In this fascinating dual-timeline novel we meet the enigmatic Lena Stillman, a codebreaker working at the Esquimalt Naval Base near Vancouver on the eve of the attack on Pearl Harbor. She’s a dedicated intelligence officer and linguist who hides a sordid past: she is the former lover of the infamous bank robber, Bill Bagley. Her past adventures are revealed by a second narrator: the gang’s numbers man, Byron “By God” Godfrey, a milquetoast in love with his boss’s girl, whose voice appears in a journal in which he records his secret devotion. Lena receives the journal mysteriously on the eve of Bagley’s execution, and the narrative alternates between the glamorously seedy world of Bagley’s 1930s crime spree across the Pacific Northwest, and the grim bunkers in which the allies race to intercept coded Japanese warnings of attacks on the West Coast a decade later. Stillman in particular is a well-drawn character, complex and thoughtful, hoping to redeem her criminal past with wartime service. But she learns that her secrets are about to catch up with her and is pressed into spying on her fellow officers as Japanese submarines close in on the undefended British Columbia coastline.
Period details are rich, and the mountains and rainforests of the wild Pacific Northwest lovingly described. Smith keeps the suspense in Lena’s section high, and her narrative is more compelling than the events of the journal, which offer few fresh insights into the criminal mind but lots of self-justification by the thoroughly unpleasant Godfrey. Fans of Lena’s resourcefulness, not to mention genius, will look forward to the planned sequel.