A WALTER SCOTT PRIZE ACADEMY RECOMMENDED BOOK OF 2018!
In this literate and action-packed historical thriller, set during World War II, a plucky code-breaker fights to keep a deadly secret as her Bonnie-and-Clyde past threatens to catch up with her.
Thirty-year-old Lena Stillman is living a perfectly respectable life when a shocking newspaper headline calls up her past: it concerns her former lover, charismatic bank robber Bill Bagley. A romantic and charming figure, Lena had tried to forget him by resuming her linguistic studies, which led to her recruitment as a Navy code-breaker intercepting Japanese messages during World War II.
But can Lena keep her own secrets? Threatening notes and the appearance of an old diary that recalls her gangster days are poised to upset her new life.
Whom can she really trust? Is there a spy among the code-breakers? And who is it that wants her dead?
“Alisa Smith’s novel Speakeasy, set in the thirties and forties, is written with great authority. A wonderful read, and very convincing.” —Richard Bausch, author of Something Is Out There and Peace
About the Author
ALISA SMITH is the bestselling co-author of Plenty: A Year of Eating Locally on the 100-Mile Diet (Crown). Her freelance writing has been published in Outside, Reader’s Digest, Utne Reader, Ms. Magazine, Canadian Geographic, Elle Canada, the National Post, and many others, winning two National Magazine Awards. She served as a judge for a various literary awards and has lectured widely on writing. She is based in Vancouver.
Read an Excerpt
THE MINISTRY OF WAR
EVEN AFTER SIX months, I still had to locate the bunker by first spotting the nearby radio tower. Otherwise you couldn't see it until you were nearly on top of it: the back walls were built into a cliff facing the sea so that it was almost flush with the horizon. The bunker reminded me of a Greek amphitheatre, white concentric circles nestled in a grassy depression, but instead of opening to the sun each level was enclosed, secretive and seeking no audience but the participants themselves. The contentious November wind snarled my hair as I stood at the edge, and then all was calm in the hollow where I descended the stairs to the lowest door. Once inside there were rooms and rooms further below, which was where the codebreakers worked.
The metal door clanged shut behind me. The air inside was always dank no matter the weather outside. If I arrived with a wet umbrella, it would not have dried by the end of my shift. As I walked down the hall, I shivered and buttoned up my regulation Navy jacket. It was terribly drab, but at least the Captain overlooked the unauthorized tailoring I did on the skirt to make it shorter. Captain Bromley-Sinclair was not exactly regulation himself — he wore a paisley smoking jacket while on duty. Eccentrics flourished in the Examination Unit. Though Germany was at war with Britain, here on the Pacific coast we tracked the Japanese, who were allies of Hitler but not our sworn foes. It sometimes felt like our unit existed in a strange limbo. Thousands of miles from the front lines, we were mostly forgotten about by the federal government and High Command; but it suited me to stay unobserved.
Pulling my oak chair forward on its squeaky wheels — every morning I remembered they needed oiling and immediately forgot to do it as I got absorbed in my work — I opened the blue folder to read the day's Magic Summary. "Magic" was the American term, which the Captain had adopted, for the communiqués the Japanese ambassadors sent back to Tokyo. The Yankees had a lovely gift for naming that appealed to the Captain's poetic nature and he refused to call it JN-25, as the diplomatic code was technically known. It was highly valued for the briefings on German strategy.
I spread my papers out in front of me, and at first they all looked the same: a random mix of roman letters divided always into five characters with a space between each set, so no word lengths were revealed. I was searching for any repetitions. Even the simple word "and," oyobi, could be an entry into the messages. Each day the Japanese changed the starting point for the keys on their Purple machine. They believed their code was unbreakable because of its millions of enciphering possibilities. However, in their very effort to expand the number of possibilities, they had divided the keys into two sets — one of twenty and one of six — and this was a serious weakness. We always looked for the greater frequency of letters relating to the "sixes." The other flaw, even more basic, was hubris. The Japanese believed that their language and its phonetic symbols were so challenging to the Western mind that we would never grasp a code based on it. We had seen them mention this in their cables, which amused us as we decrypted them. Repetition is the codebreakers' manna, and the Japanese language — because it expressed the formality of their culture — was rife with it. Every diplomatic message began with the same tribute to the Emperor: "I have the honour to report to Your Excellency ..." People never could see their own weaknesses.
