Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Review of Henry Hemming's The Ingenious Mr. Pyke

The Ingenious Mr. Pyke: Inventor, Fugitive, Spy, by Henry Hemming (PublicAffairs, May 2015)

I picked this to read because I'm fascinated with 20th-century espionage, but the story is at least as much about the amazing mind of this little-known character. Geoffrey Pyke's mind wandered constantly, putting together different sights and experiences to come up with novel solutions to problems some people didn't even know existed.

Pyke's ideas ranged from using specially designed snowmobiles to tie up more Nazi troops in Norway during World War II and keep them out of the battlefields, building massive aircraft carriers out of ice and wood pulp, and constructing an oil pipeline under the English Channel to supply the D-Day invasion. But Pyke wasn't just a war tactician.

Pyke and his three siblings lost their father when they were young, and their mother told them she would gladly lose all of them to have him back. Being effectively an orphan must have had something to do with Pyke's interest in childhood development, which led him to start a school whose techniques and philosophy are influential even today. Pyke was also influential in the development of the field of public opinion gathering, firmly believing that this could help prevent war and combat anti-Semitism.

Building a prototype of Pyke's ice ship
Though he worked closely with Lord Louis Mountbatten and was known to Churchill, Pyke's commitment to anti-Fascism and his many Communist friends made him a target of MI-5 surveillance at the same time he was working for Britain on the war effort. MI-5 became convinced Pyke was a Soviet agent. Another goal of this book is to answer that question. Read the book and find out for yourself what the author concludes.

This is a quick and engaging read, and I think it should be of interest to people who enjoy 20th-century history and biography. I was left wishing I could have gotten to know Pyke better, but I doubt there was much more the author could have dug out about him.

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