I will never forget the thrill that came over me when I saw my first enigma machine on display in the Churchill War Rooms in London. I, like so many others, was captivated by The Imitation Game’s portrayal of the unsung heroes of World War II, the scholarly men and women sequestered in Bletchley Park who cracked codes throughout wartime only to be sworn to secrecy for almost a lifetime. When I saw that Lucy Ribchester (The Hourglass Factory) had written a novel based in Bletchley Park, I wasted no time in picking up a copy. (No, really – I dropped what I was doing and went straight to the bookshop. Priorities, am I right?)
In true Hitchcock fashion, the novel opens with two strangers on a train. Both men are of fighting age, yet neither are in uniform. And their train is delayed. The mystery of what was disclosed in their private conversation begins to unravel for both reader and protagonist eighteen months later, when Honey Deschamp receives a mysterious package at Bletchley Park, where she works as a typist. The package is one of several, each containing an encrypted piece of a puzzle that she is desperate to solve – but the clock is ticking.
True to Ribchester’s sparkling form, this novel was well researched and came complete with a pinterest board and playlist. Don’t you just love it when authors give you a peek into their process? I do. Her investment made it easy to fall into this world of codes and secrets, where no-one could be trusted and everyone was under suspicion. It kept me on my toes, let me tell you.
In some ways, I really hate novels like this. I want to trust someone, to have a character to rely on, but beyond Honey I couldn’t trust anyone. This is when I realised that I’d been played. Lucy, you sneaky wench: of course I can’t trust anyone – how could I when the protagonist can’t? Instead I stayed on the edge of my seat and kept flipping pages late into the night until the hairs on the back of my neck settled enough for me to temporarily close the book.
To make matters worse (or better, depending on how you look at it), I felt so close to Honey. Like me, she was from an artistic family and grew up in the theatre (and with a far-too-vivid imagination). And we both share a love for Stravinsky’s The Firebird, a ballet that features prominently in the novel. The similarities between us made her cork-heeled shoes so easy to slip into, and the false sense of security the fourth wall brings slipped uneasily away. That unsettling feeling made me rethink many of my past conversations and question previous conclusions in my life. Insecurity is, perhaps, one of the most subtle and ingenious tricks an author can play.
I suppose that’s what makes a good thriller: it could happen to anyone. It certainly never happens to someone prepared. The characters are always, in some way or another, caught off guard. Honey was just as shocked as I would have been. And so I, like the novel’s protagonist, was caught up in the mystery, suspicious of everyone and unable to entirely distance myself from the nail-biting circumstances – which made the climax all the more nerve-wracking and the conclusion that much more satisfying.
Ribchester has cracked the code on what makes a well-written historical thriller. She knows how to make the past relevant in a way that gives you goosebumps. If you’re looking to be swept up in something different, something exciting, drop what you’re doing and get yourself a copy.