A Girl’s Best Friend

Thomas Jones

  • The Cryptographer by Tobias Hill
    Faber, 263 pp, £12.00, August 2003, ISBN 0 571 21836 9

At 750 °C, a diamond will burn. It combusts perfectly, leaving no residue, no ash. That the world’s hardest substance should be so vulnerable to flames is startling; who would have thought that the most precious family jewels could easily be annihilated in a house fire, transformed into carbon dioxide and a little steam, as unremarkable as an exhaled breath? Then again, a diamond is only carbon (with a skin of hydrogen, one molecule thick): why shouldn’t it be almost as combustible as coal?

I learned this fact from Tobias Hill’s second novel, The Love of Stones (2001), which is a mine of such information. Hill has done his homework, and for those who like this sort of thing, there’s plenty to be got out of the novel. At the centre of the book is a jewel called the Three Brethren: three balas rubies set in gold, arranged in a triangle around a diamond faceted like a pyramid (‘echoing the growth of a raw diamond’), with three pearls at the triangle’s points and a fourth hanging from one of the rubies. It was commissioned as a shoulder-clasp by John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy, ‘years before his murder’ in 1467, and passed through various hands, including those of Elizabeth I – she can be seen wearing the jewel in the ‘Ermine Portrait’ that hangs in Hatfield House – until it was finally lost in the 19th century. In The Love of Stones, the history of the Three Brethren is told by Katharine Sterne, a young woman who has devoted her adult life to hunting for the jewel. It’s hard to tell how much of what we learn about the Three Brethren is fact, and how much Hill has invented: a cursory Internet search turns up a portrait of John the Fearless wearing a shoulder-clasp that resembles Elizabeth’s brooch in the ‘Ermine Portrait’, but there’s no mention of the Three Brethren other than in discussions of Hill’s novel. This appealing uncertainty places the reader in a similar position to Katharine, who can’t be sure that the jewel still exists.

As well as the history of the Three Brethren, she gives a first-person, present-tense account of the final weeks of her search, as she travels from Istanbul to southern Japan via western Turkey and London. Interspersed with Katharine’s narrative is the third-person, past-tense story of two Jewish brothers, Salman and Daniel Levy, who emigrated from Baghdad to London in the 1830s, taking with them some of the stones from the Three Brethren, which had been broken up in India decades before. Salman, like Katharine, has a love of stones, an obsession that eclipses all else. The intricate plot is well made, its structure consciously echoing the shape of the Three Brethren: the different stories framing and balancing each other, triangular relationships forming and disintegrating. The mystery keeps you reading to the end. There is also pleasure to be got from Hill’s sentences: he has an ear for a well-turned phrase and a talent for memorable images – ‘buntings of peppers drying in the sun, orange and red and old-blood black’; ‘a chair tucked in neat as a shirt’.

The extent of Hill’s research is formidable: he has studied not only gemmology and early modern history, but 19th-century London and Baghdad, contemporary Istanbul, Diyarbak’r and Shikoku. When Katharine, in Istanbul, says that ‘by the next junction there is a dusty shopfront displaying calligraphy brushes, plastic flowers, a scroll with the characters Ah, Love! written in bold sweeping strokes,’ you feel sure that Hill has been there and seen this himself. The descriptions of place are wonderfully vivid, but the thought of the author wandering through Istanbul, taking everything in and scribbling assiduously in his notebook, intervenes between the reader and the narrator. The research remains too much on the surface. The Love of Stones is at once a fascinating essay on gemstones and a superior piece of travel writing; it also has a good plot. But it is impossible for the reader to get inside Katharine’s head, to understand her love of stones. Hill too clearly doesn’t share the obsession; his heart just isn’t in it. The difficulty is in the choice of point of view: Moby-Dick – an unfair comparison, but Katharine herself likens the Three Brethren to the White Whale – isn’t narrated by Ahab, and for good reason. Much the most interesting and sympathetic person in the novel is Daniel Levy, baffled by his brother’s monomania, but going along with it anyway: entering into business with him as a jeweller, sharing in the misfortunes that Salman’s ruby-lust brings. The real curse of the Three Brethren afflicts not those who are in love with the jewel, but those, the author among them, who find themselves unwittingly caught up in an obsession they can’t share, and from which it’s too late for them to back away.

