Thursday 30 May 2013

My Life That Books Built: The KnowHow Book of Spycraft by Falcon Travis and Judy Hindley

One of the first Usborne books to be published, in 1975, and Peter Usborne's all-time favourite. As used in evidence at the high court trial of Soviet spy Oleg Gordievsky, who testified that this book gave away the KGB's tradecraft. The author, Falcon Travis, remains a mystery to this day.

When I was a child I wanted to be a spy. Or a detective, but mainly a spy. Whether this was fuelled by my love of the James Bond films (especially at the time those of Roger Moore which seemed to be on TV every Bank Holiday Monday in the days when we only had three TV channels) or not I do not remember. But what I do remember is the collection of spy craft books that I gradually manage to build up by saving up my pocket money. I can remember all the titles (and some of their authors), though sadly many of them are out of print these days. Titles such as The Secret Agent's Handbook by Peter Eldin, Spy School by Gyles Brandreth and Whizz Kids How To be A Spy were read over and over again, as me and my friends tried (and failed) to learn morse code and left coded messages for each other at dead letter boxes. 

Sadly, my copies of these books were lost many years ago, most likely as a result of me being the eldest of five as many of my things got passed down (except for my precious Three Investigators books, that it). These days I could not describe the contents of any of these books (should anyone be desperate enough to inquire), but there were two other books in my collection that have lived long in my memory, and even today I could wax lyrical about them. Coincidentally, both are published by Usborne, and even better, both of them are still in print (and I have copies of their modern editions - hurrah!). One of them, The Spy's Guidebook, I have mentioned on The Book Zone before, but the other has never had a mention until now, and that is The KnowHow Book of Spycraft.

The KnowHow Book of Spycraft was one of the very first books published by Usborne, shortly after Peter Usborne set up the publishing house back in 2013. This year is the 40th anniversary of this momentous occasion and in order to help celebrate their birthday Usborne have published a shiny new edition. After 40 years The KnowHow Book of Spycraft is still Peter Usborne's favourite Usborne book, which is quite an achievement considering the number of amazing books that they have published over the past decades. I was incredibly grateful to receive a copy of the 40th anniversary edition from the lovely people at Usborne, and the moment it arrived and I turned to the first page I was hit by a wave of nostalgia. Although the matter-of-fact and easy to follow (and highly instructive) text does play a part in this, I think it was mainly due to Colin King's brilliant and distinctive illustrations. Colin also illustrated The Spy's Guidebook (and its companion The Detective's Handbook) and the reason I remembered these books more than the other I mentioned earlier is down to the style of the illustrations and their vivid colours.

However, this book is not just a nostalgia piece for forty-year-old men. It is just as relevant and enjoyable for today's kids as it was for me back at the tail end of the 1970s. The illustrations and text are timeless, and it is perfect for boys (and girls) who struggle with reading fiction, but love fact books and anything else that feeds their imagination without them having to follow a story plot. I was already a massive reader by the time I picked up this book as a child, but some of my friends were not, and this (and its like) were possibly the first books they actively chose to read outside of the classroom. I would imagine that most of them would be just as happy as I was to get their hands on this new edition, and it never ceases to amaze me how books like this can resonate with people through decades.

The new edition of The KnowHow Book of Spycraft is due to be published on 1st June, although a certain online retailer already has copies in stock. For a cover price of a mere £5.99 you could do a lot worse this weekend than buy a copy for your reluctant reader son or daughter, although don't be too surprised when they start acting furtive, go through your clothes in search of disguises and add an extra potato to your weekly shopping list so that they can make invisible ink.


  1. Very good post, thank you, and almost exactly my own experience of this book.
    That picture of the 'spy post office' awakened memories, particularly... with the 'whispering wood' at the top: because that leads the way of the two other books I loved as a child, All About Ghosts, and Haunted Houses.
    No coincidence, I think, that they were both from Usborne.

  2. Fantastic post, and sums up my feelings about this book (and The Knowhow book of Detection) perfectly!

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