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Conspiracy theorists would agree that DK Publishing picked a heck of a month to publish The Ultimate Spy Book. This compendium of undercover gear, as reader-friendly as any Time-Life publication, includes side-by-side forewords by ex-CIA Chief William Colby and former KGB Major-General Oleg Kalugin. Colby and Kalugin, as anyone who reads the papers knows by now, got over their Cold War differences and even collaborated on an interactive CD-ROM titled Spycraft: The Great Game. The Spy Book offers further proof of the two men’s partnership and, tantalizingly, appeared in print just a few weeks before Colby disappeared in a probable Wicomico River canoeing accident (his body was allegedly found May 6).

The Ultimate Spy Book inadvertently encourages those who suspect that Colby didn’t merely drown. The volume’s glossy pages proudly display at least a dozen ways in which Cold War–era spies could bump one another off and make it look like an accident: There’s the tiny poison pellet or the puff of cyanide gas in the face, neither of which show up in most autopsies, and even a submarine canoe in which an agent can sneak up and deliver a fatal blow. The Spy Book also suggests how an agent might go underground and emerge with a new identity. Colby was (or perhaps still is) 76, a bit old for cloak-and-dagger shenanigans. Still, it’s fun to speculate, and the Spy Book proves an ideal companion piece to the search for the one-time spymaster.

Author H. Keith Melton, a collector of spy paraphernalia, is renowned in the intelligence world. Colby writes in his foreword that Melton’s collection has made the rounds of top-secret agencies for years, where it has been used for training in tradecraft and espionage history. In the Spy Book, Melton provides page after page of weapons (crossbows, darts, undetectable poison-gas sprayers, etc.), surveillance equipment (subminiature cameras, telephone bugs, binoculars rigged to see sideways), and no end of sabotage items. He knows enough about hidden microphones, dead drops, rectal toolkits, and silencer-equipped pistols to keep any intelligence groupie fascinated for hours.

Perhaps the most clever contrivance is the WWII-era Peskett Close-Combat Weapon, shown actual size. This 12-inch brass object neatly combines three killing devices in one handful: a racquetball-size cosh for cracking the skull, a wire garrote for choking, and a spring-loaded dagger, in case the other two don’t finish the job. (Speaking of garrotes, Melton includes a photo of one concealed in a condom, an almost irresistible temptation to make bad jokes about unsafe sex.)

Melton’s collection and commentary hark back to a time when spying was not just a job, but an adventure. The Spy Book only glancingly addresses Internet “robots” and cyber-paranoia; instead, it’s a souvenir of the vanishing era when international intrigue involved more than digital beeps and bytes. For example, before computers rendered many hands-on operations obsolete, there was microdot photography. A real person wielding a real camera shot tiny images. These minuscule spots, in turn, were smuggled in hollow coins, rings, and other inconspicuous containers. Using a special splitter blade, microdots could be embedded in the edges of a humble postcard.

Low-tech cleverness also made possible the letter extraction device: A pair of thin metal chopsticks could be carefully inserted into the unsealed gap at the top of an envelope’s flap, then rotated until the sheets inside wrapped around the tines tightly enough to be extracted without visibly damaging them or the envelope.

And then there were the codes. No nostalgic display would be complete without a look at the legendary cipher machines of this century, and Melton delivers this in spades. He gets inside the famous Nazi-era Enigma code machine, which put each letter of a secret message through a series of rotors; step-by-step diagrams make it almost clear how the infernal thing worked. Enigma was a code the Germans thought unbreakable—until, of course, the British broke it. The Americans, meanwhile, defeated the Japanese “Purple” cipher machine; in Melton’s photo, the device’s innards do seem to have a lavender tint.

Despite the mind-bending mechanical tours de force involved in breaking these codes, Melton shows that the best method was perhaps the simplest, the “one-time pad.” Sender and receiver each had an identical pad of code sheets, which were used in a prearranged order, once only, then destroyed. This system, because it was not a concrete “system” at all, was essentially unbreakable (unless, perhaps, an agent copied a pad with a microdot camera).

Simplicity applied to more than codes. Satellites can now take high-definition photos of small objects on the ground, and analysts can read these in real time. But is it art? Melton is much more interested in some 1890 sketches of what appear to be a butterfly and a leaf, drawn by British Boy Scouts founder Baron Baden-Powell on an alleged nature hike in the Balkans. Look closely, the caption hints: Amid the naturalistic imagery, a practiced eye can discern the outline of a fortress, artillery emplacements, and trench lines that were the actual objects of the young officer’s peregrinations.

Spread out in museum-catalog style, Melton’s superannuated spy gadgets look almost quaint in spite of their sinister applications. One half-expects to turn the page and see a section on covered bridges or 19th-century etchings. The Spy Book’s very publication, in fact, is evidence enough that the old-time devices are now novelties.

Old-time spies look quaint here as well, and Melton’s subtext clearly suggests that the agents of the past were better. The Ultimate Spy Book features dozens of capsule biographies of famous counterspies, double agents, and triple agents from as far back as Machiavelli. Besides the professionals, who presumably volunteer for their line of work, people who spy against their own countries are usually recruited for one or more of four basic reasons, summarized in the acronym, “MICE.” In the good old days, most spies went for the ICE: Ideology, Compromise, or overweening Ego. Lately, it’s almost all for M: Money. (And the exceptions turn out to be embarrassments, like Jonathan Pollard, who spied on one homeland, the U.S., for another, Israel.)

Although it’s not entirely convincing in this regard, the book seems to suggest a big stature gap between the brains and shrewdness of Christopher Marlowe and Cardinal Richelieu (or, in our century, Mata Hari, the Rosenbergs, Kim Philby, and Whittaker Chambers) and such tacky, Reagan-era money-grubbers as John Walker and Aldrich Ames. Even the product of disloyalty has become increasingly abstract—computer records and satellite codes.

Something close to sentimentality is also palpable in Colby’s foreword, which admits that many of the objects and exploits chronicled here “evoke fond memories” of his days of derring-do in the ’40s and ’50s. Kalugin, too, writes that life and his profession made sense “when two world superpowers and their respective allies, guided by irreconcilable ideologies, clashed in a deadly struggle for human minds and, ultimately, world domination.”

Well, that was then. Kalugin laments that following “the classic Cold War crises…intelligence gathering was transformed by satellites, lasers, computers and other gadgetry.” And Colby, perhaps shaking his head, avers that today’s threat is not from the calculating nemeses of Agent 007 but from such riffraff as “terrorists, purveyors of ethnic and religious hatred, nuclear proliferators, and crime and drug lords.” Not to mention having to hustle corporations for business—the relevant initials in intelligence operations today are as likely to be IBM as CIA.

There goes the neighborhood. Even treachery has no class anymore.CP