26 March 2008

Book Review: The Key to Rebecca by Ken Follett

What’s in a Name? Challenge #2

The Key to Rebecca He arrives out of the desert on foot, carrying with him the means to create an all but unbreakable code. He knows Cairo like the back of his hand, able to vanish among its alleyways and appear as either foreigner or local. He’s a German spy behind British lines, and his goal is to ensure that Rommel can advance across North Africa unhindered.

There’s just a few hitches in this plan. The first is an army captain who (albeit belatedly) sees through his cover and reports him to Cairo. The second is Major William Vandam, who agrees with the captain’s assessment and is determined to investigate, no matter what his singularly unhelpful boss has to say about it. He just needs someone capable of getting close to his target - someone like Elene Fontana, for whom helping the British is a ticket to a new life, one where she doesn’t have to rely on rich men to pay her bills. Both end up in more danger than they anticipated, and they’re not the only ones to do so.

At first glance it’s an odd title, but it does make sense. Rebecca is the basis of the code, the code can’t be used or broken without the key, and the British have to get their hands on the key if they want to halt Rommel. I would have liked a better overview of how the code worked - just how would he have managed to encrypt an uncommon letter like X? - but even incompletely described it’s still ingenious. The background which enabled Alex to blend so seamlessly into Egyptian life was unlikely (to my mind, at least), but plausible enough for me to accept it and read on. His close connections with Cairo low society help the local colour to shine through; Egyptian attitudes to the British - and vice versa - play a significant part in the story. These were most prominent in a side plot that left me with the niggling feeling that the name Anwar al-Sadat should be ringing a bell.

Vandam is an eminently likeable hero, and you have to admire a man with the patience to put up with a boss like that every day. Bogge is almost comical in his obstructiveness, a rampant snob with no intention of being outshone by a postman’s son with a Dorset accent. (Which is, of course, exactly what happens.) Elene is an interesting addition to the spy-catching plan; Vandam disapproves of her lifestyle, and she understandably resents him for assuming she’ll have no problems with letting herself get picked up by Alex as part of the plan. She was the character I liked most, but was also connected to the part of the book I liked least. Alex has an accomplice with twisted tastes, and I could have done with knowing less about what they got up to, either with each other or with Elene.

Rating: B


Bookfool said...

I read this book way back when it was fairly new (the 70's??) and loved it. I wonder if it would hold up to my memories. I've still got a copy, after all these years!

Rebecca Chapman said...

I reviewed this today and then when I was looking around to see if anyone else had read it I found your post. I think I had the same feelings about the book as you. It was a bit implausible, but so much that it made it feel ridiculous. I still enjoyed it.

here is my review

Dutch said...

Implausible? This piece of fiction is based very closely on fact. Read your WWII history.

Vor said...

Follett fan. Key to Rebecca. Smashing! All his books are.

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Header image shows detail of A Young Girl Reading by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, c. 1776