Enigma – Robert Harris (1995)

Tom Jericho, brilliant mathematician and cryptanalyst, has been sent back to Cambridge University after collapsing with exhaustion while involved in his work at Bletchley Park on decoding the Nazis Enigmas cipher. But in March 1943 he is abruptly summoned back; the Germans have changed the cipher and it appears that they may have suspicions that Enigma has been cracked.
Enormous convoys are heading across the Atlantic and a massive U-boat
formation has set out to intercept and sink them. Jericho and his fellow
cryptanalysts engage on a desperate race against time to try and crack the
new codes. But Jericho’s mind is also obsessed with a girl, Claire Romilly,
who dumped him just before his breakdown; now she has disappeared and it
seems as though she may in some way be connected to the possibility that
there is a spy at Bletchley.

Like many people I have seen the highly competent film adaptation of Enigma (2001 with Dougray Scott, Kate Winslet and Saffron Burrows) although I must admit I have not retained much memory of the plot, so do not know how much it varies from the book. The book ticks all the right boxes. It is obviously a WW2 book – the plot, history, characterisation, background are all unique to that time. It is very well-written (forming a marked contrast to Gardner’s Troubled Midnight in this as in almost every other respect), the historical detail is fascinating (though I admit I did not even attempt to follow the explanations of cryptography – these are a long way beyond the mathematically challenged of whom I am one), the narrative impetus is generally terrific and the plotting is finally revealed as exemplary. I say finally because there is a great last twist which throws everything else into a new light and which I never saw coming at all.

Given all this, and I would certainly recommend the book without hesitation for the reasons given above, what is it that prevents me awarding it
absolutely top marks? I think it is because it just lacks anything unexpected (apart from the plot). This is probably most tellingly revealed
in the characterisation which, while always competent, does tend towards the stereotypical. But even the moral and political questions are old,
well -rehearsed ones which Harris does not really give any new twist to.
That’s it I suppose – there is nothing really new, nothing left-field. Or it
could just be my usual hyper-critical curmudgeonliness! But for whatever
reason while Enigma can certainly be highly recommended it just falls short
of excellence.

(March 2009)

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