A good book should always create vivid pictures in readers’ minds. That is why I always prefer to read a book before I see the film adaptation. So, having seen The Imitation Game a few months ago, with a brilliant performance by Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing, the eccentric but brilliant war-time code breaker, I already had lots of pictures in my mind. The film covered Turing’s suicide in 1954 and some of the investigation into his death, and that is where Fall of Man in Wilmslow begins.
The author, David Largercrantz, is a journalist who has written four novels and a biography, but who will undoubtedly become better know in August when his continuation of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series is published. I was intrigued to know if Largercrantz would make a goof job of presenting Britain in the 1950s. As a Swede born in the 1960s, I wondered how well he would invoke post-war Britain and the leafy suburbs of Manchester. In the end I think he did OK, but I still have the lingering doubt that some of that was because of the images from the film, which came to mind as I read, rather than because of his prose. Northern England for him seemed to be full of rain and there were a couple of tiny mistakes too, something I never normally notice when I am reading, but twice the book refers to centimetres or metres, when in the Britain he is trying to recreate there would have been nothing but feet and inches.
The narrative follows the investigation into Alan Turing’s suicide by a young Detective Constable, Leonard Corell. The apparent suicide throws up many suspicions in Corell’s mind; theatre tickets for the following week and why had be bothered to have a good supper before killing himself, and why the use of a poisoned apple to do the job? Then there was the problem of Turing’s homosexuality, something that was still illegal in Britain at the time. As Corell looks deeper he is drawn into Turing’s fascinating world, which rekindles his own thwarted academic passions and inner turmoil from his schooldays.
The work that Turing did during the war was top secret and Corell’s investigation begins to look too closely at this past as he searches for suicide motives. It is a difficult job for the author to keep the element of suspense around the important secrets that Corell is pursuing, when the reader is probably already aware of them.
Having stuck to a chronological sequence of events for three quarters of the book, suddenly we are confronted by a series of flashbacks to the 1940s and the top-secret world of the Bletchley Park code breakers. Finally, we are flung forwards to 1986 to deliver a postscript, making the ending a little disjointed.
I enjoyed the book as a well paced read, but in the end I was confused about the real subject. Was it the life and ideas of the unpredictable Turing, or the journey of discovery by the young DC when confronted by Turing’s brilliance as well as his homosexuality and how those related to Corell’s upbringing?