The Cypher Bureau

Written by Eilidh McGinness (author)
Review by Patricia O'Reilly

This book is on based on the life of Marian Rejewski, Polish patriot and mathematician, who is credited with heading up the team that solved Enigma. While the author points out that the book is ‘entirely a work of fiction,’ her research on World War II and the men she writes about is detailed, with factual places, incidents and even some photographs.

The story opens with Marian as a young boy, a bright student with an aptitude for mathematics. While attending university, he and other similarly talented students are co-opted to work on Enigma. We are privy to the unrelenting secrecy of their work, their successes and frustrations, fascination with mathematics and cryptography. Throughout, Marian’s love for his family and the agony of being separated from them battles with his obsession with cryptography.

Operating in top secret, the code-breaking team at Poland’s Cypher Bureau decodes encrypted messages from Germany, finally passing their work to Bletchley Park in the UK. With the outbreak of the Second World War, the team are forced to flee Poland, for a while operating undercover in France, keeping just ahead of Gestapo agents trying to track them down. During a last desperate bid to escape to Switzerland their guide double-crosses, robs, and leaves them. They are captured, starved and tortured, but stoically they remain tight-lipped.

My reservation about this compelling read is that it is ill-served by its editing.  Marketed as fiction, there is the lack of emotion throughout. Under-developed characters and some too-short, jerky incidents cry out for amplification. More showing rather than telling, ironing out repetition, and a check on punctuation would have lifted this story to another level.