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An Intrigue

by Michael Frayn & David Burke

Pub Date: May 2nd, 2001
ISBN: 0-8050-6752-3
Publisher: Henry Holt

An entertaining, if inconclusive, game of historical cat-and-mouse.

Playwright and novelist Frayn (Head-Long, 1999, etc.) was in the midst of staging a new play, Copenhagen, when a curious package arrived in the mail. His play concerned a fateful but mysterious 1941 meeting between German scientist Werner Heisenberg (a key figure in the Nazi atomic-weapons program) and Danish physicist Neils Bohr; the package contained papers evidently found beneath the floorboards of an English country house where Heisenberg and other Nazi scientists had been interned at the end of WWII. As Frayn and director Burke puzzled through the papers, written in semiliterate German and even less literate Russian (or could it be Bulgarian?) and full of cryptic references to uranium, table tennis, and champagne, they concluded they’d either stumbled on a trove of hitherto unknown secret documents written in especially vexing code or had fallen victim to an especially crafty hoax masquerading as “a parody of a pedantic scientific paper.” They incline toward the latter view for much of the narrative, although they’re drawn toward the former by the arrival of a letter (apparently from the British government) demanding the surrender of the trove. By the end of the account (which the authors complicate by adding thoughtful red-herring notes on the art of theatrical deception and the psyche-bending qualities of the stage), the reader isn’t quite sure what to make of the whole affair: if true, it offers a minor footnote in WWII history, and, if false, makes for at least a pleasant exercise for mystery buffs.

Whatever the reality, it adds up to another good yarn from Frayn.