BOOKS FICTION: Real life decoded

ENIGMA by Robert Harris, Hutchinson pounds 15.99
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The Independent Culture
FEW comparisons are so invidious as those between a best-selling first novel and its successor, but in this case they are also inevitable. For the benefit of any statistical blips out there who may not have read Fatherland, it was a brisk, efficient, intriguing amalgam of police procedural, private eye mystery and spy thriller, all recessed in a well-researched "What if the Germans Had Won the War?" showcase. The basic plot - honest cop working in police state stumbles on case involving powerful interests - was a fairly blatant homage to Gorky Park, but the details of life in Nazi Berlin circa 1964 were satisfyingly imagined, and the book was sharp, unpretentious and very readable.

Like Martin Cruz Smith, Robert Ludlum and Ken Follett, Robert Harris is essentially a scenarist. If the scenario works, as in Fatherland, so does the book; if it doesn't, the writing can't save it. Enigma is set in Bletchley Park, the Second World War code-breaking centre, at a crucial point in the Battle of the Atlantic. This immediately presents two problems. The fascination of cryptanalysis, like that of genetic research or chaos theory, is notoriously difficult to communicate to the common reader. Tom Stoppard might have managed it, but Harris falls back on the old chestnut of brilliant flashes of insight, while glossing over the actual day-to-day work.

The second problem is the setting. You know you're in trouble when characters are constantly saying things like "The Park was boring. The war was boring. The town was terrifically boring." This sort of pre-emptive strike is a high-risk tactic, inviting the question "So why bother?" Graham Greene would have been able to milk that very boredom to great effect, but Harris resorts to grafting on a spy thriller involving the brilliant young mathematician hero, Tom Jericho, whose girlfriend Claire has mysteriously disappeared. (Names provide a flash of humour: en clair meaning uncoded, Tom and Jerry suggesting cat and mouse games.)

The relationship between Tom and Claire is thus fundamental to the success of the whole project, in a way that the one between Xavier March and Charlotte Maguire in Fatherland was not. Unfortunately Harris, although good at laddish rivalry and bonding in a bureaucratic milieu, is hopeless at creating credible male-female relationships. To make matters worse, Claire herself never appears. Harris works hard to compensate for this with lengthy flashbacks (pages and pages set in italic), but the enigma at the centre of his book remains a ghostly absence, like Gene Tierney in Preminger's Laura, whose sole function is to drive the plot creakily along in an unsettling mixture of Buchanesque derring-do and the portentous tone patented by le Carre - the literary equivalent of throwing a 32-foot organ pedal under a pop ballad to give everyone goosebumps.

The basic theme of the book - genius cryptanalyst struggles to decode the ciphers of real life - is full of promise, but it demands skills such as those which Nabokov brought to bear in The Defence. Harris can do the external, but not the internal; by choosing a scenario whose success is dependent on a full realisation of the latter, he has baffled both himself and the reader.