Enigma – or the train enthusiast’s nightmare

EnigmaWhen  I first met my husband, he did romantic things like take me to the cinema. (Now I have to depend on the offspring, one of whom has worked out that he often gets in free as a result.) He took me to see “Tess”, the film version of Hardy’s novel. As the hushed cinema watched the train go off into the distance, taking with it all Tess’ romantic hopes, with me tearing a damp tissue of emotion, husband pipes up (loudly) “That’s all wrong! A train of that period would never have had a lamp like that on the back, not then!” Cue romantic feeling gone, and much hushing going on around us.

But reader, I married him. And I was reminded of that cinema visit when he borrowed my latest book club book, Enigma,by Robert Harris. This otherwise blameless account of code breaking in Bletchley Park during World War Two offended the man because (allegedly, can’t be bothered to look it up myself) Harris mucked up which way the trains depart from Cambridge, or the routes they take, or something. For the rest of us, this is a complex book, but which does work as a human interest story.

Tom Jericho, the driven hero, is first seen in Cambridge suffering a breakdown brought on by the desperate fight to crack codes on German shipping before many more people are killed. This is based on the true problems of discovering the messages sent by German military using brilliant mathematical concepts, machinery evolved by the brilliant Turing, and the sheer dogged hard work of recording, filing and collating messages carried out by mainly women. It is one of these largely underrated women, Hester, who helps Jericho to discover what happened to his girlfriend, Claire.

This is a book which does demand some concentration, and there are dark sections concerning the outcome of any failure to protect the convoys of shipping targeted by U boats. The decoding of the messages is complicated, but the reader does not have to work hard at this, but rather at working out the significance is of the presence or absence of the written slips of paper. There are poignant pictures of people under pressure as well as pursuit across the mysterious wartime countryside. I enjoyed the descriptions of the work of Bletchley as well as Jericho’s determination to find Claire.  The character of Hester is particularity well written, as she discovers that less able men are given more challenging tasks while she is left to copy and record. She is determined to discover what happened to Claire, and risks everything resourcefully to work out the answers. The ending of the novel is exciting and eventually touching.

This is not just a book for geek codebreakers, or military obsessives. It depicts real seeming people under pressure, and is probably better than the film version which, from what I remember, is very worth watching anyway. Not being put off by slight inconsistencies in train routes like my beloved, I enjoyed this book and would recommend it to someone looking for a non gory, mainly non violent thriller in a historical context.

Historical tragedies – and some very good writing

My second show at the Fringe? The Demise of Christopher Marlowe. Ok, not a bundle of laughs, but we did meet the author – are you getting old when authors look young? It was pretty well acted , especially the actor playing the title role, but the costume worn by at least one character looked as if it had been measured for a different chap altogether. Minor niggles apart, it was a pretty good play. A lot of dependence on the character’s thoughts being revealed through the letters they could have written.  Reminded me of the Kit Marlowe bits in “Shakespeare in Love” which I watched with friend Marcus. Still very funny…

The book which deals with historical tragedies is An Expert in Murder by Nicola Upson. This is the first in a series of murder mysteries featuring the real person Josephine Tey, who in turn wrote murder mysteries and plays. One of her most famous books concerns the killing of the Princes in the Tower, (The Daughter of Time) or at least a relatively modern day investigation of the crime…which in turn reminds me of Gregory’s The White Queen, which I’ve nearly finished. Confused yet? Or is it only me who links books like this?

Anyway, to return to An Expert in Murder, the novel concerns the murder of a young theatre fan on a train, which is frightening paragraph or two. Tey is involved, having just met the girl en route to a performance of Tey’s play. This book introduces some really interesting characters, some of whom are set to reappear in subsequent books, and are mainly linked to the theatre crowd in London of the 1920s. My children are fascinated by drama and theatre, my fault I’m afraid, so I enjoyed this aspect of the book. The family of the victim are well depicted, and although the links between the characters become increasingly complex, Upson manages to control the confusing elements well. She conveys fear, the pain of loss and guilt confidently to produce a satisfying conclusion to a complicated mystery.

