on 22 July 2000
England, 1943. The German Enigma code has been cracked and the Allied forces are close to winning the crucial Battle of the Atlantic. Suddenly, the code is changed and it is obvious that there is a traitor in the midst. Code-cracker Tom Jericho then finds that his girlfriend Claire has gone missing, leaving incriminating evidence in her room and a full-scale search begins to find her. But Tom cannot believe that she was the betrayer and sets out to find his own answers. With support from Claire's curious roommate Hester, he uncovers a mystery that goes far deeper than the Enigma codes. He discovers a secret that both the Gestapo and the British government are strangely united in their efforts to keep, a secret that could be dangerous in the wrong hands and a secret that shames those fighting on both sides.
This book is an absolutely amazing historical detective story. Harris's debut, "Fatherland" was unputdownable and vastly intriguing but this book goes one better. In "Enigma" we are presented with the world as it was nearly 60 years ago, and an England tired by War. Symbolising this fatigue is our hero Jericho, a young man press-ganged into helping to crack the Enigma cose and almost killing himself in the process. After a short rehabilitation he arrives back at the Bletchley code-cracking centre to prove his worth and finding himself embroiled in a mystery in which the enigmatic woman he has fallen for is strangely implicated. Harris creates a flawed hero and an unconventional heroine in the shape of Hester Wallace, who together discover that the disappearance of Claire and the discovery by the Germans that their code has been cracked are linked to a shameful secret hidden in the forests of Eastern Europe. Readers may be shocked to discover that what is uncovered is a true story but the arguments for the British cover-up are strong if not excusable. Whatever your feelings, this book is a page-turner. Harris is a master storyteller and his characters are utterly believable and compelling, the world he creates is almost Dickensian in its vividness and the final few pages will pick you up and sweep you along with their shocking twists and turns and their tragic elements. This book is not without its humour but the overall tone is rather bleak, perfect for the era in which it is set and for the subject matter it deals with. When finished you will want to pick it up and read it all over again because the World it presents is so cold, cruel and distant, yet so staggeringly real.
on 15 March 1999
As well as being an excellent thriller, this book painted a very vivid picture of what life was like at Bletchley park during the war. The technical detail was interesting, and prompted me to buy other books to find out more about the enigma codes. I don't read many novels, but as soon as I started this one I was hooked. I now plan to read his other novels too.
on 8 December 2012
Hollywood appears constantly on the look out for a good story to adapt into the next blockbuster's screen play. All too often, a once and loveable old friend is re-packaged and franchised for the big screen; stripped, nay raped, of all the subtleties and nuances that made the story interesting in the first place.
Don't get me wrong, I love film. At it's best, I love the medium's ability to awe, to inspire, to entertain, and yes even to shock an audience in glorious surround sound and in pictures twenty feet tall. At it's worst, overt commercial considerations often drive a need to 'dumb down', cut short or alter so much that any similarity to the source material is purely coincidental. Good adaptations will often omit subplots, almost certainly cut out or amalgamate characters whilst at least preserving, sometimes even improving, on the substance of the original in the transition from book to screen.
Normally a book is read before it's film adaptation is seen, which is why all to often you hear complaints a film doesn't measure up to it's book. For me and "Enigma", it was the other way around. I missed the original publication back in 1995 and only through picking up a bargain DVD of the film did I finally get to see the cinematic version.
At long last I can now compare the film with it's source material, and can honestly say the film is a fair and accurate representation of the book and a good example of what I consider to be a successful adaption. Harris certainly evokes the sights, smells, tastes and sounds or a war weary Britain in the depth of the winter in 1943, and skilfully explains complicated technical details so even a technophobe can understand the various plot lines. I was gripped from the first page to the last. His style makes for an accessible read with just the right balance of fact to carry the reader forward, without boring or losing them.
In 1995, when first published, hardly anyone had heard of Bletchley Park or it's war time code breakers who made the final victory possible in 1945. Here in a popular work of fiction their world is finally being celebrated and made partially accessible. A good read, anytime, anyplace or any where.
Robert Harris has, with enormous skill, seamlessly woven a brilliant thriller around the activities of the code breakers and support personnel at Bletchley Park and their continuing battle to read the German Enigma ciphers.
