It's the autobiography of the codemaster of the SOE an English spy organization during WWII. Wait! Dont' run away! It's not just math and cryptography and war. There's good stuff in here, too. Though the guy's why-does-he-think-that's-funny style is kind of tough to get through at first, he settles down soon, and partway through I knew that this was going to be one of the best books I read this year.
Secret agents went to the continent, where the fighting was. They needed to communicate plans back and forth with controllers back in England. But they mostly communicated by radio, and the Germans could listen in. They wanted to encode their messages. They wanted to communicate, to be connected, to be reminded that there were people who supported them. But that very act of communication endangered them—direction finders tried to track their location by their radio signals; German codebreakers
This book has crypto, but it also has some of the logistics associated with codes. For example, our narrator develops a one-time-pad system. It's perfect cryptographically, but it introduces a logistical challenge—how to get new pads out to agents. You hear about that difficulty with OTPs, and here it is, illustrated.
This book had a lot of interesting stuff in it.
- Slapstick. E.g., at one point, our hero's pants fall down.
- More poetry than one might expect
- Our narrator is Leo Marks, as in "Marks & Co"—he's in one of the families that runs the bookstore at 84 Charing Cross Road. The bookstore's even important to the plot in a few places.
- Surprise cameo by Jack Benny
- His main goal during the war was to prevent agents from being captured. Agents were captured, plenty of them. Captured agents were sent to the concentration camps. Our narrator is Jewish. Spooky.
- Women were codebreakers and code makers. As long as there was a war on, I guess women were allowed to be good at math.
- Deadly, deadly office politics. You think things are bad where you work. But when two spy organizations for the same country don't get along, agents die.
A good read. Check it out.