The real achievement of this book is the style. It is not just another murder mystery where  the setting or the plot dominate; the writing of the characters feels real and not just two dimensional types who solve the mystery despite their other preoccupations. These are characters who feel loss, who try to rationalize motives, who actually suffer from self doubt. The second book in the series puts some of the characters in a new setting, and even though I haven’t got that far in the second novel it does seem to show new sides of their personalities.  An Expert in Murder is a really good murder mystery for the reader looking for more than just plot and the satisfaction of solving the whodunnit; it is a novel based round a murder which rocks the messy and interconnected lives of the people described.  I enjoyed this book greatly, am enjoying the second in the series, and am seriously debating buying the third in expensive paperback. I would also be keen to read some of Tey’s own novels; I wonder if these novels will lead to an increase in the sales of her books as well?

The American Dream -the Fringe and Letters

So, there I am, standing in a Fringe Venue. The one show I wanted to see was cancelled. Another one which looked good was due to start, but (from my point of view) miles away. So I was reduced to going to the ticket desk and asking what was on next.  “Ooh, you won’t like that show,” said the girl. “That’s brutal theatre”. Do I look, I thought , like someone who wouldn’t like brutal theatre? Well, yes I do, actually. So she suggested I tried “The Fastest Woman in the World”, an American University play about Jackie Cochran, the famous woman pilot who flew jets and started a female plane transport unit in World War 2. It was an incredible show, a great feat of memory and staging, with in depth characterisation. If only I had known more American history, my enjoyment would have been complete. I was amazed, though, that women found it so difficult being accepted to transport planes in the 1940s, compared with Britain, where I have read at least one book – memory fails on title at the moment, about women flying spitfires and everything with wings. Maybe the British didn’t have the time or resources to be fussy! Of the three shows I saw at the Fringe in Edinburgh, this was definitely the most technically adept.

My book today is also American linked. Dear Mr Bigelow – A Transatlantic Friendship by Frances Woodsford is a book of letters sent by Frances, a Swimming Pool Manager in the UK, to an elderly American widower  between 1949 and 1961. Although one sided, Mr. B’s letters not surviving, it  is a fascinating profile of life in Britain as rationing ends and realistic everyday life emerges from the War. There are so many interesting details and revealing personal insights that I could really hear the author assembling her thoughts and reactions to life in a less practised  way than 84 Charing Cross Road, for example, and is painfully funny yet serious at the same time.  It is also obviously essentially true, and well edited, which makes it an enjoyable read. Not just a female book, but it would appeal to Persephone Book fans as a gentle portrait of mid -twentieth century life in Britain when money was not exactly flowing, but the advent of cheaper cars and other resources meant more lifestyle choices. An unusual book, but enjoyable and worthwhile.

Beyond the Fringe

I trust you have coped with the defining roar of silence from Northernreader – on holiday and no internet connection, well, apart from the offsprings’ clever but little phones.   So I contented myself with visiting many interesting places, as well as running a trip to the Falkirk wheel for a mob of people needing to be distracted from the heady excitements of waiting for A level results. Yes, this Thursday is results day – so drowning our sorrows or celebrating, anyone? Happily some of us are past all that and are far more excited about our current/ future courses – daughter has just finished fifth consecutive year of higher education…

And we got to 4 Fringe shows!

Anyway, today’s book is War Damage by Elizabeth Wilson. Set in immediately post war (and Blitz) London, it combines detailed descriptions of the physical damage to the buildings with the intense emotional damage to the members of a smart set of people drawn together at the informal gatherings of Regine. All the characters have their secrets, their attachments to others or a cause. A murder propels the book, but this is far from a murder mystery in any usual sense, which perhaps reflects the messy, unclear realism of a time when death was common and cruelty to others only fulfilled the context of so many uncertainties of wartime.

I enjoyed this book, if only for the atmosphere, the strength of the characters portrayed, and the ending for rounding up all the loose ends. All the characters, including the police, have their own motivations and their preoccupations which dovetail to provide the narrative.  The sights, sounds, and settings for tense interviews as well as encounters of a more intimate nature are not jolly affairs of wartime spirit, but more human, more realisic, more messy. This is a book which owes more to someone like John le Carre than “how we won the war” memoirs, and I would like to read Wilson’s “The Twilight Hour” which is apparently more official Cold War.

This is not a cheerful book, but an intensely realistic one, and probably all the better for it. It introduces many themes of wartime morality, betrayal and fear, as well as portraying the sexual tensions of many individuals. This is not a romance in any sense, but neither is it a tragedy; it reflects all the everyday obsessions that fuel many lives. Definitely worth reading as a snapshot of damaged lives.