FALL OF MAN IN WILMSLOW
By David Lagercrantz
Translated by George Goulding
Alfred. Knopf, $26.95, 368 pages
“Fall of Man in Wilmslow” is about the English mathematician Alan Turing, whose decryption of the German Enigma code is credited with shortening World War II and helping found computing as the science we know today. Mr. Turing’s role in this endeavor was long shrouded in official secrecy, made all the more byzantine after he was convicted of homosexuality in 1952, when it was still a crime in Britain. Recently, the veils of secrecy shrouding World War II intelligence work have been lifted; legal and social attitudes to homosexuality have progressed, and Mr. Turing’s insight that only a machine could decrypt a machine-made code has been celebrated in the successful 2014 movie “The Imitation Game.”
The wartime code-breaking efforts are in the background of “Fall of Man in Wilmslow,” first published in Sweden 2009 and therefore predating the movie. Author David Lagercrantz sets the novel in the months following the inquest into Mr. Turing’s death in 1954. The verdict recorded that it was suicide by cyanide poisoning. The motive was taken to be Mr. Turing’s despair after his conviction, and his consequent decision to take female hormones for a year rather than go to prison. Fictional police detective Leonard Correll is called when Mr. Turing is discovered dead in his flat. Noting that the trial was receding into the past, and that unexplained electric wires and equipment in Mr. Turing’s room suggest a lively devotion to his work, Correll is not convinced he killed himself. He resolves to discover more about him to see if this intuition is correct. In the process, he works through his own history, including his family’s financial difficulties and his mother’s neurosis; his problems with bullying at school and his failure to complete his education, and his lack of emotional connection to anyone other than an elderly aunt. Her presence nearby influenced his decision to live in Wilmslow, a benighted bourgeois suburb of Manchester, where Mr. Turing was a pioneer in the computer lab of Manchester University.
This translation of “Fall of Man in Wilmslow” seven years since its initial publication was possibly inspired by the success of “The Imitation Game.” Anyone whose interest in Mr. Turing was piqued by that movie will certainly learn much more about his life from this novel. David Lagercrantz is experienced at stepping back and forth across the line between biography and fiction. As the ghost writer of the best-selling autobiography of a soccer player, “I Am Zlatan Ibrahimovic,” he presented Ibrahimovic’s life as a fiction, and again in “Fall of Man in Wilmslow” Mr. Turing’s life is described fictionally. Nonetheless, evidence of sound historical research is everywhere: in the accurate evocation of the paranoia and grayness of England during the Cold War as well as in the details of Mr. Turing’s life. Similarly, the author’s ability to describe some of the mathematical foundations of Mr. Turing’s work is both impressive and useful to the multitude of us who now benefit from his pioneering efforts but don’t understand how computers actually do the amazing things they do.
But Leonard Correll, whose devotion to vindicating Mr. Turing is the narrative trajectory of the novel, is so caught up in the dispiriting atmosphere of the times that he seems like its very manifestation. The tale of his woes meanders back and forth in time, often repetitively, and while the author suggests a psychological journey it never becomes compellingly interesting, except in the late episode when Correll goes to Cambridge to see where Mr. Turing was educated. He also meets people who knew him, including Julius Pippard and Oscar Farley, who worked with him during the war. Much of the vigor of this section accrues from the information Farley provides — in other words, from the fact that the focus switches back to Mr. Turing and his groundbreaking work on encryption.
Though Correll is a detective, and though his detecting efforts are not without success, “Fall of Man in Wilmslow” is not a detective novel. And though suspicion of espionage is always wafting around, it is not a spy thriller. Rather it is a historical and socio-psychological novel with the tragic and redemptive implications indicated by the title.
David Lagercrantz has recently published “The Girl in the Spider’s web,” the fourth in the series initiated with “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” by Steig Larsson, who died in 2004. Like “I Am Zlatan Ibrahimovic,” it has been a best-seller. The lackluster Correll will likely prevent “Fall of Man in Wilmslow” achieving such status, but its recreation of the tensions of the 1950s, its explication of the origins of computing, and its richly shaded portrait of Alan Turing are illuminating achievements that make this a rewarding book to read.
• Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.