The Killing Code by Ellie Marney
Engaging characters, an immersive 1940s wartime setting, and a suspenseful and baffling murder mystery!
Kathleen Hopper had been the companion, nurse, and maid to terminally-ill Katherine Sutherland, a wealthy young woman her age, for the past four years. The Sutherlands had plucked Kathleen out of grinding poverty, where she had scraped along with her coal miner father, mother, and five siblings to care for their sickly daughter through finishing school at Arlington Hall outside Washington, DC. Everyone, including Katherine, knew she was slowly dying, but rather than give up, she wanted to go out her own way, going to school, and learning, until she was no longer able.
It was 1942, Arlington Hall was closing for the end of term, and all the girls were returning home, except for Katherine and Kathleen; Katherine’s time was imminent. The government was taking over the property to house the signal intelligence operations and many staff living on site away from prying eyes and ears in DC. Their critical mission was to decrypt the intercepted messages of the enemy.
Katherine and Kathleen had become like sisters over their years together, so Katherine made provisions for her dear friend and companion for after her death. She knew it wouldn’t work for Kathleen to return to West Virginia when there was so much more she could do anywhere else. On her deathbed, she gifted Kathleen her trunks of expensive clothes, money she’d been setting aside just for this purpose, and her identity papers. She wanted Kathleen to live the life she never would and do it in her place and at her higher station in the society.
Katherine died that very night. School staff were heading out the door; the military was already moving in. Kathleen was left to make arrangements for Katherine, pack up her remaining effects, and go as quickly as possible. As she made her way down to the first floor, she was stopped by two young women, obviously government staff for the incoming operations. After some questioning, they asked if she would be interested in joining them in the signal intelligence group. With no place else to go, Kathleen accepted, and when asked her name, she answered with her new identity: “Kit” Sutherland.
The Killing Code was a tense and suspenseful story set during World War II, just outside Washington, DC, on the grounds of a former finishing school for young women. The tension came from several directions: Kit’s constant fear of being unmasked as an imposter, the stress and urgency of codebreaking and the war itself, and a string of gruesome murders perpetrated against young female government workers in DC. In addition, there is a romantic subplot involving two main characters.
The author obviously did a lot of amazing research in crafting the story. There are even quotes from historical figures involved in codebreaking and cryptography heading the chapters, including one from a distant cousin of mine (Colonel Parker Hitt.) I was particularly intrigued by the colossal about-face in the workforce at the time, with women fulfilling positions men had traditionally held. I had never heard about the all-black codebreaking unit working simultaneously with the white unit but segregated from them the entire time.
The main characters, the core group of women trying to track down the serial killer, come from different backgrounds and circumstances. But I felt the buildup of camaraderie and how they became a family. I liked how they used their knowledge and skills gained at work to profile the murderer and make sense of the information they gathered. They hit some snags along the way in their investigations and relationships, but their perseverance takes them through all roadblocks, much like tackling the Japanese coded messages.
The author doesn’t keep the women restricted to quarters either. I enjoyed that the investigations took them “off campus,” and we got to experience the world of Washington, DC, during 1940s wartime. Social settings, transportation, telephoning, and clothing are all mentioned, and I felt immersed in the place and time. However, with one of the main characters, a young black woman, the attitudes toward race during those days were also fully displayed.
With great characters that I could relate to and root for from the beginning, the immersive 1940s wartime setting, and the engrossing and baffling murder mystery, I was glued to this book to the very end. I recommend THE KILLING CODE to readers who enjoy historical mysteries, especially those set in World War II or including codebreaking.
I voluntarily reviewed this after receiving an Advanced Review Copy from the author or publisher through NetGalley and TBR and Beyond Book Tours.