Book 125: The Secret Lives of Codebreakers – Sinclair McKay

I stumbled across The Secret Lives of Codebreakers on NetGalley and decided to request a copy as I planned on reading David Leavitt’s The Man Who Knew too Much, and I am glad I did. This book tells the stories of the individuals of Bletchley Park—not just what they were working on, but what they did in their spare time, where they came from and where they went after the war. In essence, it does everything I wanted The Man Who Knew too Much to do about Alan Turing but didn’t.

I received a copy of this book through NetGalley from the publisher. This response to the novel is my honest opinion and I did not receive any compensation for it. Penguin Group USA is releasing The Secret Lives of Codebreakers by Sinclair McKay in September of this year.

My background reading on Bletchley Park was incredibly limited, as in I had a vague recollection of having heard of it before and knew Turing was associated with it and that’s about it. I found this accounting of Bletchley Park to be riveting and I couldn’t put it down for the most part. There were a few things that were off-putting, but overall if this is the only book I ever read about Bletchley Park I feel like I’ve taken something from it. I thoroughly enjoyed the mixture of the history of the war, the technology, the social existence and the personal stories.

What struck me the most, and this was seriously hammered home at the end of the novel, was the silence that so many of the veterans of Bletchley Park kept—it was (and still is) unreal to me. Although McKay went overboard with this idea and his constant referencing to it and the over-the-top compared to today scenario, I thought he did a good job finding a balance among everything he was trying to do. There was one quote which really highlighted the sacrifice the individuals made and for some reason it made me both proud and sad,

“Whereas for everyone else of their generation, the war was understood as the most fundamental and formative experiences, Bletchley veterans instead had a hole where acknowledged experience should have been.”

I think it’s from the perspective that not only did they not receive recognition, but that they weren’t even able to use their experiences at Bletchley as a platform for their future careers/studies unless they could do so without revealing anything. It was almost as if five years of their lives didn’t exist even though they thousands of people gained highly specialized knowledge and abilities. For some reason this truly upset me at how incredibly tragic this was and how so many of the individuals just bucked up and moved forward. I don’t know if I could have done that.

The few problems I had with the book come from the very limited information available (I’m assuming). McKay is very clear about all of the records of and those mentioning Bletchley Park being destroyed and of the secret being kept for nearly 30 years, but maybe there should’ve been a bit more editing on the book. There were a few times I had to stop and reread because a quote or he reused an anecdote. If this was for continuity throughout the work it didn’t work. The only other thing that bothered me was the story was a little superficial. I can’t help but feel that it only touched the surface of everything that occurred, but again with very few existing documents and the few people talking about their work there, perhaps this is unavoidable.

Recommendation: Check it out, it’s definitely worth the read. Although there were a few drawbacks and it was a little light, I enjoyed McKay’s writing style and the story (and people) were interesting enough to keep me engaged.

Opening Line: “Sarah Baring—and her good friend Osla Henniker-Major—received the summons by means of a terse telegram.”

Closing Line: “Yet, as Eisenhower said, these were the men and women who shortened the war by two years. And there are countless thousands of people across the continent who survive, who just might not have done without the brilliance of Bletchley Park.”

Additional Quotes from The Secret Lives of Codebreakers
“It was here, in these nondescript huts, that the most powerful intellects of a generation struggled with a proposition that German High Command considered completely insoluble: that of outwitting—and mastering—its ingenious Enigma encoding technology.”

“For most of those who had worked at the Park though, the conflict was over; and many of those young people now had a shattered country to rebuild. One is tempted to look back across the years and see idealism in that enthusiasm; but it might be more accurate to say that this was a time for unflinching realism, and even a certain sense of apprehension.”

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3 thoughts on “Book 125: The Secret Lives of Codebreakers – Sinclair McKay

  1. It sounds more interesting than “The Man Who Knew Too Much” and also seemed to have more information, which I know was a bit of a sore point with you. I think I’ll check it out on NetGalley. (and if they won’t approve it, I guess I can wait until it’s published). Thanks for sharing the write up!

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    • It was so much better and I would def recommend it. It’s just enough science, history and personal stories to make a good mixture. Thanks for the award, haven’t had a chance to go say thanks on it yet.

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  2. Pingback: July Recap | The Oddness of Moving Things

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