Alan Turing, book review, code breaking, coming-of-age story, computers, David Lagercrantz, Enigma, historical fiction, homophobia, hysteria, literary fiction, mystery, spy mania, World War II
Review: Fall of Man in Wilmslow, by David Lagercrantz
Translated from the Swedish by George Goulding
Knopf, 2016. 354 pp. $27
Like Alan Turing himself, the extraordinary mathematician and cryptanalyst whose life forms the premise of this novel, Lagercrantz’s narrative is often brilliant but fails to realize its promise. In Turing’s case, his apparent suicide by poisoning in June 1954 ended a life of spectacular accomplishment while he was still young. In the novel, the mystery quickly swims away like a red herring, and the focus shifts, a setback for the reader, who may be forgiven for expecting that the narrative will identify who might have wanted to murder Turing and build a case for or against.
Instead, you get a sort of coming-of-age story about the detective who investigates, a character almost as annoying and socially inept as Turing, but who has talent of his own, submerged under a mountain of self-hatred. Leonard Corell is twenty-eight but hardly formed, conscious that he was meant for better things than to be a policeman in a backwater like Wilmslow, a town near Manchester, yet also believes he deserves nothing else. Leonard has no friends, has never had a romance, was bullied at school (which he never finished, for lack of will), and is often irritable with colleagues who try to be friendly. Just the kind of person you’d want to spend a few hours reading about, right?
Indeed, if that were all, Fall of Man in Wilmslow would be a dreary book, too much to finish. Yet Leonard learns to grow into his skin–haltingly, to be sure, a process rife with sharp elbows given and taken. He has a long way to go, and Lagercrantz’s portrait is terrifying in its depth and detail. Leonard’s father, now dead, was a narcissist who drew constant attention to himself through exaggerated stories and antics, such as announcing, on entering a room, “What a delightful gathering! May a simple man such as I join your company?” Required to revolve around this sun like an outer planet in perpetual shadow, Leonard grew up feeling that he would never be good enough. Yet, at the same time, he fantasized coming up “with an idea, a great thought which would revolutionise the world.”
What the reader knows, though Leonard doesn’t, is that Turing was just such a thinker. Not only did he develop the theory and mechanical means to crack German codes during World War II, he framed the mathematical theories that have given us computers. But Leonard, though groping in the dark, can tell that Turing was special, and you sense that in attempting to grasp how such an accomplished person could poison himself, and what Turing was trying to say about life, the young detective will change.
Turing was homosexual and prosecuted for it, victim of both homophobia and hysteria over national security. The Cambridge ring of Soviet agents (which Helen Dunmore wrote about in Exposed, from a different, later perspective) included several homosexuals, about whom it was presumed that they were led to their treason by immorality, an unnatural affinity for communism, or desire to destroy the world. Since only highly placed intelligence officers know what Turing did during World War II, most people who hear his name, including the Wilmslow constabulary, assume that he must be a danger to society because he’s gay. And the intelligence community, many of whose less enlightened denizens wonder whether Turing ever passed information to the Soviets, becomes very curious about this young policeman who asks a lot of questions.
They don’t realize what Leonard’s after, or where he wants to go. But the reader sees that he starts out sharing the common prejudices and comes to recognize the hypocrisy in himself and others. He gets there, in part, through long discussions of mathematical principles and of Turing’s life and character. These can be long, interesting though they often are, and feel like explanations, another weakness of the narrative, which tells too much instead of showing it. Nevertheless, Fall of Man in Wilmslow has tension to spare, because Lagercrantz occupies Leonard’s head so convincingly, and the young man is fit to burst with discovery and feelings he can’t manage.
I know nothing about math or cybernetics, and I don’t think you need to be passionate about either to appreciate Fall of Man in Wilmslow. However, if you’re looking for a mystery, this is one of character, not who done it, and that may be a letdown.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.