At the end of this absorbing portrayal of Juan Pujol – the Catalan second world war double agent who was so good he won both the iron cross and an MBE – Jason Webster permits himself some speculation. What kind of world would we be living in, he asks, if Pujol had not managed to trick Hitler into believing the Normandy invasions of 1944 were a smokescreen for a bigger attack elsewhere? The Führer’s fiercest troops were kept in reserve, and the rest is history.
As a travel writer, historian and, latterly, crime novelist fascinated by the intricacies of Spanish life, Webster is an ideal teller of this story. As Pujol dreams up the 29 lives of the agents who will populate his fake spy network to deceive the Germans, Webster sees his work as an extension of the picaresque novels of 16th century Spanish literature, packed with sharply cunning characters. And though the story of Operation Fortitude – the deception plan for the D-day landings – has been told many times now, the thriller writer in Webster makes it pacy and enthralling.
Perhaps naturally, however, Pujol himself remains elusive. In one telling chapter, Webster imagines him dreaming up another set of German agents in his London office, giving him speech and allowing him to shuffle in his chair. It’s a vivid set piece, hinting at a more experimental book – or film script. Certainly, The Spy with 29 Names has all the hallmarks of a classic espionage movie.