Flipping through my stack of papers, I searched for any group that might share the right pattern of vowels and consonants — they often cut their messages so that the preamble was in the middle instead. It took me a few hours, but I finally got what I needed. A good cipher was my greatest pleasure. I liked it best when there was an enemy message that nobody else could figure out, and I was the one to crack it.
"Hey Marguerite, do you know who has the JN-25 master?" I said as I walked over to her desk by the "window," which she had painted in watercolours on a large sheet of Arches paper that she'd taped to the wall.
"The new guy," she said, stabbing her pencil in the air at him. I looked to the opposite side of the room, where he was sprawled with his long legs propped on his metal desk. "I saw him adding words already."
"Maybe I'll get it later." I was annoyed that he was making progress with the code so soon.
"You don't want to meet Lieutenant Hughes? I think he's rather handsome."
Hughes had wavy brown hair pushed back from his forehead, much longer than military length. His features were regular, nothing terribly distinctive, the eyes blue, the nose perhaps a bit too broad, the lips admittedly well shaped, like those of Michelangelo's David statue, which I'd seen in texts when I took an art history class in university, and it made me wish to go to Italy. When I caught his eye yesterday I felt a kind of life force that I didn't discover in people often. In my experience, that meant he was best avoided.
"I wonder why they bothered to bring in someone else right now," Marguerite said. "It's been awfully slow."
I lowered my voice. "Have you been getting the Russian cables too?" "It's frustrating. Why are we wasting our time on Allied messages? But ours is not to wonder why ..."
"Stop right there. I don't like the rest of that expression."
"You want to grab lunch?"
I waited while Marguerite cleared her desk. She was my best friend in the unit, and we were both the same age, twenty-nine years old. Thirty, I corrected myself unhappily. It had been my birthday last month. Most of the other girls were just that, girls, of eighteen or twenty, and they worked as filing clerks. She put on her homburg — being French, she could pull off the ridiculous hat we had to wear with our uniforms — and I linked my arm through hers. We followed the labyrinthine hall past the cubbyholes stuffed with undecoded messages, past the tippety-tap of the room where the kana Morse operators grabbed Japanese telegraphs from the air for us to decipher, and past the huge file room where most of the women toiled, endlessly opening and closing cabinet drawers at the codebreakers' requests.
We reached the top of the stairs and buzzed the door, which an unseen person opened with a mechanism from afar. Fresh air surged against our faces and the light glared so we were blinded. We staggered into each other and giggled. "We're like moles, living underground," Marguerite said.
"It's not even really sunny out." My eyes soon adjusted to the grey film across the sky, the sun a feeble light bulb behind it. The wind blew cold off the Pacific, but at least it wasn't raining. November was the monsoon month, though by the time the storms reached us they were leached of any tropical warmth by their Arctic detour. There was a British luxury cruiser, the SS Argonne Star, in dry dock right now, welders scampering over her to transform her for war. The base had been busy the last few months with such jobs. We knew the Japanese were massing troops in French Indochina with the support of Vichy France. Not that the specific place names in the cables meant anything to me, whether Hainan Island, Lang Son or Dong Tac, but I feared they would soon.
The mess hall was a decrepit building, once a brick factory, but it had the virtue of large windows. We always sat near the windows, as did everyone from the bunker except for a reclusive fellow named Olson, who preferred a dim corner. We rarely mixed with the other units because it was easier that way — we were not allowed to speak of our work to anyone else, not even military personnel. Most of them didn't know there were codebreakers on the base at all; they just had a hazy sense that the bunker and its metal tower were for transmissions to the Allied Fleet. Marguerite and I stood in line to get a coffee and sat down at a table already claimed by some of our unit.
"You seen the headline in the Colonist?" Petty Officer Montague asked. She lived in the women's dorm and was much below me in clearance, so we'd never had cause to mix, though she often tried to be friendly. I suspected she hoped to get ahead through me, since she had neither the prettiness nor the wiles to succeed with men.
"I don't get the paper at home," I said. Unlike the other single women, I lived in my own house in town, and I had an aversion to receiving any deliveries, letters or subscriptions in my name. Even by the standards of the Examination Unit, I knew I was considered unusually private.
Montague pulled the day's paper toward her across the varnished mess table and began to read, her finger smearing along the headline.
