The Strange Coincidences of Miss Hanff

Dug out of my LiveJournal archives.

I originally did this as a comment on someone else’s LJ. But I’d like to get it over here, so it’s more easily searchable — and to get a wider audience.


So. I’ve been owing you this for a while. I mostly do my LJ stuff at my job, where I work the graveyard shift. It’s been such that I haven’t really felt up to it. But, as I say, I owe you, and who knows? This might be the first draft of a letter to Le Carré, where I’d like to see what he says before he dies.

Return with me now to those thrilling days of yesteryear. Specifically, 1998, and is on her royal progress as North American TAFF delegate to the UK, and I’m the consort along for the ride.

We go to London, and as a devoted reader of Le Carré and Hanff I want to see two things: “The Circus” and 84 Charing Cross Road. I know neither SOE nor MI6 ever had a HQ near Cambridge Circus, but there you go. I also know that Marks and Co., the bookshop in 84 Charing Cross Rd the book and movie, is now only marked by a brass plaque. Again, no problem, I’m just curious.

So we go to the physical location, 84 Charing Cross Rd and… Well, have you ever seen Charade? Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn? There’s a sequence in it when everyone is walking through a stamp fair in Paris, and then suddenly each of them put two and two together, and their heads start whirling about.

This was very like that. Because, you see, 84 Charing Cross Road is just on the edge of Cambridge Circus.

Now, let’s fill in a bit. “Marks and Co.” stands for “Marks and Cohen,” and was the actual shop. Leo Marks — screenwriter of Peeping Tom, friend of Helene Hanff, and cryptographer extraordinaire — was the son of Mr. Marks. If you read Between Silk and Cyanide, Leo’s memoir, you’ll see that he frequently used antiquarian books as the plain text for various ciphers he would send with agents into the field during his days at SOE/MI6. In addition, Le Carré, who worked at MI6 at roughly the same time as Marks (a little later, but not much) does exactly the same thing. Note his use of the Simplicissimus in A Perfect Spy, acknowledged to be his most autobiographical book.

So… If one was a cryptographer who used antiquarian books as plain text, and if one was also the son of the owner of an antiquarian book shop, what would be the easiest way to distribute such books around the world?

One of the big questions that just slides by in 84 Charing Cross Rd is, what in the world was Marks and Co. doing having an ad in the Saturday Review for Miss Hanff to find in the first place? This hypothesis suggests an answer.

But it goes further.

Frank Doel (Anthony Hopkins’ character in the movie) had some very interesting neighbors. Namely, Morris Cohen and Lona Cohen (known during their UK days as Peter and Helen Kroger). The Cohens were Soviet spies of long standing, having been among those assigned to Los Alamos to try to get nuclear information during WWII. Not only did they live quite nearby to Frank Doel, they also worked — wait for it — as antiquarian book sellers.

I don’t think that was an accident. I think the Sovs twigged on to what was happening at Marks and Co., and assigned the Cohens to try to keep tabs on Frank Doel. Hanff jokes this about in the book — or rather, she publishes a letter from Nora Doel (Mrs. Frank, played by an almost unrecognizable Judi Dench in the film) that treats the whole matter lightly.

But I think Le Carré also knew what was going on, and placed headquarters at “The Circus” because, even if there was no staff housed there, there were considerable communications going through the place.

Heck, dare we say it? Could Frank Doel be the role model for George Smiley? Was he sufficiently bookish and anonymous in person for that, no matter how much wit comes across in his letters to Helene?

I can’t point to any particular flame. But it seems to me there are quite a few wafts of smoke here. Certainly enough for a Waldropian story or novel. 🙂