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Enigma ()

In his terrific speculative thriller, Fatherland (see Orrin's review), Robert Harris plopped us down in the middle of an alternate reality where Nazi Germany had won a stalemate with the United States and Hitler was about to celebrate his 75th birthday in 1964.  The book was plausible and very exciting, but best of all it confronted readers with the similarity between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union and implicitly asked why the west fought one and aided the other.  Now, in Enigma, he shows that he can work equally effectively against the backdrop of actual events and still broach big ideas.

It's February, 1943 and Tom Jericho, a brilliant young Cambridge mathematician and protégé of Alan Turing, has already suffered one nervous breakdown under the pressure of working to break secret Nazi codes.   Now he's summoned back to Bletchley Park because the U-boat code, known as Shark, which was previously decrypted due to an epiphany of his, has suddenly been changed just as an enormous supply convoy from America is setting out for Britain.  Despite his delicate mental state, it's felt that he'll be valuable just for his totemic value and to reassure the higher-ups that all the best men are working on the problem.

Complicating matters is the disappearance of Jericho's ex-girlfriend, Claire Romilly, who it appears may have tipped off the Germans that their codes had been cracked.  At any rate, some must have betrayed this vital secret, and, even as the supply convoy sails towards one of the biggest U-boat wolfpacks ever assembled, Jericho sets out to discover who the traitor is and where Claire has disappeared too.

The author too manages a difficult feat as he balances the mystery plot with healthy dollops of WWII history and cryptographic technique.  Jericho's quest for Claire is exciting enough, but it's the details about the Enigma machines, which produced what the Nazis believed to be an unbreakable codes, and the British success in breaking them anyway, which really make for fascinating reading.  Then, as if that weren't enough, when Harris introduces the reason that someone at Bletchley would assist the Nazis, he returns to some of the troubling moral and geopolitical questions that he first raised in Fatherland.  It all makes for a thoughtful thriller that entertains, enlightens and provokes the reader.


Grade: (A-)


See also:

Robert Harris (3 books reviewed)
Robert Harris Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Robert Harris (novelist)
-PODCAST: Robert Harris on the manhunt for Charles I’s killers (History Extra podcast, 10/05/22)
    -Robert Harris (

    -ESSAY : It isn't Malaya all over again: this time it's war (Robert Harris, November 5, 2001, Daily Telegraph)
    -ESSAY : Forget Islam: bin Laden is no more than a spoilt rich kid (Robert Harris, 10/09/01, Daily Telegraph)
    -ESSAY : Lessons we can learn from cracking the Enigma code (Robert Harris, October 4, 2001, Daily Telegraph)
    -ESSAY : So just when did we elect Tony Blair president? (Robert Harris, October 2, 2001, Daily Telegraph)
    -ESSAY:  The West Prefers Its Dictators Red (Robert Harris, Sunday Times (London) | October 11, 1998)
    -REVIEW : of Official Secrets: What the Nazis Planned, What the British and Americans Knew  Benefit Of Hindsight  By Richard Breitman  (Robert Harris, Literary Review)
-INTERVIEW: ‘Chamberlain was a great man’: why has the PM fooled by Hitler been recast as a hero in new film Munich?: He is seen as the appeaser who fell for Hitler’s lies. But was Chamberlain scapegoated? Writer Robert Harris and actor Jeremy Irons discuss taking on history with their controversial new film (Alex von Tunzelmann, 15 Dec 2021, The Guardian)
    -PROFILE: Robert Harris on Brexit, Polanski and his new novel: 'Brexiteers have been indulged like spoilt schoolchildren': Robert Harris's latest novel charts the missile attacks on London in the final days of World War II. He tells Kim Bielenberg that after decades of peace, he cannot grasp Britain's desire to cut ties with Europe(Kim Bielenberg, September 26 2020, irish Independent)
    -PROFILE: “We have moved into the age of irrationality”: Robert Harris on a world being driven apart (New Staesman, September 2020)
    -PROFILE: In the Fate of Pompeii, Allegories for Today: Robert Harris, the best-selling British author, found the perfect setting for a satirical parable for modern America in ancient Rome. (ALAN COWELL, 11/10/03, NY Times)
    -PROFILE :  Inventing A World In Which Hitler Won  (CRAIG R. WHITNEY, NY times)
    -PROFILE : An Enigma Wrapped in a Mystery  (ALAN RIDING KINTBURY, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of Fatherland by Robert Harris (Newgate Callendar, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Fatherland A Thatcherite polemic masquerading as a political thriller is Daniel Nassim's verdict on Robert Harris' Fatherland (Living Marxism)
    -REVIEW : of Fatherland by Robert Harris (
    -REVIEW : of ARCHANGEL By Robert Harris (1999)(Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of ARCHANGEL By Robert Harris (1999)(Michael Specter, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Archangel (Complete Review)
    -REVIEW : of Archangel (Robin Vidimos, The Denver Post)
    -REVIEW : of Archangel (PETER WORTHINGTON, Toronto Sun)
    -REVIEW : of Archangel (Jeff Baker, The Oregonian)
    -REVIEW : of Archangel (Complete Review)
    -REVIEW : of Archangel (GRAHAM BRACK, Rennaissance)
    -REVIEW : of Archangel (Jonathan Kay, National Post)
    -REVIEW : of Archangel (Richard Givan, Lexington Herald-Leader)
    -REVIEW : of Archangel (Pourover Press)
    -REVIEW : of ENIGMA By Robert Harris (1995)(Peter Vansittart, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of "Enigma" by Robert Harris  (Colleen Salo)
    -REVIEW : of  SELLING HITLER By Robert Harris (1986)(James M. Markham, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Pompeii by Robert Harris (Daniel Mendelsohn, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Pompeii by Robert Harris (Ron Charles, Christian Science Monitor)
    -REVIEW: of V2 by Robert Harris (Paul Burke, NB)
    -REVIEW: of V2 (Alex Preston, The Observer)
    -REVIEW: of V2 (Robert Huddleston, University Bookman)
    -REVIEW: of V2 (Tom Young, Washington Independent Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Act of Oblivion by Robert Harris (Andrew Taylor, The Guardian)

-FILMOGRAPHY: Robert Harris (
-FILM REVIEW: of Munich (Peter Bradshaw, The guardian)

Book-related and General Links:

    -ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA : Your search: cryptography
    -REVIEW : of Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson (Mike Godwin, Reason)

    -ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA : Your search: "alan turing"
    -Alan Turing (Oxford University)
    -TIME 100 PROFILE : ALAN TURING : While addressing a problem in the arcane field of mathematical logic, he imagined a machine that could mimic human reasoning. Sound familiar? (Paul Gray, TIME)
    -BIO : Alan Turing (Andreas Ehrencrona)

    -ESSAY: Remembering Katyn: In Soviet documents recently obtained by the Hoover Institution, the details of one of the bloodiest crimes of Stalin's reign of terror have come to light. (Brian Crozier, Spring 2000, Hoover Digest)
    -REVIEW: of God's Eye: Aerial Photography and the Katyn Forest Massacre By Frank Fox (Benjamin B. Fischer, CIA)