story (which is true, of course) not for its implausibility, but for its difficulty. To that end, he has to elaborate on the various individuals (i.e. characters) who were involved in the plotting, who were to carry out aspects of the mission without knowing what the mission was, who could be affected by the mission, and who had to be fooled.

If this was fiction, we’d be talking about character flaws and motivations (that the author would famously “show and not tell” to tighten up the narrative) and about the stakes. There would also be an inciting incident and a climax.

It is, however, history, and as such MacIntyre (much like with his other World War II history, Agent Zigzag, chooses to elaborate on each person as a historical individual. Nevertheless I can’t commit to enjoying this book because while he has settled primarily upon history, he tries to structure the story as a bit of a thriller, and in that regard the “excessive detail” slows the pacing down.

My other criticism is that, for all he is at pains to illustrate how many ways this whole plot could have gone wrong, there is an inevitability about his writing. We know that Operation Mincemeat succeeded, but its success (as a reader) never feels like it’s in any doubt.

In other words, in explaining the deception we lose the thrill.

If World War II history is your thing, or if you are interested in espionage, this will probably appeal. If you like thrillers, it may appeal.

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