He focuses on the moment in 1943 when the Germans abruptly changed their codes and Bletchley Park suddenly found they could no longer read any of the German radio messages to and from their North Atlantic U-boat packs. The potential effect on the Allied convoys was more than simply frightening.
When the girlfriend of Tom Jericho, one of Bletchley Park's top code breakers, disappears there's an immediate suspicion that she may be a German agent who, in some way, has alerted the Germans to the fact that their Enigma ciphers are being routinely broken. The logic behind this suspicion and the way it impacts upon the code breakers themselves - who are working impossible hours and under impossible pressure - made it extremely difficult for me to put the book down.
And, as the Allied convoys continue - as they must - to sail, as the U-boat packs gather and Tom Jericho and his colleagues at Bletchley strive to break this latest Enigma cipher, we suddenly find that nothing is quite what it seems.
That final and sudden twist - as the Polish word Katyn unexpectedly appears - is brilliantly told and lifts the thriller into a class of its own.
The story of Bletchley Park in breaking, from 1939 onwards, the German, Italian and Japanese ciphers has, of course, been well documented. In the 'Acknowledgements' section Robert Harris lists a number of books about BP but I'd additionally refer anyone interested in the subject to four other books:
1. The Ultra Secret - the first telling (in 1974) of the story, written by the Group Captain responsible for security at BP throughout WW2.
2. Ultra Goes to War - written in 1978 it expands on 'The Ultra Secret'.
3. The Secret Listeners: How the Y Service Intercepted the Secret German Codes and
4. The Secret Life of Bletchley Park: The History of the Wartime Codebreaking Centre by the Men and Women Who Were There.
And as for the horrors of Katyn go read, for example, The Katyn Order (fiction) or Remembering Katyn (fact).
It's 1943, and the Allies rely on the shipping convoys from the US to keep their battered countries fed and munitioned. The tide has been flowing in the Allies favour since the German Enigma codes were broken at Bletchley Park in the South of England. But now the Germans have changed the U-boat code, threatening not only individual convoys but the entire defeat of the Allied forces. Tom Jericho, hailed as one of the most brilliant codebreakers, is on a break, suffering from a combination of stress, overwork and a broken heart over a girl named Claire. But with this new threat, despite his fragile health, he's urgently needed back in Bletchley. And when he gets there, he discovers Claire is missing...
What a joy, after a series of less than stellar reads, to find myself in the safe hands of a master storyteller once again! This is a masterclass in how to write a book. The writing is so good it hooks instantly. Harris recreates wartime Britain with what feels like total authenticity; and specifically the world of these men, recruited for their brilliant minds, their maths and puzzle solving skills, on whose youthful shoulders it sometimes feels the whole weight of the war rests. Throughout the book, Harris feeds out his extensive research into Bletchley and codebreaking at the right moments and in the right quantities, as a natural part of the story so that it never feels like an info dump. He carefully creates his characters to feel real and then ensures their actions remain true to that characterisation. And oh, bliss! The book has an actual plot – a proper story, that remains credible throughout and holds the reader's attention right to the end! The pleasure of reading this well-crafted, expertly-paced story highlighted to me what a rarity that has become in contemporary fiction.
The book starts in Cambridge University, where Jericho has been sent to recuperate. The whole feeling of the ancient university in wartime is beautifully created, setting the tone for the rest of the book. The old staircases and shabby rooms, the ancient traditions; the dullness of an institution empty of so many of the young men and women who would normally have been there, but who are instead part of the war effort; the gossiping staff with too much time on their hands, speculating about the arrival of this young man and then his sudden departure; the difficult position of young men not in uniform, but whose work is too secret to be revealed.
On arriving back at Bletchley, Jericho finds that two convoys have left the US and are crossing the Atlantic. The Americans want assurances that the codes will be broken quickly enough to allow for these convoys to be protected, but Jericho sees no hope of that. Instead, he believes that by monitoring the signals of the U-boats that will be aiming towards the convoys, he might gather enough information to break the codes. Harris shows very clearly the ethical dilemmas the young codebreakers must face – they find themselves almost hoping for the convoys to be attacked so that they can get the information they need. Harris also raises the point that it was often necessary not to act on the information gathered from Enigma so that the Germans wouldn't realise the codes had been broken and change them. Thus many Allied lives were sacrificed in the hopes of saving many more by eventually winning the war. He doesn't labour these points in a heavy-handed way, but he uses them to show the almost unbearable levels of stress the codebreakers worked under, coupled with the necessary secrecy of the work which left them somewhat detached from the rest of society, in a little bubble of constant tension.
