The BOOKPRESS February, 1996

The Enigma of Bletchley Park


Cushing Strout

In his famous essay, "The Simple Art of Murder," Raymond Chandler attacked the ingenious detective stories of the 1920s and 1930s for lacking "the elements of truth and plausibility." Although his own version of the urban private eye story was supposed to remedy their defects, he revealed his kinship with his literary ancestors when he said of his own protagonists that "the story is his adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure."

Chandler did not take account of spy stories, which share many features with detective stories, as Glenn W. Most, a classics scholar, has observed:

the interpretation of clues and the construction, revision, and eventual confirmation of hypotheses; an atmosphere of deceit, where treachery is the rule and trust a sometimes fatal mistake; a curious fascination with the many varieties of violent death.

John Buchan's classic thriller, The Thirty-Nine Steps , is more adventure than detection, but it begins with the classic premise of the hero, Richard Hannay's, discovery of a murdered American with a mysterious cipher in his pocket diary. Hannay, who was once "pretty good at finding out cyphers" as an intelligence officer during the Boer War, tells us that he has "a head for things like chess and puzzles." Much later, Hannay deduces the meaning of the American's mysterious reference to thirty-nine steps and high tide as designating the place where a German spy will try to escape.

Spy stories transcend the kind of "laburnum-and-lodge-gate English country house" setting that provoked Chandler's ridicule. Eric Ambler's A Coffin for Dimitrios , for a memorable example, does so by involving a retired professor, who writes conventional English detective stories, in a dangerous attempt to reconstruct by practical detection the history of a real criminal, implicated in assassination, espionage, heroin trafficking, and prostitution amid the violence and chaos of middle European politics in the late 1930s. But Ambler also wittily exploits the classic conventions. His innocent hero is caught up in blackmail and a double murder and is forced to deceive the police (like a character in one of his own books) by removing any signs of his own presence on the bloody scene.

Anthony Price's heroes are much like the patriotic English gentlemen in Buchan's stories, but Price, deeply versed in military history, gets the weight of history into his novels not simply by reference to present political realities as to their resonances with a more distant historical past, whether it be England's Roman Wall, a German victory over Roman legions, the English Civil War, or (as in Other Paths to Glory ) the Battle of the Somme.

Since Chandler's day, some superior writers of detective stories have also given a larger focus to their romances by invoking history in a way that earlier crime novels, whether English or American, seldom did. A notable French example is Didier Daeninckx's Murder in Memoriam , which won France's Detective Fiction Prize in l984. Its first corpse is a historian, killed during an Arab demonstration in Paris in 1961; his son is killed twenty years later in Toulouse. To find the connection, the policeman protagonist has to become a historian himself, discovering in the archives troubling revelations about French complicity in the deportation of Jewish children to the German concentration camps.

The best recent example of the fusion of history and the detective story is Robert Harris' Enigma. Few computer users are likely to know that Alan Turing's machine was developed late in the Second World War for Bletchley Park, where a community of Anglo-American codebreakers had already cracked the formidable code used by the ingenious Enigma machines in German U-boats. Utilizing an earlier electric and mechanical form of a decrypting machine, the intelligence agency's success saved many Allied convoys from being sunk on their way from America to Britain; otherwise, it has been estimated, the war would have gone on for two more years than it did. The critic George Steiner judged that "Bletchley Park is the single greatest achievement of Britain during 1939-45, perhaps during this century as a whole." It was an intellectual and technical triumph, as well as a military one. Harris' Enigma, which reaches back to Bletchley Park for its subject, echoes the use of ciphers by Sherlock Holmes and Richard Hannay. A blend of the detective and the spy story, Enigma is worthy of its links to the Doyle-Buchan tradition.

