Not Da Vinci's Code
A Man Of Intelligence by Ian Pfennigwerth is the biography of Eric Nave, the Australian naval captain and “code-breaker extraordinary.” Nave was the first man to break a Japanese naval code, and his work as an expert in Japanese and code-breaking doubtless saved many lives and was extremely valuable to the success of the Allied forces during WWII. Within two years, he broke two such codes, and his seven-day weeks paid off with a great deal of useful information about Japanese naval movements and military plans.
A brilliant man, Nave lived an adventurous life, and his exploits and aid to the Allied cause richly deserved a book in tribute. Ian Pfennigwerth delivers a home run with his portrayal of this intense, intelligent man. Among other ways he helped the Allies is his part in what came to be called the “Shanghai Incident”, in which he unmasked an English spy whom the Japanese referred to in their coded messages as “Shinkawa.” He also almost single-handedly constructed Australia’s first signals intelligence bureau, and he was involved in the development of the Defence Signals Bureau in Melbourne.
Codes and ciphers have a long illustrious history in literature, including within the works of Edgar Allen Poe and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Reading about an actual famous nonfictional code-breaker I found to be fascinating, though the life of a real code-breaker, as depicted by Pfennigwerth, can at times be less than a glamorous one. The code-breaker wades through tons of coded messages, looking for similarities and potential clues in the structure of the messages by using grammar, syntax, and structural clues related to the language the messages are derived from - in this case, Japanese.
This brings me to an explanation as to why I chose to title this review “Not Da Vinci’s Code.” This is not meant as an insult to Pfennigwerth’s scholarly account, nor to Dan Brown’s book The Da Vinci Code, which I read and enjoyed despite its manipulation of historical and religious facts. I mean to say that in A Man Of Intelligence, a real historical person is written about with no playing up of his contributions to the Allied cause, and that codes are dealt with extensively. Also, as Leonardo was a man whose interests included codes and inventions of a militaristic nature, I feel he would have thoroughly enjoyed reading A Man Of Intelligence, if he’d been born a bit later and had the opportunity to do so.
There are some footnotes and an alphabet soup of abbreviations in Pfennigwerth’s work, which can be annoying and distracting at times, and that is a minor knock against this book. But it shows that he is greatly interested in presenting as accurate a portrayal as possible of a genuine war hero, and that he has done the research expected of any historian. The job of researching A Man Of Intelligence must have been very time-consuming, probably as tedious as Eric Nave found breaking certain codes to be, but the author’s work pays off with this illuminating biography. I give it an overall four and a half stars, just under five because of the reasons I’ve stated regarding the footnotes. A Man Of Intelligence should appeal to anyone interested in reading about codes, ciphers, World War II, general history, and about people who have made immeasurable differences in the course of world history through their diligent and heroic actions.
Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at www.curledup.com. © Douglas R. Cobb, 2006