3 out of 4 stars
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Uncle Walter's Secret by Will Fenn is a historical fiction book set around the time of World War II. Members of the British intelligence community discuss the potential for new Prime Minister Winston Churchill to declare war against Adolf Hitler. One of them lets slip that "Boniface is working miracles". Boniface is a top-secret tool derived from breaking ciphers created on German Enigma coding machines. A stately home called Bletchley Park houses the unit established to break these ciphers.
Terry Sexton is born in England in 1920. Among his youthful interests are stamp-collecting and ham radio. He shows a strong aptitude for languages, learning French and German in school. He is also fascinated by history, particularly the Napoleonic wars. Using their radios, Terry and his friend Rich tune in to transmissions from all across Europe. Terry is especially appalled by the racist rantings of Adolf Hitler.
In 1936, at the age of sixteen, Terry volunteers to fight with the International Brigades in the Spanish civil war. He tries to persuade Rich to join him but Rich is a committed pacifist. Republican fighters bring Terry an Enigma coding machine they have captured from the Nationalists. British intelligence operatives capture him while he has the machine and decide to recruit him as a British field agent. After intensive training, they ship him to Poland to set up a resistance network, anticipating the German invasion and the outbreak of war.
This book covers a critical era in world history, which makes it intrinsically interesting for me. There is plenty of intrigue and a number of plot twists. For someone with an interest in the tactical and logistical aspects of war, the theory behind the Enigma machines and the code-breaking work at Bletchley Park is fascinating. The Enigma machine itself uses three wheels, with twenty-six contacts on each face, to encrypt messages in an ingenious way. The rotors rotate between key presses so that the same key, pressed multiple times, produces a different encoded letter each time. A fourth "reflector" wheel decodes the message on a receiving machine with rotors set up in the same positions as those in the sending machine.
Fenn's main characters are well drawn and realistic. His dialogue is good, although there is little of it throughout the book. Fenn tells the story mostly as a series of facts in uniform paragraphs like those of a textbook, which makes Uncle Walter's Secret quite dry to read. This does make some sense for historical fiction - and with Fenn's non-fiction writing background - but it also often violates the fiction writing principle of "show, don't tell". In Fenn's defense, he does cover many years of war in just over 200 pages. This at least ensures the narrative moves forward at a decent pace.
The book also has many minor errors. I found ten typographical and grammatical errors by the time I reached page 43. There are also errors on the back cover blurb, and some overly long sentences in the narrative could easily be cut in half. Overall, I rate Uncle Walter's Secret 3 out of 4 stars. Aside from the errors and the dry writing style, it is an intriguing tale of wartime espionage, networking, and code-breaking. Anyone sharing my interest in the tactical and logistical aspects of war would find much of value in this book. However, if you prefer your fiction played out through dialogue and character interaction, not told in such a dry, factual way, Uncle Walter's Secret is likely not for you.
Uncle Walter's Secret
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