At the end of The Thirty-Nine Steps, Buchan's Hannay tells us that he did his best service before he put on the khaki. By contrast with Hannay's amateurism, Bletchley Park was a community of intelligence, operating under the stringent conditions of wartime and with the essential aid of the latest deciphering technology. While Enigma observes the traditions of the English thriller, it also dramatizes a historical point. Bletchley Park marked a sea change in intelligence, "turning what had been an art--a game, if you like, for gentlemen--into a science of mass production." Harris' novel has unusual weight for its romantic genre because the agency actually played a crucial role in the battle for control of the North Atlantic.

Bletchley Park's Victorian mansion was located in a railway town between Oxford and Cambridge, where mathematicians, linguists, classicists, historians, and daughters of earls--graduates of these universities and other elements of "the old boy network"--grew in numbers to about 1500 by early 1942. The community of codebreakers had its own dances, games, concerts, plays, and argot. According to Gordon Welchman, a senior naval analyst, many of the participants spoke of it as "a very happy place in which to live and work" and looked back on it as "the best period of our lives" when they had "an extraordinary sensation of living with history." For some 2,000 Wrens (Women's Reserve Naval Service), however, who did the monotonous clerical and machine-tending work, it was a different story, full of strain, breakdowns, nightmares, and (as one of them put it) "soul-destroying but vital work."

By August, 1943, the Americans began playing their part at Bletchley Park under the leadership of Lt. Col. Telford Taylor, and while there was fear at first that the British cryptanalysts would be reduced to a minor role by superior American resources, one British member testified that "nothing of the kind happened. There could have been no happier partnership."

In his book, The Hut Six Story (1982), Gordon Welchman describes how he was able to make a breakthrough in deciphering Enigma because he treated its intercepts as examples of the conventions of a military command and control system whose forms could be inferred. It is a neat form of poetic justice that the Germans unwittingly made it easier for their enemies by their formal habit of including in their messages full titles and addresses, instead of coding them with an abbreviated shorthand.

The Enigma machine contained one basic flaw: no letter could ever stand for itself. Otherwise, it would have been much more difficult to decipher Enigma's secret. At Bletchley Park, for example, Mavis Lever cleverly intuited that a German message without any "l" in it could be a dummy message made up entirely of that letter, from which insight she could reconstruct a key to real messages. Moreover, whenever the enemy sent the same message in two different cryptosystems, one of which was readable to the Allies, they then had access to the other, a happy situation called "kisses." Increasing the flow of traffic was always a useful way of increasing the chances of cracking the cipher, and that could be done by sowing mines in order to produce German radio reports of sighting them--a duplicitous process called "gardening."

As a writer, Harris has a charm reminiscent of Doyle and Buchan, but his thriller has the unusual merit of being written with a veracious sense of history that smoothly integrates technical details into the plot. He has researched his setting thoroughly, interviewing participants and reading knowledgeable accounts, such as Peter Calvocoressi's Top Secret Ultra (1980), Codebreakers (1993), edited by F. H. Hinsley and Alan Stripp, David Kahn's Seizing the Enigma (l991), and Welchman's book.

Enigma provides a vivid portrait of wartime England, like "a prosperous estate going fast to ruin" or "a genteel elderly lady fallen on hard times." The hero, Thomas Jericho, an intellectually brilliant, emotionally reserved young mathematician from King's College, Cambridge, is recruited to the codebreakers by his mentor, Alan Turing, intellectual father of the computer and inventor of the electric-mechanical decrypting machines (called "bombes") that were essential to deciphering Enigma.

Despite the game-playing aspects of their code-breaking assignments, Harris does not exempt his characters from the grisly paradoxes of war. His hero usefully suggests that solving the problem of reconstructing a new German weather codebook depends upon getting more intercept data that can only be gleaned in sufficient quantity as the German submarine pack closes in on a vulnerable American convoy. The codebreakers' success ironically depends upon an increase in the German threat to Allied ships. Harris writes, "It never ended, this battle against Enigma. It was a chess tournament of a thousand rounds against a player of prodigious defensive strength, and each day the pieces went back to their original positions and the game began afresh."

