Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Review of The Secret Listeners by Sinclair McKay (2012, Aurum Press)

There are now plenty of histories of Bletchley Park and its coding breaking endeavours. However, Bletchley was reliant on thousands of radio listeners who would tune in to enemy broadcasts, copy down the stream of Morse code, and send on for decryption. While many listeners were located in the UK, many were scattered across the globe and sometimes worked locally to break into signals traffic. McKay tells the stories of Y Service and the men and women who served as listeners, spending long hours scanning the dial and transcribing messages without any knowledge of what they were listening to or whether their work was making any difference. He very much focuses on individual experiences drawing on personal testimony and biographies.

The topic is a fascinating one, and important complement to the work on war-time code-breaking. The problem is that McKay’s telling is thin in substance, and his narrative sketchy and repetitive. He clearly wanted to tell the story through a biographical lens, rather than providing a more detailed historical or technical overview of the formation and workings of Y Service. The latter could have provided rich context, but is largely absent. Worse though is the string of anecdotes that are used to tell the story. They are light, disjointed, fragmentary, and quite poorly organized, delivered through a breezy-style of narrative. The result was I didn’t really get to know any one character or a detailed idea of their work and life as part of Y Service, or the intricacies as to how Y serviced operated. Overall, a somewhat disappointing read that lacked depth and insight.

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