Review – Ultimate Spy

12 Sep

“I and many members of the former East German Foreign Intelligence Service, the HVA, were surprised to discover a book that included elegant photographs of syp equipment, from Keith Melton’s unique collection, and accurate descriptions of clandestine techniques that we had spent our careers keeping secret from Western intelligence agencies.”

-Markus Wolf, former head of the East German Foreign Intelligence Service

Introduction to Ultimate Spy, 2nd Edition

I love DK books. The illustrations are excellent and the information is well researched. Pick up any DK book and you’ll get a brief but solid introduction to whatever subject it covers. Such is the case for Ultimate Spy, DK’s book about espionage written by H. Keith Melton. My copy is the second edition, published in 2002 and updated to include post Cold War material.

Ultimate Spy is a fun book that touches on intelligence organizations dating back to the Middle Ages, but focusing mostly on the World War II and Cold War eras. It’s a book filled with facts, spy stories, and generously illustrated with enough photos of spy equipment to make Q-Branch envious.

The book begins with an overview of the types of people who become spies, what motivates them, and what activities they engage in. This section divides the different types of spies into roles such as The Courier, The Double Agent, The Mole, and The Assassin, including an overview of how these roles have been employed by eastern and western agencies. Any game master will find useful similarities between this section and the class descriptions in a role playing game.

The next section discusses the history of spying with chapters on operations up through World War I, World War II, the Cold War, and spying in the post Soviet era with a focus on counter-terrorism. These sections talk about how espionage evolved to suit the times and includes stories about events and important operations such as the founding of the OSS, the U2 incident, and the transformation of Russian intelligence from the Tzarist Okhrana to the legendary KGB of the Soviet Union. It also discusses famous, or infamous, intelligence figures such as Sidney Reilly, Alan Turin, Mata Hari, and the Walker spy ring, giving a concise description of their real world activities.

Not to mention the frequently unpleasant endings that come to many such stories.

“Mata Hari was arrested as a German spy on her return to Paris. She was tried in a French military court, found guilty, and executed by firing squad in 1918.”

“In 1925, a British intelligence operative named Sidney Reilly was lured to a meeting with Trust members in Moscow, where he was arrested and forced to write a confession revealing all his Moscow contacts. He was then executed.”

-Excerpts from Ultimate Spy, pages 25 & 27

From there the book moves into equipment and techniques used by spy agencies, and this is a must read section for any GM wanting to run a spy game. There are wonderful pictures throughout the book, but the equipment show in this section is particularly good. It all comes from the author’s personal collection of spy equipment, which is the best private collection in the world. There are pages filled with microphones hidden in shoes and pens, lockpicks, concealed weapons, radios, disguise kits, and lots of cameras. There are silver dollars and rings with hidden compartments for microdots, messages written on the back of postage stamps and sent through the mail, walnut shells hiding code lists, and assassination tools such as the Bulgarian Umbrella which injected a poison pellet into the target.

Of particular interest to me was seeing the size and types of the equipment. In an age where everything is digital, wireless, and built of solid state micro-circuitry it is fascinating to see how surprisingly large, or surprisingly small, the spymasters of yesterday could make things. It’s also a good reminder that many of the gadgets made famous by the James Bond movies are not as far fetched as they may seem.

In many cases they aren’t as impressive as their real counterparts.

Ultimate Spy is a great read and an excellent resource for anyone looking to run an espionage game, especially those set in the Cold War.


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Posted by on September 12, 2014 in Books and Comics, History, Reviews


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