M. Maxwell Knight, MI5’s Greatest Spymaster

Author: Hemming, Henry

Publication Date:

May 2017



Original language and publisher


Biography, History, Narrative Non-Fiction

M. Maxwell Knight, MI5’s Greatest Spymaster

Author: Hemming, Henry

  • 2 Seas Represents: German, Dutch and Nordic rights.
  • Rights sold: UK (Preface, Random House), USA (Public Affairs), France (Mareuil), TV/Film (Mammoth Screen)
  • Over 20,000 copies sold
  • Selected as Waterstones Non-Fiction Book of the Month for February 2018, and subsequently spent several weeks in the Sunday Times Top 10 bestseller list, and was a number one bestseller in the The Times chart.
  • Selected as a ‘Book of the Year 2017’ in The Times,The Sunday Times and the Daily Mail
  • Matt Charman, Oscar-nominated screenwriter of Stephen Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, and Mammoth Screen, producers of Poldark and Victoria, are producing a big budget TV series based on the book.


‘Vividly imagined and prodigiously researched.’ — Helen Davies, Sunday Times, Books of the Year

‘Such a rewarding read’ — John Preston, Daily Mail, Books of the Year

‘This odd, secretive man is brought to life’ — Robbie Millen, The Times, Books of the Year

‘Henry Hemming has found a peach of a subject […] Full of new material, fresh interpretations and uncompromising integrity […] He has managed the great feat of producing a rattling good read that is also a major piece of revisionist history’ — Richard Davenport-Hines, Wall Street Journal

‘Compelling […] Hemming has done a wonderful espionage job of his own, scouring obscure files to bring long-hidden agents and their exploits to light’ — Sinclair McKay, The Daily Telegraph

‘In this excellent biography […] the author has done a terrific job of unscrambling Knight’s muddled life’ — Max Hastings, The Sunday Times

‘An engaging and suspenseful biography’ — Lara Feigel, Financial Times

‘Lively contribution to a maverick literature’ — Robert McCrum, The Observer

‘A major new biography […] Through an exhaustive piecing-together of previously secret files, Hemming has not only assembled a full account of Knight’s activities but also reveals for the first time the identities of many of Knight’s agents. It is an exemplary piece of historical sleuthing’ — Guy Walters, The Mail on Sunday

‘Many spy stories are page-turners, but the author proves that the story of one man can be equally thrilling. Hemming has uncovered a man determined not to be known and in so doing, has provided us with delightful reading’ — Kirkus Reviews

“Fascinating… Hemming has done a superb job.” — Ben Macintyre, The Times, Book of the Week

“I raced through Henry Hemming’s book, constantly having to remind myself that it wasn’t a work of fiction. It really has everything you’d want from a great espionage story: incredible agents risking their lives; the highest possible stakes, with the safety of the world hanging in the balance; and at its heart a complicated, mercurial spy master in Maxwell Knight spinning an ever more intricate web.” — Matt Charman, Oscar-nominated screenwriter of Bridge of Spies

“Crammed with cracking stories and founded on sound research, Henry Hemming’s biography of Maxwell Knight – ‘M’ – stands comparison with the bestselling books of Ben Macintyre.” — Adam Sisman, Author of John Le Carré

Maxwell Knight was a paradox. A jazz obsessive and nature enthusiast (he is the author of the definitive work on how to look after a gorilla), he is seen today as one of MI5’s greatest spymasters, a man who did more than any other to break up British fascism during the Second World War – in spite of having once belonged to the British Fascisti himself. He was known to his agents and colleagues simply as M, and was rumoured to be part of the inspiration for the character M in the James Bond series.

Knight became a legendary spymaster despite an almost total lack of qualifications. What set him apart from his peers was a mercurial ability to transform almost anyone into a fearless secret agent. He was the first in MI5 to grasp the potential of training female agents.

M is about more than just one man however. In its pages, Hemming reveals for the first time in print the names and stories of seven men and women recruited by Knight, on behalf of MI5, and then asked to infiltrate the most dangerous political organisations in Britain at that time. Until now, their identities have been kept secret outside MI5. Drawn from every walk of life, they led double lives―often at great personal cost―in order to protect the country they loved. With the publication of this book, it will be possible at last to celebrate the lives of these courageous, selfless individuals.

Drawing on declassified documents, private family archives and interviews with retired MI5 officers as well as the families of MI5 agents, M reveals not just the shadowy world of espionage but a brilliant, enigmatic man at its centre.