Posted by: Corri van de Stege | February 18, 2014

Tobias Hill – The Cryptographer

On Saturday I will be attending a workshop on writing by Tobias Hill.  I  hope to pick up some advice / suggestions / encouragement on  the  editing of my book, which is now in a finished draft format at  nearly 80,000 words.
Although I know of Tobias Hill of course and I have been told he writes very good poetry I had not actually read any of his books; and he has written a few. So last week I downloaded one of his earlier books, The Cryptographer, on my kindle and read it straight through. I am glad to say I really liked it, very much.
Below is my review.


Anna Moore is tax inspector A2 grade; she has been assigned the investigation of John Law, code maker and breaker and quadrillionaire, however rich that is.
Hill’s writing is crisp and he evokes a carefully designed world, one which is neither our day-to-day world, nor is it one that is clearly science fiction , rather it is carefully invented as a world in the very near future with some dramatic changes in the way we deal with money and what money is. It’s a bit Kafkaesque, in that it often feels as if a threat is there just under the surface, the characters are enigmatic and individuals come across as quite lonely, in particular Anna. For example: There is Law’s accountant, an elderly woman called Mutevelian (is that a play on Machiavelli?) She and Anna  establish between them  that old relationship of inspector and accountant “a matter of diplomacy, since each is employed to consider the other with what amounts to a delicately veiled suspicion.”
Paintings are duplicated, in Law’s meeting room in a large bunker like building with only one entrance door, “there are two paintings, sparely lit, each of which Anna has seen countless times before, in countless reproductions, so that she knows them now as if they were her own possessions.
John Law is an enigmatic figure: he lives with is wife Anneli and son Nathan on a large secluded estate in London, huge and inaccessible unless you have a code to the entrance gate;the code changes every day and it is easy to get lost when entering by car and driving to find the house. There are numerous staff who make sure that the family and in particular John Law, is not intruded upon. When there is a New Year’s Eve party there is a sense of The Great Gatsby, where innumerable people turn up to mill through the vast house and enjoy the fireworks outside on the vast estate where an artificially high temperature has been created that contrasts sharply with the cold and snow of  London outside the gates.
The cryptographer Law has invented a code that replaces money and that is thought to be 100% secure although Anna during her investigation, as she probes deeper and deeper, suspects that this is not all of it.
At times it is difficult to follow what is going on, there are a lot of allusions to thought processes, ie what Anna thinks and what she infers that others are thinking or doing and why, and much of it only becomes clearer later as you continue to read, and this aspect of the book reminds of a thriller. Hill interweaves questions about trust, who can trust who and who in fact is trustworthy, with questions about love and also about whether everything has a it’s price.
Numerous questions are raised and only partly answered: Should Anna conclude her investigation after Law has paid his fine, even if she suspects that there are other things going on that no one is telling her? Is Anna going back for another meeting with John Law because there are further questions to be asked and answered or is this merely an excuse to see him again, because she has fallen in love with him?
What does Nathan, even if only a child, know about codes and what his father is up to and what is the real relationship between father and son and between John and Anneli for that matter? What is Lawrence’s real role apart from having been Anna’s mentor and lover, an older man now no longer working in the Inspectorate and spending his days still wooing Anna and getting drunk?
It’s an intriguing book and written in a very distinct style that I found extremely readable. I am aware though that there are mixed opinions (and reviews) and that it appears that you either love Hill’s writing and can read lots into it, or you hate it because it is not so straightforward and leaves some readers puzzled as to what it is all about.  I’ll definitely try some other books by Hill.
I am looking forward to Saturday and to what I can learn from him.



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