All of the novel's characters are fictional--except for a brief appropriate glimpse of Alan Turing. Harris plays no authorial games with actual historical characters, in contrast to his previous novel, Fatherland, whose Berlin policeman-hero is a disaffected citizen of a Nazi regime that has won the war twenty years earlier, in 1944. (In this respect Fatherland follows in the footsteps of Len Deighton's SS-GB with its Scotland Yard inspector working on a homicide in a Nazi-run London.) Perhaps Harris was led to write Enigma by asking himself why his premise in Fatherland of a German victory did not become an actuality.

Enigma' s plot makes crucial reference to historical events, not only in the North Atlantic but also to those as far away as Smolensk, but these references are historically credible. The plot finally turns on some actions taken at higher levels than Bletchley Park, but since they are never specifically linked to actual persons, there is no clash with the historical record. One invention of the novel is a refugee Polish cryptanalyst. Bletchley Park had no Polish contingent, an anomaly all the more surprising because of the early Polish contributions to deciphering the Enigma machine.

Using mathematical group theory rather than traditional linguistic methods, the innovative Polish analysts succeeded in furnishing both the British and the French with Enigma machines. Gordon Welchman acknowledged that Hut Six would "never have gotten off the ground if we had not learned from the Poles, in the nick of time, the details both of the German military version of the commercial Enigma machine and of the operating procedures that were in use." Harris has a reason, however, for creating a Polish character, and it has more to do with a plot twist about wartime alliance politics than with Bletchley Park.

One of Enigma's epigraphs is from G. H. Hardy's A Mathematician's Apology : "A chess problem also has unexpectedness, and a certain economy; it is essential that the moves should be surprising, and that every piece on the board should play its part." The analogy works at several levels. The head cryptanalyst of German naval messages at Bletchley Park was Hugh Alexander, a member of the British chess team; one of Alexander's colleagues and friends was the Times' chess correspondent, who had preceded him as former British boys' chess champion. (Harris' hero is recruited to Alexander's Hut Eight at Bletchley Park, and he has a kindred talent: he is a wizard at quickly solving difficult crossword puzzles.) Not only is the struggle to decode Enigma like a chess game with the Germans, but the narrative's shape, like a good detective story, has "economy" and "unexpectednesss," and all three persons in its romantic triangle have important parts to play. It includes among Jericho's fellow-workers a bohemian upper-class girl and a pious but resourceful clergyman's daughter, who is jealous of her roommate's interest in Jericho. Claire Romilly, the girl who provides him with his first emotional and sexual attachment, leaves him finally and appropriately with an unresolved question--an enigma--about the nature of her feelings about him.

Graham Greene called his thrillers "entertainments." Harris' novel is very entertaining, but it is more than just that. Novels, films, and plays have taken account of the communal achievement of scientists at Los Alamos in making the atomic bomb, but the Bletchley Park codebreakers, whose "bombes" did not explode, have previously been memorialized only by historians and participants--with the exception in 1980 of a fictionalized Polish film, The Enigma Secret, and a TV series. Harris is the first to make this important and admirable community the subject of a novel. It is being widely read in England and should have as wide an American audience.

Reading Enigma is reminiscent of one's pleasure in reading Buchan, for Bletchley Park itself was not just a matter of cryptography and clever machines. It depended crucially upon intelligence successes in capturing machines and codebooks. In 1942, two British seamen climbed aboard a sinking German submarine to rescue a Short Signal Book and a Short Weather Cipher. They captured the books but lost their lives. In this sense, the individual, out-of-doors courage celebrated in Buchan's books still had a part to play, even in the collective intellectual triumphs of Bletchley Park.

In the fall of 1944, when I and most of my fellow soldiers lay on our bunks below decks in a troopship headed from New York across the North Atlantic for England, we had no idea whatever that our safe passage depended upon the ingenious work being done at Bletchley Park.

Cushing Strout , a professor emeritus of American Studies at Cornell University, has recently written on detective stories for Partisan Review, The Armchair Detective, and The New Republic.



Return to Front Page