Thursday, November 13, 2014

Enigma: Robert Harris

Set in 1943, this book uses Bletchley Park and the code breaking efforts there as a background for a mystery. Tom Jericho had left Bletchley to recuperate in Cambridge after a nervous breakdown resulting from the stress of his work. Now he is asked to return to help in a new effort to break Enigma codes.

After his return, he gets involved in a search for a missing woman, Claire Romily, that he had a brief affair with. He is helped by her roommate, Hester Wallace, who has aspirations to take a more central part in code breaking, but has been passed over and given clerical work because she is a woman.

Publisher's Weekly described Enigma as a "high-adrenaline thriller." It felt more slowly paced to me, although towards the end as Tom and Hester take chances to trace some missing cryptograms, it does ratchet up the tension.

My husband's review at Goodreads:
Enough time has elapsed since original publication (1995) that I believe this mystery thriller of World War II code breaking can be considered a genre classic. The thriller aspects center on Bletchley Park and efforts to break (rebreak actually) the extremely complex German Enigma codes. Worked into the plot are fascinating details on code breaking in general and the Enigmas in particular. Mystery aspects mostly involve the shadowy figure of Claire Romilly. Who she is, what she has done, where she has gone. A film version was released in 2001 and I remember it as not particularly involving. Given my positive reaction to the book, I plan on giving the movie another look.
This is a clever story with convincing characters. Not all of them are likeable or admirable. The author also gets across the lack of food and supplies in World War II Britain.
This was where the devil of the war resided: in the details, in the thousand petty humiliations of never having enough toilet paper or soap or matches or clean clothes. Civilians had been pauperized. They smelled, that was the truth of it. Body odor lay over the British Isles like a great sour fog.
I like the author's style of writing, but it is possible that I liked this story even better because it is an espionage story and it is set during World War II. I am eager to try more of the author's books. I have had Fatherland and The Ghost for five years now, so it is time I got around to reading them. I bought An Officer and a Spy shortly after it was published in the US.

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Publisher:   Random House, 1995.
Length:       320 pages
Format:       Hardcover
Setting:       UK, 1943
Genre:        Espionage fiction
Source:       I read my husband's copy.


27 comments:

  1. Great review TracyK - did you ever see the movie?

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    1. I did see the movie, Sergio, but it has been a while. We plan to watch it again soon, and I plan to do a book to movie post on it before the end of the year. My time and energy don't seem to be cooperating with my plans lately.

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    2. By the way, just watched THE IMITATION GAME with Benedict Cumberbatch very impressive as Alan Turing, which obviously inspired Harris, though ti seems the filmmakers did also jazz up the film with a spy subplot that belongs more to Harris than history!

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    3. Given the topic and that Cumberbatch is starring, we will definitely see THE IMITATION GAME eventually. I have not read that much about it yet, but saw that Mark Strong is also in the movie, which is a plus.

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  2. I should pull my finger out and read this - once I have recovered it from the unlogged masses. I have a few Harris books to read having enjoyed The Ghost.

    What I ought to do as well is take a trip to Bletchley Park Museum at some point - it's only about 7 miles from where I live. I think at least one of my children have been there on a school trip.

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    1. Oh, now I remember, Col, Leighton Buzzard was mentioned in the towns he went by on the train on the way to Bletchley... and I thought of you. How cool, I am very envious. I would love to visit there.

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    2. Bletchley is the next stop on the line north from L/B. My workplace is actually closer to Bletchley Park than my home.
      I will see about dragging my wife along to the Museum, at some point - hopefully after I have read the book (I will see if I can get her interested in reading it also!)
      Let me know if you are in town and we'll visit together!

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    3. I don't travel much, Col, and I only fly under duress... but you can be sure, if I get anywhere close to your area, I will let you know.

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  3. I've enjoyed all the Robert Harris novels I've read.

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    1. I am glad to hear that, George. I have high hopes for all the ones I have on the TBR piles.

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  4. I read this book when it was first published, due to the good review it received in Publishers Weekly. I enjoyed learning from the novel, but I don't remember that much of the plot. Perhaps I should borrow a copy from the library (to which I donated my copy!) and read it again.

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    1. Barbara, I don't know why it took me so long to get to this. I guess I did not know much about the author's books. I did have a hiatus from reading much fiction at all in the 90's so maybe that is it. Leaves me lots of books to discover now though.

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  5. Tracy - This does look like a great WWII espionage novel. I like the fact that the characters are believable (that doesn't always happen in espionage fiction). Thanks for sharing.

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    1. Right, Margot. I am usually very forgiving of espionage fiction and can take all types, but this one was especially good.

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  6. I read this years ago and it's really, really, great, as are many of Harris' novels. His latest, actually titled AN OFFICER AND A SPY, is a lightly fictionalized account of the Dreyfus case, and it's completely absorbing.

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    1. I agree with you, Graham. I fear I did not enthuse enough in my review, but I had a great experience reading this book. Thanks for pointing out my goof with the title of the latest book, I do that all the time (and was in a hurry last night). I will fix it now. I am looking forward to reading that soon, so glad you have praise for it.

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    2. Oh, thanks for posting this info, Graham. I read a review of An Officer and a Spy in Publishers Weekly and the review was good, but for some reason I never bought the book. I'll remedy this immediately.

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  7. Tracy, I'm familiar with the author though I have never read anything by him. I'll be remedying that as soon as I can.

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    1. I am sure you will enjoy anything you read by Robert Harris, Prashant.

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  8. Haven't read this, Tracy. In fact I haven't read any Robert Harris. But this one sure sounds good. I love stories set in WWII. And if it involves spying, even better. Thanks.

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    1. I am not sure why it took me so long to read one of his books, Yvette. I had this for 5 years along with GHOST and FATHERLAND; bought all three at the same book sale. Guess the time was just right, and I enjoyed it very much.

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  9. Like you, I love espionage stories and, although it's been a while, I remember loving this book.

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    1. Sarah, saw the movie last night (2nd time but it had been so long I had forgotten everything). Prefer the book to the movie (as usual), but still was fun to watch it.

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  10. I really like this book, it's my favourite of his. And I also very much enjoyed the film - I saw it in a small indie cinema in Seattle when it first came out, and I was the only person in there! I will certainly read/watch both again.

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    1. We just rewatched the movie, Moira. I think I watched the movie too close to reading the book, because that causes me to nitpick at differences. I thought there were a lot of differences, so I can just like both for their own good qualities. Easier that way, anyway. I think both Glen and I liked it better this time (it had been years). And I enjoyed seeing Tom Hollander and Matthew Macfayden in it.

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  11. TracyK: I enjoyed the book. It has been a long time since I read it. At the time there was less public information about Bletchley. Much of what was in the book was not well known. I thought it a good book. I think Harris does extremely well in turning historic events into fiction.

    The book of Harris I most strongly recommend is Fatherland. I am not much for books on imagined future history, here that Germany won WW II, but Fatherland is a striking exception. It made me think as much as any work of fiction I have read.

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    1. Bill, I had not realized that less was known about Bletchley at the time this book was written, although it makes sense. I have a bias against reading alternative histories myself, although the ones I have read I have enjoyed. And I have heard that Fatherland is very good. I look forward to reading it.

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