|FALL OF MAN IN WILMSLOW
David Lagercrantz (www.davidlagercrantz.se)
Translated by George Goulding
MacLehose Press (maclehosepress.com)
On a wet morning in early June 1954, Detective Constable Leonard Corell finds himself investigating the death of a mathematician in the sleepy Cheshire town of Wilmslow. Preliminary investigation points towards suicide, the man having died after eating a poisoned apple in a gruesome parody of Disney’s Snow White. His name is Alan Turing, which rings bells with Corell. It doesn’t take long to work out why: Turing was recently convicted of homosexuality. But there is more to this death than appears on the surface: Turing was followed for several weeks prior to his death and seems to have played a mysterious – and very secret – role during the Second World War. Going off-piste, Corell digs into the mathematician’s past, discovering the breadth of his genius as he attempts to find a reason behind his sudden suicide. But his digging alerts the British secret services and, as the Cold War rages, Leonard Corell is about to discover what happens to people who ask too many questions about the wrong subjects.
Alan Turing is a man who has seen something of a resurgence of popularity in recent years, what with the fiftieth anniversary of his death spawning a number of events last year, Benedict Cumberbatch immortalising him on the big screen in Oscar-bait The Imitation Game and his long-overdue Royal pardon at the end of 2013. David Lagercrantz’s novel, Fall of Man in Wilmslow, takes a look at the man’s life through the lens of 1950s England and shows just how surprising his current status as the man who broke Germany’s Enigma ciphers actually is.
The novel opens with Turing’s death, and follows Leonard Corell’s investigation as he first attempts to prove that it was suicide, and then tries to dig deeper into the man’s short and seemingly unhappy life. It quickly becomes obvious that the reader is at an advantage over Corell since we know who this dead man is, and the services he has rendered in the name of patriotism, whereas Corell is encountering him at a time when his war efforts were still a closely-guarded secret and the most anyone knows of him is that he was a mathematician who was recently convicted of homosexuality. Despite his feelings on the subject, Corell finds himself intrigued by this man of many secrets, and begins to dig into his past, formulating theories that come a little too close to the truth for the people for whom Turing worked until so recently.
Corell, through whose eyes we watch the aftermath of Turing’s death, comes across as an unsympathetic character early in the book. Born into a wealthy family which soon after lost both money and status, Corell is a bitter young man who dislikes his job, and the small Cheshire town in which he works. Many of the people he encounters during his investigation have lived the life he feels he should have lived: good school, Oxbridge education, high-paid job. When he encounters Turing, something long-dormant is awakened within him, and he finds himself yearning for that parallel existence, where mathematics and science are his central focus, rather than petty crime and small-town politics. By the book’s end, we find ourselves identifying more firmly with this young man who has proven to be more tenacious and more open-minded than we might have initially given him credit for.
Lagercrantz’s portrayal of Alan Turing is remarkably on-target. Seen through the eyes of Corell, and of the people with whom Turing lived, worked and, in some cases, the people he loved, we get a remarkably intimate picture of what his life was like in the years before he ended it. While he never preaches, Lagercrantz leaves us with a sense of horror and despair that a man who gave so much to his country could have been treated in such an inhumane manner because of his sexual preferences. It shines a light on the injustices Turing faced and that most likely drove him to take his own life while reminding us of just how much he achieved during his brief stint at Bletchley Park, and of the legacy he left a world that nowadays relies very heavily on his “universal machines”.
Lagercrantz touches on the Cold War mentality that suffused England – and most of the western hemisphere – during the early 1950s and introduces Corell to Britain’s fledgling secret services, for whom Turing worked before his sexual preferences became widely acknowledged. Fall of Man in Wilmslow is an excellent companion piece to Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, which also features Turing in a prominent role: like Stephenson’s weighty tome, Lagercrantz’s novel is keen to expand the reader’s horizons, to open their minds to new ideas and new philosophies and is not afraid to shy away from long discussions of mathematical problems – most specifically the liar’s paradox, which formed the basis of Turing’s work on a universal digital machine – in order to allow us to completely understand not only Turing, but also the policeman who has become consumed by a desire to know who the mathematician was. Some readers may find this heavy going at times, but it forms an integral part of the story.
David Lagercrantz is a name that you’ll have heard a lot recently, as he has written a follow-up to Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy, which sees worldwide publication later this year. Fall of Man in Wilmslow is the first of his novels to get an English translation, and shows that he is a writer of considerable talent. In much the same way that Jöel Dicker’s The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair is the perfect American novel, here Lagercrantz has produced something that feels truly English, from the sleepy setting of Wilmslow, to the character of Leonard Corell. Beautifully written – not to mention wonderfully translated by George Goulding (a new name for me) – it is at once a brilliant portrait of one of the nation’s (not to mention my own personal) heroes, an engaging mystery, and a shocking look at the values and opinions of the English in the early 1950s. An unexpected gem, Fall of Man in Wilmslow is one of my favourite books of the year so far, and leaves me with the hope that we’ll see more of Lagercrantz’s work translated (beyond summer’s The Girl in the Spider’s Web) in the very near future.