A review of “TJ’s War”, a biography of a World War Two secret agent by his son Ian Maclean

In the Second World War, Scottish Highlander Thomas John Maclean – known to his comrades as TJ – almost accidentally found himself recruited as a secret agent in MI6 which resulted in immensely challenging operations in the United States, Norway, Italy and Germany. For such a young man (he was only 19 at the start of the conflict), such clandestine service proved to be a deeply traumatic experience so that, during the war, he became an alcoholic and, after the war, he effectively drank himself to death by the age of 49.

His son Iain Maclean was not quite 11 when he lost his father and it has taken him half a century to understand fully who his father was and finally to bring the incredible story to print.

Of course, there have been endless memoirs from this global war, but this one covers parts of the conflict that rarely feature in other works, including the role of MI6 in Nazi-held Europe, the situation in occupied Norway, the failure of the failed Anzio plan, and the betrayal of Russia’s Cossacks. Also the tone is very different from the stoicism, even detachment, of many such works with plenty of terror and tears and a profound revulsion of killing.

Maclean has chosen to tell the story in a style known as creative non-fiction. As a management consultant who has never previously written a book, he is to be commended for producing a work that reads like a novel and demonstrates immense flair and fluidity. I understand that he was inspired by the writing of Ernest Hemingway and Jack London. The book is a real page-turner with the 450 pages divided into 72 short paragraphs.

The problem with this style of writing is to know what is fact, what is fiction, and what is simply embellishment or creative licence. I read the book before I met the author and, in an interview of over two hours, I questioned him about why he had chosen this particular style of writing and the extent to which he had used his imagination to create incidents and characters and to input the thoughts of TJ and others.

As a result, I would expect the serious student of the war to approach “TJ’s War” with a degree of caution. However, for the general reader, this is a war story with a difference that will have wide appeal and make a riveting read.


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