Hill’s new novel, unlike its predecessors, has only one time frame. (His first, Underground, published in 1999, had two: a Polish immigrant Tube worker hunts down a serial killer who pushes young women under trains; he also tells us the story of his childhood.) The Cryptographer is set in the near future: the clues to precisely when get easier as the novel goes on – Big Ben has been tolling every hour for 160 years; the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee was nearly ten years ago; then on page 174 we’re given a date, 22 September 2021. The heroine, Anna Moore, works for the Inland Revenue, a tax inspector, A2 grade. Her latest client is the world’s richest man, John Law, the inventor of an electronic currency. Soft Gold is based on an unbreakable computer code, and has been adopted across the globe; money no longer has a physical manifestation – ‘it is only two years since they cancelled the dollar, the last exchangeable hard currency’ – but has been stripped as close as it can get to its purest form: trust.

Although The Cryptographer doesn’t contain a parallel historical narrative, it does imply one. The Scottish economist John Law (1671-1729), fond of gambling and fighting duels, was also the originator of the scarcity theory of value. Building on the 16th-century Florentine Bernardo Davanzati’s distinction between ‘value in use’ and ‘value in exchange’, Law came up with the ‘water-diamond paradox’: water has very high use-value, but, times of drought or dysentery aside, almost negligible exchange-value; diamond, by contrast, has almost no use-value, but great exchange-value. Law’s explanation for this was that diamonds are rare and water isn’t (Adam Smith thought the reason had to do with the labour costs of production). Law’s other major idea was the Real Bills Doctrine, one aspect of which is the notion that money is credit, and a currency doesn’t need a material base – gold, say – to support it. When Louis XIV died in 1715, he left the French economy in a pretty bad way. The duc d’Orléans asked Law for assistance, and his solution, the Banque Générale, started issuing unbacked paper currency in 1716. It worked wonders, until a run on the bank in 1720 caused it to collapse calamitously, producing a severe financial crisis throughout Europe, as well as setting the economic stage for the French Revolution. A less momentous effect was to make banque a dirty word: hence Crédit Lyonnais, Crédit Agricole etc. Law spent his last years in Venice, gambling.

It’s a terrific story; still, Hill’s decision in The Cryptographer not to tell it straight but to resituate it was the right one: it’s refreshing to see his imagination freely at work, unconstrained by anxiety about accuracy. The ‘futuristic’ aspects of the novel are happily not overdone: people still drive cars, live in houses, go to work in offices and spend awkward Christmases with their families. Significant change has been brought about only by the introduction of Soft Gold. John Law – Anna at first thinks of him hyphenated, not John or Law but John-Law, and it’s hard not to follow suit – lives on a vast private estate on the Thames, near Dartford: 3850 acres of land, 763 of water. ‘It is ten years since the Cryptographer bought the parish of Erith from London. Anna has seen the accounts.’ The new world is an understated dystopia: ‘All night she lies awake and listens to the aeroplanes. Her thoughts are measured in flight paths. Every hour or half hour she is stilled by a sound like something opening, as if the sky has slid apart. Each time, as it fades, there is the soft rush of the motorway: calming, tidal.’ These sounds in themselves won’t be unfamiliar to readers: but that aeroplanes are to be heard all through the night, and that the sound of a motorway is ‘calming’, a ‘soft rush’ rather than the more predictable roar, is a gloomy prospect.

Anna is not unlike Katharine. The narrator of The Love of Stones is at one point even mistaken for a tax inspector. Both women are loners; each has a more conventional sister from whom she is estranged. Scenes from The Love of Stones are reworked in The Cryptographer: in both novels, for example, the heroine stands naked at a first-floor window, watching and watched by a man outside – Katharine in a bathroom in Japan, Anna in her bedroom in London. The life of each woman is dominated by something which to most people signifies only wealth, but to them means something more important: for Katharine, the Three Brethren; for Anna, John Law. It’s as if, having failed once to get under his heroine’s skin, Hill has placed her in a new setting, with a new name and a new obsession, to try again.

