Last week, Milton Shulman, the writer, journalist and critic, said he had been to six publishers with a book making an assertion that seems as resistible as it is remarkable: that Martin Bormann, Hitler's deputy, was taken alive by British commandos in the closing days of the war and smuggled to Britain, where he lived anonymously until his death in the early Fifties.
The reason, Mr Shulman said, "is because Martin Bormann had the authority to release all German funds in Swiss banks. The only way to get at that money was to have an agreement with Bormann and take him out".
Mr Shulman, now 80, is not a fool. He is a former Toronto barrister and a former Intelligence officer. He was mentioned in dispatches in the Normandy landings. He helped interrogate Nazi war criminals in preparation for the Nuremberg trials. As a critic and columnist for the London Evening Standard, Sunday Express, Daily Express and Vogue, he established a reputation for sharp judgement.
He is aware that the Bormann claim - which he blurted out on a radio programme on 5 May - could affect his reputation, but says: "I hope the thing you won't do is jeer at this story."
The story is that Ian Fleming, later the author of James Bond novels but then working for British Naval Intelligence, led a party of 400 commandos (known as 30 AU) into Germany, grabbed Bormann, took him down the Rhine in a convoy of kayaks and, back in England, housed him for six weeks in Highgate, north London, before resettling him in an English village. Locals believed he was the uncle of a German woman who was married to a British Intelligence officer.
Many of the abduction force were killed by the Gestapo while trying to locate Bormann, and others were shot by advancing Russian troops. Bormann himself died "in either 1953 or 1954" and is buried in the village in an unmarked grave.
Shulman acknowledges that this is quite a mouthful. But he says he has copies of letters signed by Winston Churchill and Lord Louis Mountbatten which make it easier to swallow. Two of the interested publishers - Doubleday and Secker & Warburg - investigated the book's claims, "yet for reasons on which I can only speculate, suddenly dropped it".
The "story" is beset by, if not flaws, complications. For one thing, Shulman did not write the book. Its author is a former member of British Intelligence who refuses to be identified. Describing him as "one of the great unsung heroes of the war", Shulman merely wrote the book's prologue, "because I believe what this man has revealed is the truth".
Another complication is that almost all the people said to have known about or taken part in the Bormann "rescue" are dead.
Bormann has been spotted - alive or dead, whole or in part - many times all over the world since the war ended. A Heinrich Leinau claimed to have travelled with him on a train to the Danish border in June 1945. The wife of a Munich physician who had treated Bormann in the past said she saw him, in September 1945, dressed in lederhosen and shirt, in Merano, Italy. He was later said to be in Spain, Italy and Brazil. In 1960, "he" was arrested in Buenos Aires but released as a fake. Four years later, it was claimed that he had died in the Paraguayan capital, Asuncion.
The Paraguayan connection was strong enough for Antony Terry, the Sunday Times's Bonn correspondent, to "comb" the jungles of that country, accompanied by a staff photographer, Bryan Wharton. "We ran into plenty of armed Germans, but failed to find Bormann," Wharton recalls.
Terry had interrogated German war criminals for the Nuremberg hearings and had also been a great friend of Ian Fleming who, after the war, joined the Sunday Times as foreign manager and died in 1964. Yet Terry, who died in 1992, confided nothing to his wife or close friends. Robert Harling, another author who was in 30 AU and was a confidant of Fleming, thinks such a tale, if true, would have got out.
Terry's widow, Edith Lenart-Terry, said from her New Zealand home last week: "The idea is simply fantastic, though I'm not sure that Ian Fleming would have talked about it, even to Antony. He maintained you must never say anything more than you are morally bound to say."
Further evidence against the Shulman story is that a Frankfurt court decided in 1972 that a broken skull, found near Berlin's Weidendamm Bridge, was Bormann's - a finding that appeared to satisfy the Nazi- hunting Simon Wiesenthal Centre. But there have been claims, notably in Hugh Thomas's Doppelgngers, published this year, that the skull did not conform to the dimensions of Bormann's and was planted by someone to put Nazi-hunters off the scent.
According to the manuscript to which Shulman has given his imprimatur, the author's direct knowledge of the Bormann abduction ended when he handed the Nazi over to "MI5 or whoever".
Since then, Shulman says, "he made inquiries and found where Bormann had gone. I know the name of the village, but I'm not going to tell you. But I have this week found someone who says he saw Bormann in this village."
This man was going to write the story for the News of the World in 1966, but the Ministry of Defence issued a 'D'-Notice"against publication.
Dan Franklin, now at Jonathan Cape and formerly at Secker & Warburg, recalls Shulman submitting the book. "It was supposed to be non-fiction. We said no in the end because we thought it was not believable. Milton got quite cross."
Sally Gaminara of Doubleday said last week: "The book was sensational. We considered it carefully, investigated it and concluded - reluctantly - that we couldn't really go for publication because we were not confident the proof was cast-iron. I like to think the story is true. It was full of detail."
She said that the "younger people" at Doubleday "roared with laughter" over the book's claims, "but the older people, who lived through the war and are aware of the extraordinary things that happened then, tended to be more believing".
Andrew Lycett, author of a forthcoming biography of Fleming, doesn't know what to think of the story, but said: "It's possible that the mystery man once used the name Crichton - one of his pseudonyms, I think - in a book which was ghosted by Brian Garfield, the thriller writer. I wrote to Garfield in California, but he hasn't replied."
I then phoned Milton Shulman again and mentioned the name "Crichton" to him. "That's him! That's him!" he cried.