BORN TO HANG BILL BAGLEY'S REIGN OF CRIME OVERAT LAST
Daring holdups, cunning jailbreaks, blood-thirsty murders in Canada and USA united police efforts to nab unrepentant crook
To be executed at New Westminster Prison Made his infamous name with $100,000 bank robbery in Nanaimo
"I'm from Nanaimo, and it's the biggest thing that ever happened there," Montague said, looking up from the paper. I stared into my coffee and blew on it. I took a gulp too soon, unwise, and scalded my tongue. I suppressed a gasp of pain.
I was surprised by how angry I felt. Angry at myself for burning my tongue, and at Montague for reading the gloating news aloud. Most of all, I was angry at Bill. I reminded myself that actresses were capable of laughing, crying or shouting, equally convincing each time, every single day on demand if need be. The absence of emotion, which I needed to call up now, should be easiest of all.
The paper had printed an old mug shot. With his dark hair slicked to one side, Bill was as handsome as I remembered. The only man I ever loved. I'd gotten used to seeing his name in the newspapers from time to time: a robbery, a chase, an arrest, a trial. At first I had been devastated on his behalf, as well as petrified, never knowing what Bill might say if he needed to save his own skin, or even out of sheer orneriness. Instead, I would soon read that he had escaped again. His latest escapade had begun with a jailbreak in Oregon three years ago; he laid low, crossed the border, robbed a bank and shot a police officer, was caught again and put on trial in New Westminster. It had seemed like his usual pattern, until now.
The death penalty.
"He got the whole payroll for the Dunsmuir mine," Montague rambled on. "Imagine! The biggest coal mine in the British Empire. What would you do with a fortune like that?"
"If it was not the war, perhaps buy a yacht and sail around the world," said Marguerite. "I would have men to wait on me, that much I know. I'm so tired of men expecting me to do little things for them. As if I have not important work to do!"
"I only asked you where the pencils were."
I hadn't noticed the new fellow come in and sit with us.
"No, you asked me to get them," Marguerite said. "I hadn't myself needed any."
I forced myself to smile at Marguerite, trying to be part of their petty conversation.
I did not believe the courts should have the right to take a life. What was the moral authority of an act equally atrocious as that being punished? In fact, what was the evidence of the system's superiority in any way? The reason Bill was caught was not because the law was so much more clever than he.
Bill Bagley was being punished because he had failed at something for which he once possessed genius.CHAPTER 2
THE FIRST TIME I saw Bill Bagley he was holding a wild-eyed infant that looked like it had seen horrors since the day it was born. He was on the landing of the Dowding Building in Seattle, where my accounting office was located. I had just come up the marble stairs and was straightening my tie, which was unsettled every morning by the wind that rushed up the hill from the sea. He seemed very out of place somehow in this business environment, though he wore an expensive-looking suit.
"This un ain't mine and don't tell me again that it is," he said, thrusting the baby back to a lady with burning red cheeks. She gave him a sharp look before bursting into tears and running down the stairs. I watched with concern, as the stairs were slippery and she wore high heels, but she made it safely out the revolving door with the infant.
Once she was gone, the man, Bill Bagley, and I were left staring at each other awkwardly, or at least awkwardly on my part.
"That woman is a whore and a liar," he growled to me.
I was taken aback at such words from a stranger's mouth and felt I should defend womanhood in general from such slurs — if not the woman herself, whose character I could not attest to — even though I rarely concerned myself with the private business of strangers beyond the numbers in the ledgers they brought me. Of course, these always revealed more than people knew.
"Sir? That is a harsh thing to say."
"I'll say it again and a thousand times. You blind? Didn't you see her painted bitch face?"
I was an accounting clerk from a line of genteel numbers men; I can safely say that such coarse words had never echoed through that quiet hall, nor hardly my innocent brain. I did not know what to answer this fellow. Meanwhile he stared at me, so wild-eyed and horror-stricken I could not help thinking he was lying about the baby, the resemblance was so acute. I felt sorry for him and wondered what he'd been through. Yet at the same time he had a defiant look that drew me. I imagined my own gaze to be glassy and uninteresting, reflecting shallow experience in life.
"Her cheek did have an artificial hue," I surprised myself by saying.
A grin like Clark Gable's flared on his face and then he asked me if I knew where the office of Byron Godfrey was. Strangely pleased to be known to him, I said I was that man and to follow me.
Once inside I sat at my desk and looked at him expectantly.
"I need an accountant. The IRS wants to audit me. Can you believe it? Merry fucking Christmas."
