Sunday, 30 August 2009


Douglas Lindsay was first officer on a destroyer sunk by a German U-Boat, a sinking he believes he could have prevented had he stood up to the ship's captain. Since his mother is German, and he is fluent in the language, he is now working for Naval Intelligence as an interrogator, and he is convinced that the Germans are reading Britain's naval signals. Unknown to him, the British are desperate to protect the fact that they have broken the Germans' own, Enigma code, and Lindsay, with his German background (and a cousin who is himself a U-Boat captain) is always under suspicion. But when one of the foremost U-Boat skippers, the man who sunk Lindsay's own ship, is captured, Lindsay is called in for the crucial questioning, and something more than a battle of wits, or wills, ensues.

From this synopsis you will see why reviewers compared Williams' debut novel to Robert Harris' Enigma, and Williams' own background as a documentary producer and author of World War II history reinforced that comparison. (Although, as an aside, I marvel at how Enigma received a pass from British historical nit-pickers, since in reality its Polish villain would not have been allowed anywhere near Bletchley, despite the Poles having given the British an enigma machine and gone some way toward cracking its codes.) Williams' setting, within naval intelligence (where a certain Ian Fleming is an important officer) and indeed within wartime London, is utterly convincing, atmospheric enough to sometimes remind me of Alan Furst.

Williams story rests on two different matters of suspense, the first, will Lindsay get the information he wants, is the weaker of the two, but it is the one that persists, and its solution is rather telegraphed (that is, unencrypted) and somewhat melodramatic; we've seen it in too many cop shows. The stronger element of suspense is the question of where Lindsay's loyalties lie, and as long as Williams is able to perpetuate the ambiguity of his position, the worry that perhaps he is more interested in uncovering British secrets than German ones, the better the story is. This is true because beyond the mystery of codes central to the plot, Lindsay has begun a relationship with Mary Henderson, an academic and the only woman in an analyst's position. This provides a parallel story, because their relationship also revolves around protecting secrets from each other, they both talk in codes, and there are moments when Lindsay becomes the interrogator with his lover, and moments when she realises that he has. This personal story helps pick up the slack when the nature of Lindsay's true loyalty is finally revealed, and really, I felt the book might have been better had it amplified its somewhat tragic wartime end, tragic both in terms of British shipping losses and Lindsay's own relationships, rather than providing a more bittersweet coda set long after the war.

These quibbles are small, because the nature of Williams' challenge was huge. He keeps this book involving, suspenseful and fascinating to the end, and it is a remarkable first novel.

The Interrogator
Andrew Williams
John Murray £6.99 ISBN 9780719523816

NOTE: This review also appears at

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