Behind The Imitation Game

The Imitation GameLike many others, I am eagerly looking forward to the upcoming release of The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch. In the film, the actor portrays the brilliant mathematician and cryptoanalyst Alan Turing, who was absolutely mission-critical to the breaking of Germany’s enigma code during World War II. The film delves, deservedly, much deeper into the troubled and complicated life of Turing, who died in 1958 from cyanide poisoning just a few days before his 42nd birthday. The film opens November 28 worldwide.

I’ve been wondering how many people have a good history of just what the men and women of Bletchley Park accomplished. I know my British friends and historian friends are steeped in the story, but so many people don’t learn proper history these days. I think it’s a very good thing to put Turing’s story on the big screen for all to see, especially as portrayed by someone of Cumberbatch’s extraordinary abilities.

We’ve seen Bletchley Park portrayed before, of course, though not quite so accurately. There was the 2001 film Enigma, based on the novel by Robert Harris, although that was filmed elsewhere. There was also the recent British television drama The Bletchley Circle, and either before or after you see The Imitation Game, I would recommend a viewing of the new drama-documentary Codebreaker, which goes into quite some detail about Turing’s life before and after the war as well.

I think I have some affinity for this story, too, because I stood where Turing did, once. Some time ago when I was living in London, we took the train out to Bletchley Park and spent the entire day exploring the grounds and buildings, talking to elderly volunteers who had either worked there or had relatives who had, and learning much more about the project than I had ever previously known. I was also lucky enough to have met the late computer engineer Tony Sale, who led the reconstruction of the Colossus computer that is now one of the centerpieces of the National Museum of Computing that is on site at Bletchley Park.

On the eve of the release of The Imitation Game I thought it might be worth revisiting the travelogue I wrote about Bletchley Park immediately after my visit. Enjoy.

The Secrets of Station X

The mansion at Bletchley Park was built in 1838 and renovated extensively by Sir Herbert Leon starting in 1883.  As war loomed closer in 1938, the Government Code and Cipher School purchased the property, valuing its good transportation links and location outside of London, later bombed heavily during The Blitz.

The mansion at Bletchley Park was built in 1838 and renovated extensively by Sir Herbert Leon starting in 1883. As war loomed closer in 1938, the Government Code and Cipher School purchased the property, valuing its good transportation links and location outside of London, later bombed heavily during The Blitz.

It was by far the best-kept secret of World War II, England’s secret weapon against the onslaught of Nazi military power. Not a rocket or a tank, the savior of thousands of soldiers was a secret intelligence headquarters codenamed “Station X,” housed in a moderate country manor north of London called Bletchley Park. Here at the Government Code and Cipher School, more than 12,000 mathematicians, cryptoanalysts, linguists, engineers, and clerks worked around the clock to decipher Nazi codes being delivered between Germany and its armies in Europe and Africa as well as U-boats and other naval forces attacking Allied convoys in the North Atlantic.

During the entire course of the war, it never slipped that a secret army of code breakers was fighting a secret war on the Bletchley campus. In fact, the work of Station X was so secret that Winston Churchill himself ordered all of its paperwork destroyed and the site was not declassified for more than thirty years. At Bletchley Park, secrets were not just deciphered but kept as well.

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Liner Notes: How Did It Get to be November? Edition

Definition: Liner notes (also sleeve notes or album notes) are the writings found on the sleeves of LP record albums and in booklets which come inserted into the Compact Disc jewel case or the equivalent packaging for vinyl records and cassettes. Such notes often contained a mix of factual and anecdotal material, and occasionally a discography for the artist or the issuing record label. Liner notes were also an occasion for thoughtful signed essays on the artist by another party, often a sympathetic music journalist, a custom that has largely died out.

Where the hell have I been, anyway? Apparently my assignments, projects and consulting gigs have kept me busy for a good part of the year. Here are a few highlights from the wilderness months.

A Better WorldI don’t pitch writers very often, but I did for this feature with Marcus Sakey, the author of Brilliant and A Better World. They’re these great little hard science fiction novels that postulate what would happen if one percent of the population were born with gifts ranging from a natural predictive response to vastly different perceptions of the passage of time. They get a lot of X-men comparisons but they’re much more grounded and noir-ish than any comic book.

That said, I had to make a rare correction in the story at the last minute. The books, as it’s been widely reported, have been picked up to be made into film adaptations by Legendary Pictures, who apparently intended for the books to be the next big vehicle for movie star Will Smith. At the very last minute, it was reported that Smith had dropped out and Jared Leto had been cast in the role, although I hear that the Dallas Buyers Club star / Thirty Seconds to Mars singer has since dropped out as well. I didn’t have the room to write it up in the interview but I thought Marcus had some thoughtful things to say about books and movies.