I told him that as an accounting clerk, unfortunately I heard of such a thing all the time. I had prepared many people for audits and said that I'd gladly look at his books, but I cautioned him I didn't have the full designation. He said he didn't give a damn about designations but the merit of a man only. This warmed me to him. He pulled a ragged-edged folio out of his briefcase and thumped it onto my desk. Twenty minutes poring over it gave me a funny feeling, and not just for having him there staring at me from across the room with his feet propped up on my coffee table. There were hardly any receipts, just a notebook with unlikely expenses scrawled in a shaky hand, and his address was constantly changing. Last yearhe was in Oakland, California. Now that he'd moved to Seattle, the district he had chosen was not known for respectable business. I finally looked up at him and, with a line of sweat uncomfortable on my forehead, said that his books had holes like Swiss cheese and he was bound to have trouble with the IRS.
"Whyn't you look through those holes and find something solid on the other side? I'll pay you good money for it."
I knew instantly he meant for me to fabricate. This was completely outside anything I'd ever done. But I felt oddly drawn to him; plus, I said to myself, one must eat. I was two months behind on my rent and I did not believe the landlady would give me credit any longer. Only one other man had walked through my office door with custom these last few months, and it ended in his bankruptcy, so I wouldn't be seeing him again. I said I would see what I could do.
To my surprise, I found the exercise quite interesting. Suddenly there was imagination in the numbers profession. I advised him to lease a warehouse stocked with inexpensive goods so he'd have something to show the auditors, and I made detailed ledgers of sales dating back a few years. Those mom-andpop retailers would be out of business now, but he could find people to affirm their past existence. The profits were slim, but it was the Depression, was it not? Most boldly of all, in retrospect, I suggested he should pay a little tax to placate the government. The work was addictive because I'd only ever thought of myself as the most mediocre person — but this I excelled at.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Speakeasy"
Copyright © 2017 Alisa Smith.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
SPEAKEASY, with its clever title, tells the story of Lena and how past choices and secrets can come back to haunt you. Told from two perspectives in two time periods, I found it really hard to get into. The alternating narrators can be jarring, the entries coming sometimes in short bursts, and this greatly affects the continuity of the story and continually took me out of the narrative. There are essentially two novels in one here, a Depression-era gangster romp and a World War II tale. Either alone would have made a great novel, but together they are disjointed and suffer for each other’s shortcomings. I was particularly drawn to the WWII part of the story. The somewhat unusual setting of Canada right before the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the female protagonist were appealing. Lena first appears as a confident and competent code breaker for the Navy, but as the story moves along, she crumbles somewhat and loses everything that is alluring. I can understand, to a degree, her twenty-year-old self wanting some adventure by running away with Bill’s bank robbing gang, but I just do not see Bill’s draw. He is supposed to be magnetic enough for others to follow him blindly, but I just see a big old jerk (Perhaps this is my middle-agedness showing). Lena’s thirty-year-old self is frustrating because she never seems to learn from her mistakes and experiences. SPEAKEASY is not everything I expected or hoped for it to be. Perhaps it is much more, an ambitious telling of the past, but I do not get it. I liked SPEAKEASY, but I did not love it. I received and ARC of this title from the publisher and voluntarily shared my thoughts here.
Lena is a code breaker. She broke the code which helped win the battle of Midway. But….she has a past. She was once involved with a famous bank robber, Bill Bagley. Lena is a unique woman for this time period. She is a code breaker, she lives alone, plus she drove a getaway car. She is also hoping her world does not fall down around her ears. She is the type of woman character I love. However, I felt a little distance from her. I wanted to “feel more” for her and her situation. See, Bill is her past with a bite. He is on death row but he is still taunting her from behind bars. I should have felt a better connection with her, it just wasn’t there. This was just a so-so read for me. I had trouble in the beginning figuring out who the narrator was. Then I realized it was changing narrators in the middle of the chapters. Now, keep in mind, I was reading an ARC and this may not be corrected yet, or it may be exactly how it’s supposed to be. This was just confusing to me until I was used to it. The story did keep me reading and the ending was the best part of the book. It ended with a cliff hanger and I can’t wait to see what happens next. And yes, the author is working on a sequel.
This story is told in the alternating voices of Lena and Byron. Lena, once a member of the Clockwork Gang and in love with the leader Bill Bagley, is now a codebreaker for the Navy during World War II. Byron was an accountant that Bill had asked to doctor his books before an audit and then compelled him to join the Clockwork Gang. I really enjoyed this book. The back and forth between the tensions of the war and the escapades of the notorious gang made the book all the more enjoyable. This is definitely a must-read if you are a fan of historical fiction!