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Little was publicly known about the national importance of Alan Turing during his lifetime. He was generally seen to be a somewhat eccentric mathematician engaged in a perhaps fanciful field. His code-breaking work at Bletchley Park, which allowed the British to read communications from German warships, work that has been said to have shortened the war by several years, was subject to the Official Secrets Act and no one who knew of it, including Turing himself, could reveal anything about it. So when, in 1952, Turing appeared in court, accused of "gross indecency" (commission of a homosexual act), not a hand was raised to shield him from the full force of the law, the same one that had brought down Oscar Wilde more than fifty years before. Turing was given a stark and impossible choice - he could go to prison or he could accept chemical castration. He chose the latter course. Two years later, he was dead, of cyanide either willfully or accidentally ingested. He was 41.
Since then, of course, much has changed. Homosexuality was decriminalized in Britain in 1967; in 1983, as the Official Secrets restrictions began to weaken, Andrew Hodges published a thorough, well-researched biography of Turing; films, plays, and TV dramas have presented various fictionalized versions of Turing and his work, and he has gradually emerged as historically important both as code-breaker and foundation of contemporary computer science and as an icon of gay history.
And now we have what I can only call a peculiar addition to the popularization of Turing's life and work. FALL OF MAN IN WILMSLOW, by David Lagercrantz, strives mightily to present both aspects of Turing's historical importance, in the form of what is being marketed as an "electrifying new thriller" by the publisher. Well, it is new, at any rate.
But thriller and electrifying it isn't. It begins as a police procedural, when a young detective constable, Leonard Corell, is dispatched to "look into" the death of a resident of Wilmslow, Cheshire. Corell is a discontented young man, unhappy in his choice of profession and bored with the less than thrilling routines of policing in this quiet town. The body he surveys is that of Alan Turing and Corell is instantly distracted by the sheets of mathematical equations he finds in the room. The policeman, it turns out, was once destined for higher things until his father went under a train, leaving the family impoverished and Corell unable to finish at his posh school let alone go on to university to study maths.
Although official interest in Turing's death is rapidly exhausted and he is declared a suicide, Corell cannot leave the case alone. He is obsessed with Turing - his mind, his thought, his sexuality. Corell is repulsed by the very thought of gay sex and yet impressed by other aspects of Turing's life and mind. Though we may suspect that some of his experience at his public school may have had a bearing on his homophobia, it is common currency among virtually everyone Corell meets.
Nevertheless, Corell continues his investigations, but what he learns has nothing whatever to do with crime. Instead, Lagercrantz interrupts the forward thrust of the narrative at every possible point to interject lengthy discussions of various mathematical topics of interest to Turing and his colleagues. Some of this material makes for difficult going for readers who, like myself, have yet to recover from the terrors of required Calculus I.
Lagercrantz does not seem to have done much in the way of original research for this book, relying instead on sound secondary sources for both Turing's personal life and for the maths. What is new about his approach is his emphasis on how an investigation might affect the investigator. As the result of his poking about in Turing's life and mind, Corell's life is changed completely. Sadly, Corell is hard to care deeply about either before or after his transformation. Although the translation appears serviceable enough, the combination of a Swedish writer attempting to re-create the social conditions of England ten years before he was even born coupled with the inevitable distancing that is an almost invariable consequence of translation results in a character that is more thought about than felt.
David Lagercrantz is the author of the continuation of the Stieg Larsson trilogy; WILMSLOW predates that by some six years. But both books are alike in their interest in exploring social issues within the framework of crime fiction. Lagercrantz is properly outraged at the flaming injustice visited on Turing and, of course, on the generations of gay men who were persecuted and prosecuted before the Wolfenden Report (1957, three years too late to be of any comfort to Turing) recommending the decriminalization of homosexual acts began the decade-long and torturous progress to legalization. It is a pity that more of his passion did not quite make it into his Cheshire policeman.
§ Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal. She's been editing RTE since 2008.
Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, June 2016
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