A good mystery novel has much in common with a good cipher. It should be difficult to penetrate, and yet, once solved, should demonstrate a clean elegance. Both the Enigma machine, and Enigma, the book, succeed in this task.
Robert Harris has chosen the code-breaking center at Bletchley Park, north-west of London, as the setting and backdrop for this novel. In World War II, Bletchley Park was the place where the famous, or rather infamous, German Enigma code was broken. Rather than walk us through the history, fascinating though it may be, Harris has chosen to create a fictional cast of characters and put them through their paces in a fictional mystery-thriller. He carries off this task admirably.
Our hero, Tom Jericho, after having a nervous breakdown, is summoned back from his recuperation at Cambridge to work on the latest crisis at Bletchley. The Germans have suddenly changed all the Enigma settings and unless they can crack the code, Allied shipping will suffer greatly at the hands of German U-Boats in the Atlantic. The code-breaking is an interesting side-plot, as the real plot centers around the question of why the Germans changed the codes. Is there a leak at Bletchley? And what can explain the strange behaviour of Tom's ex-girlfriend, the "arctic blond" Claire Romilly?
Harris writes well, and with an excellent sense of the time and place. The feel of wartime Britain pervades the pages, and is contrasted with the abstract world of the intellect in which the cryptanalysts labour. The plotting is intricate, and yet, when it resolves, it all seems so clear.
I won't claim that this is great literature, but it makes for a very pleasant few hours reading.
Overall Grade: B+