Law is under investigation because of discrepancies in his personal accounts. As Anna explains to Lawrence, her ex-mentor, ex-lover, ex-colleague and friend, an older man who looks like her father (‘it is not something she denies to herself’), more for our benefit than his: ‘Revenue figures are rounded up or down to the nearest cent. To consistently round the figures the wrong way is fraud.’ Law has been committing fraud in this way for 13 years, investing the siphoned-off money in ‘hardware’ – precious metals – in the name of his son, Nathan. When Anna confronts him, he readily confesses and pays the Revenue what he owes. Case apparently closed. There is a deeper question, however, which Anna doesn’t get round to asking properly until it’s too late, and that is ‘why?’ The answer, or one of them, is that the code is not unbreakable. And as the second half of the novel begins, the global economy collapses. A date-triggered virus has penetrated the SoftMark computer: it strikes at midnight on 22 September 2021. Nobody knows the source of the virus, or how long it has been dormant in the system; rumours proliferate, including suggestions that Law himself is responsible. It’s also possible that the virus is a spontaneous flaw in the self-regenerating code. The first to fall victim are those on the international dateline, before the contamination spreads steadily westward as the earth spins into it. The process is nicely described:

It begins in small ways, in the smallest hours, when there are few to notice and there is little to be done . . . On the island of Copper, in the overheated Quonset huts of the Nikolskoe research station, wearing nothing but unwashed thermal underwear and a ‘From Here You Can See Tomorrow’ T-shirt, Matti Pellinen is dreaming of sober men as she inputs data from the Aleutian Abyssal Plain . . . It is only in passing that she registers the moment when her screen shudders . . . On Ebon, where twenty of Anna’s cigarettes will buy more albacore than a man can eat, the Reverend Toke Tsitsi, Minister for Internal Affairs, checks his savings late at night – it is his personal remedy for insomnia – and has no one to tell (or at least, tells no one) when he finds he has been credited with twice the gross national product of his country.

Once news of the crisis comes through from the Far East, there is still time in London for computers to be protected against the virus, but the damage has been done. Trust in Soft Gold has been destroyed, like a diamond gone up in flames: the currency is worthless. John Law disappears; Anna quits her job to track him down.

The Cryptographer is, like The Love of Stones, nicely written and skilfully plotted; Soft Gold is a neat idea, well conceived and well executed. There’s a bunch of enjoyable subsidiary characters: Carl Caunt, Anna’s loud and ambitious younger colleague; Terence, John Law’s head of security; Muriet, Nathan Law’s best, or only friend; Tunde Finch, a man who has been saying for years that Soft Gold isn’t impregnable, though no one has been listening.

Despite their hardness, all diamonds are vulnerable along two planes: struck at the right angle, a diamond can be shattered with a hammer. The Cryptographer’s most substantial weakness is its central relationship. Anna and John Law become too close too quickly: it is, more or less, love at first sight. There is a suggestive piquancy to the notion of a quadrillionaire and a tax inspector falling for each other; it’s symbolically resonant, but Hill doesn’t make it humanly plausible. The problem is similar to that in The Love of Stones: we don’t get to see quite what Katharine sees in the Three Brethren, and we don’t get to see quite what Anna sees in John Law, or he in her. Anna comes to realise that she, like everyone, has put more trust in him than he warranted; only in her case, it’s personal. But it isn’t at all clear why they would, or should, have such faith in each other in the first place: they barely know each other; we simply have to take it on trust. So when it turns out that their faith is, on both sides, misplaced, it comes as rather less of a shock than I imagine it’s meant to. That Anna finds she has also been quietly betrayed by people closer to her, whom she’s known for longer, and on whom it’s easier to believe she can rely, works rather better. A diamond can be protected against shattering by the way in which it’s set: a skilled craftsman plays to his strengths, and exploits the strengths of his materials; but he also knows how to conceal, or at least not to rely on, their weaknesses. Tobias Hill is getting there.