HOW CAN A BOOK be so deeply flawed and yet still so readable?
Commander Lionel Crabb, probably Britain’s most famous (or infamous) diver of the 20th century, was recognised for his wartime exploits as a naval frogman, and later continued to freelance on clandestine missions for the Royal Navy or intelligence services.
He finally disappeared after diving on a Russian warship docked at Portsmouth in 1956, and doubt was cast over whether the headless body later found and buried was actually his.
Official records are not set to be released for another 40 years.
Mike & Jacqui Welham made their views on the Crabb story clear in their well-researched non-fiction book Frogman Spy, expanded into The Crabb Enigma five years ago.
According to them, this diver who enjoyed wearing rubber a little too much was part of a Russian spy network that embraced his hero First Sea Lord and later Chief of the Defence Staff Lord Louis Mountbatten, and included others with royal connections such as “fourth man” Anthony Blunt.
Crabb’s disappearance they believed to be a smokescreened defection to the USSR, arranged by Communist-sympathiser Mountbatten so that the diver could use his underwater expertise in the service of Russia’s secret Spetsnaz units.
All fine conspiracy theory but then, through The Crabb Enigma, the Welhams met the stepchildren of Crabb’s great friend Maitland Pendock. They had the diver’s trademark swordstick and a wealth of intriguing new background information.
Pendock, the “Grey Rabbit” of the title of this latest book, was a low-level double agent, also destined to be spirited away to the USSR.
Unlike the earlier books, Crabb & the Grey Rabbit has been written as fiction. This should allow the writers free rein with the material, filling in some of the conjecture as fact. And in the hands of an experienced novelist this could have been a great book, because it certainly has all the ingredients. Unfortunately, fiction-writing is not the Welhams’ strong point.
The earlier Crabb Enigma gave me the impression of a book written separately by two people, one with more craft than the other, but not married into a cohesive whole. I got the same feeling while reading Crabb & the Grey Rabbit.
The authors also seem determined to shoehorn every scrap of their wealth of information and theory into the strictly chronological narrative. A novelist would have known where to leave space to enhance the dramatic effect of the storylines, and how to bring out the characters to induce an emotional response in the reader.
Sometimes we seem to be drowning in extraneous detail, even down to the exact birth date of the spies’ landlady at one point.
And because it’s a novel, many of these facts are conveyed through imagined conversations that are too often stilted and unconvincing.
Here’s an example: “Having lost him; we’re making the final cut, I have sold this wonderful old house, Great Homead Dane, and purchased part of Quinbury Cottages in Braughing, some ten miles from here.” Did anyone ever talk like that?
There is repetition, too, and no real attempt to explain the men’s motives in turning traitor, but the main problem is the uneven nature of the content.
For example, Crabb’s wartime diving exploits are passed over in the blink of an eye, even though they apparently made him a household name, whereas Pendock’s “extraction” by the Russians is described in mind-numbing detail.
The authors needed to filter the material far more strictly, because this book doesn’t seem to know whether it’s fact or fiction.
And yet, for all its faults, I sailed through its 400-plus pages – just because, however you mash them up, these old stories of frogmen, spies and establishment cover-ups can’t fail to intrigue.
Steve Weinman

ISBN: 9781503588868
Softback, 429pp, £14.92,
Kindle £3.49