Sometime around 1990 or so, my local PBS channel played the 1983 British mini-series ‘Reilly: Ace of Spies.’ I was absolutely captivated. Sam Neill was awesome. The story was compelling. I didn’t know much about the Russian Revolution or even the First World War, but it didn’t stop the story of this dashing, unscrupulous cad from being so cool. I think it was mentioned by the host that Reilly had been an inspiration for James Bond, and I could see that.
Fast-forward 30 years and I know a lot more about World War I and the Russian Revolution. I know more about James Bond, Ian Fleming, and the dozen or so other historical figures who helped inspire the character. I know more about writing and how inspiration works. I also know that ‘Reilly: Ace of Spies’ is still a great mini-series. I wanted to know more about the man, however. I read George Alexander Hill’s autobiographical adventure book about his time in Russia during the Revolution days. He mentioned Reilly, who he considered a friend. But Hill’s book often felt like a Boy’s Own yarn, more stiff-upper lip, pluck, and isn’t war just a jolly good time sort of book. That’s a bit of an overstatement, but suffice to say, it didn’t feel like a scholarly or objective look at the events or the people. And that’s ignoring that Hill’s loyalties and motivations have been called into question over the years since.
Andrew Cook tries to cut through the sometimes fawning acceptance of Reilly’s story from folks like Hill and Robin Bruce Lockhart, as well as the villainous character assassinations of some others to get to some kind of accurate picture of the real Sidney Reilly…or Shlomo/Salomon Rosenblum, as it were. The man who is revealed is at once less than and greater than the legend of Reilly. Here’s a man who almost certainly murdered two people and likely a third. I say murdered, because these were not acts of war or duty, but acts of personal gain and greed. A bigamist, a murderer, a conman, a would-be empire builder, a self-made millionaire, brave, narcissistic, charismatic and repellent. Reilly seems to have been part James Bond, part Thomas Ripley. He may have inspired Bond, but he could easily have inspired a dozen Bond villains.
In the book, Cook goes through the receipts, literally. He digs through the paper trails of Reilly’s business dealings, romantic escapades, political and clandestine activities. At the root of much of his activity seems to be his pursuit of wealth and the good life. He was not born to money, but he seems to have quickly developed a taste for having and for spending it. It seems almost certain that he killed his first wife’s husband so that they could live on his money. He likely killed a later roommate for much the same reason. Even his political dealings and maneuverings in post-Revolution Russia seem largely in the interests of building a fortune. He enjoyed women and good living, though he was able to get down into the muck when the need arose. Women seemed captivated by him and men repulsed. He faced antisemitism throughout his life, even when his assumed identity of an Irishman wasn’t questioned. And boy oh boy is the antisemitism of British officials on display in some of their statements about Reilly. Yeesh.
Because of Reilly’s various dealings around the world, this book is an interesting snapshot of a time. It was a time when you could literally invent yourself. It was a time when shady businessmen mixed with fanatical revolutionaries, when governments were on the edge, war was all around, fortunes could be made and lost in a day, and the line between hero and villain was as thin as could be.
The British mini-series was excellent. It was also largely based on older sources with less credibility or breadth of knowledge. As just a brief example, I believe when the mini-series was made, the nature and fact of his death was unknown (outside certain circles in Russia), whereas it is very much known and documented today. I’d be interested to see a more contemporary take on the subject. Sidney Reilly really is a fascinating figure, a true 20th Century Man. Ace of Spies is a book you should check out if you were ever curious about the man, or simply want to see the early 20th Century from a very different angle.
I do feel the need to mention a couple of technical aspects of the book. I read the 2016 edition from The History Press. While the book hasn’t fallen apart, it feels like it might if I were to read it a second time. I’ve found a lot of books from British book companies to be of a uniquely low quality when it comes to binding, and this one fits that bill. Secondly, there are a lot of places where dashes are randomly in the middle of words (inter-preted, recon-ciled and carry-ing, for example, all showed up on one page). I’m guessing this was a “cut-and-paste” from one edition to another where the spacing/justification on the page was different. Whatever the case, it does sometimes make reading awkward. I might not bring something like this up, normally, but the book is also very expensive. The US price is $25. for a trade paperback, the kind of thing that would normally cost more like $15. I’m glad I won a free copy. Just be warned.