Dress Down Sunday: Enigma by Robert Harris

published 1995


Enigma 2

[1943: Hester is thinking about her housemate and work colleague Claire, who has gone missing]

The room was such an expression of Claire, such an extravagance of colour and fabric and scent, that it seemed to resonate with her presence, even now, when she was away, to hum with it, like the last vibrations of a tuning fork…

Claire, holding some ridiculous dress to herself and laughing and asking her what she thought, and Hester pretending to frown with an older sister’s disapproval. Claire, as moody as an adolescent, on her stomach on the bed, leafing through a pre-war Tatler. Claire, combing Hester’s hair (which, when she let it down, fell almost to her waist), running her brush through it with slow and languorous strokes that made Hester’s limbs turn weak. Claire insisting on painting Hester in her make-up, dressing her up like a doll and standing back in mock surprise: ‘Why, darling, you’re beautiful!’ Claire, in nothing but a pair of white silk knickers and a string of pearls, prancing about the room in search of something, long-legged as an athlete, turning and seeing that Hester was secretly watching her in the mirror, catching the look in her eyes, and standing there for a moment, hip thrust forward, arms outstretched, with a smile that was something between an invitation and a taunt, before sweeping back into motion….


commentary: Like many people, I am fascinated by Bletchley Park, where during WW2 endless efforts were made to break German codes and ciphers. The importance of the work, the difficulties, the need to keep everything secret, the hardships and shortages of wartime. The way the whole story was kept secret for another 30 years after the war (unnecessarily, surely?) – it’s claimed that people didn’t even tell their spouses what they did in the war.

Bletchley Park, 30 miles north of London, is now a huge museum and visitor attraction, and one that is very well done, and makes for a fascinating day out, whether your interest lies in the home front of the war, cyber security, or military history. A recent visit prompted me to read this book again, and also watch the film of the same name, and the more recent Imitation Game.

Enigma is a fictional thriller: the background is authentic, but Harris has grafted a crime plot onto it, concerning spies and counter-spies. When we meet Tom Jericho, he is recovering from a nervous breakdown, and has gone back (perhaps too soon?) to his vital role to try to crack the Enigma code. But he suspects something is up: his beloved Claire has disappeared, there are some coded transcripts unaccounted for, do the Germans suspect how much progress they have made? He joins up with Hester, above, and they try to find out what’s going on. There is a lot of racing round the countryside, and hiding, and sneaking around, and almost getting caught. It is terrific stuff, and the film if anything is better: lovely visuals and clothes, and a real sense of wartime, and of lost loves and broken hearts as well as lost battles and  broken codes. I can watch the film over and over – Kate Winslet and Dougray Scott, whatever happened to him?

There are some clichéd moments in both, and not much in the way of surprises. And I certainly hope it is the character’s mistake, not Harris’s, to say in the book that Lot’s wife turns into a ball of fire at night?

But none of that matters. Film and book are both excellent, and although historical nit-pickers will complain about them, they do give a good background to the Enigma story.

The pictures are true to the spirit of the description, I think, if not the details.

Top one is Ziegfeld Girl Muriel Finlay from the Library of Congress – I found this beautiful picture years ago, and have been waiting to use it on the blog.

Lower one is actress Julanne Johnston from Photoplay magazine via Wikimedia Commons.

Robert Harris’s novel about the Dreyfus case, An Officer and a Spy, featured on the blog a while back.

There's an odd link between Bletchley and Agatha Christie in her book N or M? - see here for blog entry. 


  1. Oh, yes, Moira, the Engima story is so interesting, even decades later. It's not surprising that people are still talking about it and want to know more. I know what you mean, too, about forgiving some of the inaccuracies and cliché moments, even though I usually don't care much for those things. I think this is one of those cases where the topic is so interesting we can be a little more forgiving?

    1. Yes, it deserves a little leeway. And the discussion of codes and ciphers is one that I know you would enjoy!

  2. I did love this book and the movie. You have reminded me that I still haven't read the other Robert Harris books I have. I was just recently thinking about An Officer and a Spy, and I also have The Ghost and Fatherland. Interesting, on his website, The Ghost is not even listed in his books.

    1. Oh that's strange! I alternate with Harris - I loved this one, The Ghost, and Officer. But I didn't like Fatherland, or his Roman ones. Enigma really is a good spy story...

  3. I've not read too much from Harris but I have this somewhere and I did enjoy THE GHOST.

    1. Oh me too, so I think you'll like this one - and the film.

  4. It's a very good book and movie. I recall that the book was released shortly after Bletchley Park had been opened to the public, and the upsurge of interest in the real-life code-breakers gave it am extra dimension. It was Harris' second book, and I recall a BBC Radio 4 interview. The lady talking to Harris praised his writing, but ended the interview thus:-

    "Wouldn't you prefer to write real novels?"
    "I do write 'real' novels!"
    "Oh no, not thrillers....real novels."

    Harris was not amused (and quite right too).

    Dougray Scott has been working fairly steadily in movies and TV, but his choice of roles leaves something to be desired. The biggest thing that I can recall him in is the BBC remake of DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS, but that was about 7 years ago. He was also good in an episode of DOCTOR WHO a few years ago.

    1. NOT a good remark to make, and not the person to make it to... He is a good and interesting writer.
      I haven't seen Dougray Scott in anything for a long time - but then I wouldn't have been watching those programmes anyway.
      I was astonished when I realized how long ago Enigma was published - I think of it as a much more recent book.


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