No wonder then that suspicion was never absent, the fear of spying a real and present threat. So when Jericho discovers something that forces him to question Claire's loyalty, he is torn. His head knows he should make the authorities aware of what he's found, but his heart wants to find her and give her an opportunity to explain. And soon he finds himself teamed up with Claire's old house-mate, Hester, backtracking through Claire's actions in an attempt to find explanations.
The plot gives Harris the opportunity to gradually lead the reader through how the whole set-up worked, from the soldiers and sailors risking their lives to get hold of code books, to the listening stations on the South Coast where the women of the ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service) intercepted the coded German signals, and on to the huts in Bletchley, each responsible for an aspect of the war; Eastern Front, naval manoeuvres, etc. Harris shows how women were restricted to being glorified clerks, regardless of their skills or aptitude, while only men were given the more glamorous job of the actual code-breaking. But his few female characters are excellently drawn, strong and credible within the limitations the system forced upon them. The stuff about the codebreaking is complex, sometimes too complex for me, but the story doesn't get bogged down in it. As with all of the best spy thrillers, there is a growing sense of moral ambiguity throughout, where even the motives of the baddies are equivocal.
A first rate spy thriller, written with all the qualities of literary fiction, this one gets my highest recommendation.
on 26 October 2015
I am going through a period of 'Bletchley Park' stories. The activities at this vitally important place and the people who worked there were very important in Britain's survival in the last World War, and have captured my imagination and interest. Their are a sufficient number of incidents and characters in a real life to keep biographers, history and fiction writers busy in the future. I have even recently viewed The Bletchley Circle TV series on DVD. The author has captured sufficient of the historical importance, events, urgency and individual sacrifices in this book to give those with no knowledge a good insight and hopefully also capture their interest as well. The characters and their actions are believable if not a little over egged, a baddie, a goodie, a romance, a spy and sacrifice with occasional references to real people and places, it's all there. The story, as written, is a page turner and I enjoyed reading it.
on 13 May 2006
A bookish young man is found shattered; physically and emotionally. But, who is he and why is he in Cambridge? Enigma was recommended to me, and I recommend it to you. Jericho, the protagonist, persues what he thinks is his love in a page-turning race, twists and turns await the reader - all in the setting of industrious Bletchley Park. All the charachters are plausible and emotive - but there are some stereotypes about Oxbridge types, which really must be dismissed. Enigma gripped me, and must be the second brilliant invention from the wonderful family that made my tweed jacket.
on 28 June 2016
At last we are all becoming aware of the highly significant role that Bletchley played in the war.It seems very likely that their contribution cannot be underestimated. The story of the men, women and machines that brought about such a technological and intelligence break through is brought to life in this book. A novel that provides some insight into the secret world of the Bletchley 'circle'. Thankfully the story is told by a writer who manages to provide a real insight into the form and function of Bletchley whilst at the same time deliver an exciting and engrossing story.
on 4 May 2008
I had seen the film, loved the book, but I had not realised the joy of Alan Howard's intelligent and beautiful reading. He has played in Foyles War and many theatre roles and is delightful, witty, funny (as Mrs Armstrong especially, moving as Mr Jericho and wonderful as the admiral and staff) and has incredible range. This reading made a trip to Bristol, of 2 hours and back, a joy, and when the tube or train is standing room only, the perfect way to enjoy the ipod. It is slightly abridged which is a great shame, but at 6 hours +, every minute is worth it. Please Alan Howard read more!
on 24 April 2016
From one Nottinghamian to another, a good read, really enjoyed it as I had visited Bletchley a few months earlier, and Beaumanor is not too far from where we live so found the book was of real interest. Thought it could have been pared-own a little as some of the passages were over-long and I did something I don't like doing - which is skipping paragraphs to get to the point - but couldn't put it down.