“One of the comments you see in Amazon reviews all the time that just chaps my ass is people saying, ‘he obviously wrote it to be a movie,'” Sakey told me. “That’s ridiculous and furthermore, it’s impossible. You can’t write a book to be a movie and if you did, you would write a terrible book that no one would want to make into a movie. I think my writing is fairly cinematic, probably because I watch a lot of movies, and always have. There is no part of my brain writing a novel thinking, ‘Wow, this will be a phenomenal set piece for the movie.’ I like movies and I’m influenced by that love.”

Anyway, these are really fun to read and I highly recommend Sakey’s work.

The summer was a time for a lot of spy books, both fiction and nonfiction. For the second time, I interviewed Ben McIntyre about his latest book, A Spy Among Friends, which many people in the trade consider to be the definitive account of the bizarre friendship between British agent Nicholas Elliot and spymaster Kim Philby, the story that inspired the classic novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy by John LeCarre.  Soon after, I spoke with Peter Duffy about his very cinematic portrayal of the William G. Sebold story in Double Agent, which recounts the masterful takedown of a WWII Nazi spy ring in New York City. A few months later, I got to experience something completely different when I spoke with British satirist Jonathan Coe about his new novel, Expo 58, which is set in Brussels (always ripe for comedy) during the first major World’s Fair following the end of World War II.

AThe Birth of Korean Coollso this summer, I was glad to connect with fellow journalist Euny Hong, whom I liked from the moment I interviewed her the first time about her debut novel Kept almost a decade ago. Euny had written a semi-confrontational post about her Korean heritage in The Atlantic a while back called “Growing Up Gangnam-Style,” which naturally went viral and led to a book deal. Her resulting book, The Birth of Korean Cool, was really funny and insightful. If you have any curiosity at all about why characters in Korean action flicks like Old Boy and The Raid are so pent up, why South Korea investors would back a $42 million film like Snowpiercer, or why (as Euny blissfully explains) “Korea has been fate’s bitch for 5,000 years,” I highly recommend you grab this one and connect the dots.

The Secret PlaceThe rest of the year has been a bit of a blur. On the crime front, I caught up with the great Tana French to talk about her latest novel The Secret Place, how super-creepy teenage girls can be, and about the act of writing. Tana always reminds me a bit of Ian Rankin, in that she can spin out these incredibly complex analyses of the nature of crime fiction, and yet be completely unaware of her own process. I’ve been collecting writer’s thoughts on the differences between genre fiction and “literary fiction” for a while for my own fun. This is what Tana French had to say.

“For me, the big distinction between literary fiction at one end of the spectrum and genre fiction at the other end is that in genre fiction, the characters’ main objective is exterior,” she explains. “If you’re writing pure crime, the character’s main objective is to catch the killer. If you’re writing pure chick lit, the character’s main objective is to find a husband. In pure literary fiction, the character’s objective is much more internalized; to resolve his issues with his father or to find closure for some psychological confusion. The action tends to be driven by an internal objective rather than an external one. I think that probably distinguishes what I’m writing or what Gillian Flynn is writing from Agatha Christie. She has that purely externalized objective whereas catching the killer isn’t the most important plot arc within my books. The most important part is the character negotiating some kind of journey within himself or herself. That’s what leads to the more thematically complex kind of book in any genre.” She’s really quite something.

Blind SpotSoon after, I interviewed Reed Farrel Coleman, who has been hand-picked by the estate of Robert B. Parker to continue the novels about small-town sheriff Jesse Stone (who happens to be my personal favorite of the late Parker’s creations). If you’ve read any of the Jesse Stone books, or indeed caught one of the television adaptations starring Tom Selleck, you’re aware that Jesse take a drink, or two, or six pretty much every night of the week, but never descends into a full-blown tailspin like Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder. I’m actually surprised it didn’t make it into the interview (you and your short attention span are to blame), but Reed had some great insight into that aspect of Jesse’s character after re-reading all of the Parker books.

“You know a lot of cops and P.I.s drink,” he explained. “I though Tom Selleck as Jesse was a brilliant move because he’s all the things that Jesse is supposed to be.  But drinking represents for the readers all the struggles in their lives. Some people struggle with food, some people struggle with drinking or drugs, but every one of us struggles. There’s not a reader in the world that doesn’t have their weak spot. Unlike Scudder, who one day stops, Jesse keeps drinking. His on and off struggle with drinking doesn’t stop. In Blind Spot, he doesn’t even bother beating himself up about it anymore. I think we all have that in our lives. That was really smart. You don’t even realize what he’s pulling off.”

I need to wrap up for the moment, but you can also read my interview with prize-winning theater critic John Lahr about his new biography, Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh as well as my Q&A with British novelist Michael Faber about his fantastic science fiction exploration The Book of Strange New Things, and another conversation with the very funny Brock Clarke about his latest, The Happiest People in the World.

Stay warm, friends. See you on the other side.