The Silk Code by Deborah Swift: heart-pounding drama – book review -

After the heartbreaking discovery that her fiancé is cheating on her only a few months before their wedding, Nancy Callaghan flees her home in Scotland to become a code-breaker with the Special Operations Executive in London.
The Silk Code by Deborah Swift:The Silk Code by Deborah Swift:
The Silk Code by Deborah Swift:

But, there is treachery afoot in the dark shadows of wartime espionage and Nancy will soon find that there are enemies closer to home than the Nazis who are bringing fear and terror to millions of people across Europe.

Deborah Swift, the bestselling Lancashire-based author of a whole raft of dazzling historical novels, turns back the clock to 1943, the pivotal heart of the Second World War, for a thrilling tale of one determined young woman’s race against the clock to uncover a traitor.

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Swift, who lives in Warton, near Carnforth, used to work backstage as a scenographer in many North-West theatres, including Liverpool Playhouse and the Duke’s Theatre, Lancaster, and it is her imaginative flair, and keen eye for drama and authenticity, that has made her novels so viscerally real and exciting.

The Silk Code – the first of a gripping new Secret Agent Series – is based on the true story of ‘Englandspiel’ (England Game), a German counterintelligence operation in which the Nazis captured Allied agents in the Netherlands and used the agents’ codes to dupe the SOE, thus allowing them to capture nearly all the agents and weapons sent from Britain.

The result is a tense and sweeping story which moves from the tightly-run, secret offices of the SOE operation in bombed-out London, to the terror, suspicion and claustrophobia of the Netherlands under German Occupation.

It’s February of 1943 and so far, Nancy Callaghan has spent the war at her home in Scotland where she knits and folds bandages with the WRVS and waits for her wedding to trainee doctor Andrew Fraser.

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But when she discovers he has been two-timing her, Nancy flees the pitying looks of her friends, family and neighbours to join her brother Neil who is working with the Special Operations Executive in London’s Baker Street.

Nancy thought she would be doing secretarial work but her aptitude for mathematics, and her fluency in Dutch and French, thanks to her Dutch mother, makes her far more useful to the SOE as a code-breaker.

And when coding expert Tom Lockwood arrives fresh from Bletchley Park with his new ideas, Nancy is the first person chosen to join a team tackling ‘indecipherables’ – messages from agents in the field that appear too scrambled to read but carry vital information that could mean the difference between life and death.

Despite her determination not to get involved romantically again, Nancy finds herself falling for coding genius Tom, a man with so much restless energy that it almost made him ‘crackle.’ And working together, they come up with the idea of printing codes on silk rather than writing them on paper, so agents can hide them in their clothing to avoid detection.

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Inevitably, Nancy and Tom grow close and, despite warnings from her brother, she is soon hopelessly in love. But there is a traitor in Baker Street, and suspicions turn towards Tom. When Nancy is asked to spy on him, she must make the ultimate sacrifice and complete a near-impossible mission... even if it means losing the man she loves.

One of the secrets of Swift’s success as a historical novelist is the depth and rich detail of her research, an aspect of her writing which she finds the most enjoyable and rewarding. And the immaculate wartime backdrop she paints for this sweeping and heart-pounding tale brings the past to life in all its breathtaking darkness, danger and atmosphere.

The love affair that simmers enticingly between Nancy and Tom is only half the story of The Silk Code as the undercurrents of treachery threaten to overwhelm not just their relationship but the work of the SOE and the lives of their increasingly vulnerable agents in Holland.

It’s an eye-opening story of the harsh realities of war both on the home front and in Occupied Europe... a time when death is only ever a heartbeat away, when loyalties are unexpectedly tested, and trust is not something that can be taken for granted.

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Using that same excellent breadth of research, Swift shows us just how brave were those selfless wartime agents who put their lives on the line every moment of every day in enemy territory... and the sheer dedication of the code-breakers who worked tirelessly in an effort to keep them safe.

With history in the raw, heart-pounding drama, cruelty, sacrifice, tragedy and plot twists, this is a ride into the past that you won’t want to miss.

(HQ, paperback, £9.99)

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