How three female friendships and WWII codebreaking changed history (Bletchley Park, Buckinghamshire, England; 1939 to 1947): Kate Quinn has done it again! How does she keep up the pace, writing three big, thrilling historical spy novels every two years?
The Rose Code, her newest, features a different type of spy craft than her earlier two on-the-ground female spy novels (The Huntress and The Alice Network, mini-review incorporated here). Set at Bletchley Park, England’s top-secret codebreaking center governed by the UK’s Official Secrets Act, it first became public in the late 1970s, then opened as a museum in 1994.
Having now read over 1600 pages of Quinn’s three WWII/I novels, I’m confident to say this “life-long history buff” is a master at crafting gutsy female characters in gutsy prose, inspired by real unsung heroines, consistently bringing fascinating, little-known history so alive it’s like watching a thrilling spy movie.
The Rose Code is the longest, clocking in at over 600 pages. Using the word clock applies to three contexts, starting with a plot that’s a race against the clock of war, breaking encrypted German codes (also Italian and Japanese) to save lives and win the war. In a dozen illuminating pages of Author Notes, we learn of the real spies her invented female characters are based on, and of men they worked for and with, some they fell in love with.
Try to wrap your head inside a cryptoanalyst’s mind having to break codes when there’s “150 million million million” possible combinations! Granted, they were aided by three codebreaking machines – Enigma (below left), Typex (below top right), and Bombe (below bottom right) – but much relied on educated guesses, pattern/puzzle solving, and mind-numbing hours, months, and years at it. (Photos via Wikimedia Commons – Enigma: public domain, Typex: by ArnoldReinhold [CC BY-SA 4.0], Bombe: by User Messybeast on en.wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0].)
The complexity of these machines and codebreaking is excellently described. Still, visualizing may be helpful:
“There are two kinds of flowers when it comes to women. The kind that sit safe in a beautiful vase, or the kind that survive in any condition … even in evil,” is a quote from The Alice Network that establishes Quinn’s mission for all three of her novels to spotlight historic, strong-willed, brave women committed to a “moral purpose.”
Three distinct women from different backgrounds become the unlikeliest of friends when they work at the sprawling “red-brick Victorian with a green roof,” especially at buildings called Huts. Each numbered, each operating like separate silos where no one knew what the other groups were working on. Where “all just see one piece of the puzzle.” Secrecy was paramount, breaking it treasonous.
Historically, these women stand out as all were civilians whereas most BP women were snatched from Britain’s naval, air, and auxiliary army services. Still in the minority as the majority were men plucked from Oxford and Cambridge universities disciplined in mathematics, physics, linguistics, as well as chess players and WWI codebreakers.
The women’s stories add richly-layered storylines on the pressures of war and love. The author imagines complicated romances, inspired by a real one, offering delicious escapes for the toiling cryptologists and the reader.
Each woman had her own reason for wanting to prove herself. Each a specific skill befitting her assignment:
Mab: secretarial schooling lands her in Hut 6, the Decoding Room, using the Typex machine to “punch coded messages” for translation into German, mostly.
Osla: fluent in German (and other languages), she’s assigned to Hut 4, the Naval Station, where a string of five-letter nonsensical messages are translated into “plain-texts.”
Beth: a crackerjack crossword puzzler finds herself working for fictional and real Dilly Knox, who applied an “Alice-in-Wonderland” creative thinking approach to deciphering jabberwocky sentences.
A bit more about the women’s stories and codebreaking work:
Osla’s flirtatiousness and wit dazzles. She provides another version of the clock theme: a countdown, told in alternating chapters and time periods, that tracks how many days left until the royal wedding in 1947. A date that ended her five-year, mostly long-distance affair told through letters with young, dashing naval lieutenant Philip Mountbatten, cousin of Lord Mountbatten – Osla’s cousin too, which is how they met. When Philip’s distant cousin Lilibeth made it known she wanted to marry him and make him a prince they parted ways. Fictional Canadian socialite Osla sparkles like Philip’s real Osla Benning girlfriend, a Canadian actress who sparkled too.
Osla’s prose is “Mayfair Slang,” from living in London’s swanky Mayfair neighborhood, Knightsbridge. Determined to change her “silly deb” image, she has a sassy “romantic tosh” way of “making a muff of things.” Things get serious in the naval station when her sworn-to-secrecy oath is tested.
Mab comes from London’s East End working-class neighborhood, Shoreditch, so her prose is “East Ender slang” like saying Bletchley Park’s motto is “you dinnae need to know.” Ambitious and independent, she’s determined to make herself into a lady. A shopgirl at London’s luxury department store Selfridges, she represents women “from all walks of life” who had supporting roles as “decoders, filers, and bombe machine operators.” At Hut 6, she meets a quiet, remote poet and codebreaker named Francis Gray based on two real poet codebreakers. Gray turns her story romantic and dangerous. At six foot tall, she’s reassigned to Hut 8, where the famous mathematician Alan Turing invented the taller, ear-splitting bombe machine that streamlined codebreaking exponentially. Turing makes an appearance, but he’s intentionally kept in the background.
The two women teach Beth what genuine friendship mean. They encourage her to work at Bletchley Park because she solves crossword puzzles as if she designed them. “Brainy” like Dilly Knox, “one of the Park’s eccentric geniuses.” Their minds are in sync, which affects their relationship. Beth shows what a mother ill-equipped can do to lowering a girl’s self-esteem, yet when given a chance to excel does, even better than Peggy Rock, the fictionalized and real mathematician codebreaker. Mastery, though, doesn’t come easy. Beth endures a steep, nine-month, nerve-wracking learning curve that drives her nuts.
Madness at this “blinking madhouse” is another recurring theme since “the burden of secrecy took its toll” and “oddballs” were recruited. It also provides a third version of the ticking clock: another countdown revealed in the opening chapter set in the aftermath of WWII. An anonymous codebreaker has been locked up for more than three years at a fictional sanitarium named Clockwell, symbolic of similar institutions that did exist. You’ll figure out who the tortured soul is but not the Park’s traitor, as the clock races dangerously.
Spies on-the-ground are what The Alice Network is based on: a real network of WWI female spies. Here another young, charming, determined socialite, Charlie, gets entangled with a reclusive older woman, Eve, who was a spy in the network. Again, alternating timeframes as the two meet after WWII. Charlie rekindles the spy’s revenge against a Nazi-sympathizer who catered to the Germans for profits, meant to embody “profiteers” who sold out to the Germans. The network was founded by fictional Lili, drawn from the real “Queen of Spies” Louise de Bettignies, a “regular modern day Joan of Arc.”
Like Osla, Charlie shines. So does her romance with Eve’s compassionate Scottish driver as another unlikely trio form a powerful, endearing bond in pursuit of truth and justice driving through France in his beloved British Lagonda convertible. Haunting when they uncover a German massacre in the village of Oradour-sur-Glane. France left it untouched. A haunting monument to truth.
As cyberattacks threaten our nation’s security, The Rose Code and a “haunted city” remind us of the heroism, endurance, and imagination Quinn masterly shows us is still a possible combination that can change history.