Cover for Spying on Spies

Spying on Spies

March 2024


The gripping story of one of America’s first cryptanalysts, Elizebeth Smith Friedman, who busted spy rings:

One of the founders of US cryptology who would eventually become one of the world’s greatest code breakers, Elizebeth Smith Friedman (1892–1980) was a brilliant mind behind many important battles throughout the 20th century, saving many lives through her intelligence and heroism.

Whip-smart and determined, Elizebeth displayed a remarkable aptitude for language and recognizing patterns from a young age. After getting her start by looking for linguistic clues to the true authorship of Shakespeare’s writings, she and her husband, William Friedman, were tasked with heading up the first government code-breaking unit in America, training teams and building their own sophisticated code systems during the lead-up to World War. Cracking Nazi Enigma machines with brainpower, pen, and paper, Elizebeth rivaled Alan Turing’s Bletchley Park, which had hundreds of codebreakers and the use of a proto-computer, the Bombe, to solve the same problems.

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The absorbing story of one of America’s most talented and least appreciated cryptographers and code breakers. Fresh out of college, Friedman was hired by an eccentric millionaire who was eager to prove that Shakespeare’s plays were written by someone else. While poring over them in search of secret messages, she taught herself skills that allowed her to break codes and ciphers for the military during both world wars—and, at some personal risk, to help the Justice Department fight organized crime in between. Much of her work is still classified, and she died in 1980, but Moss layers a nuanced account over the relatively thin bed of documentation, including relevant background about contemporary events. Illustrated tableaux highlight significant incidents and explain various codes. The book offers a sensitive picture of Friedman’s married life with a husband who was likewise a brilliant cryptographer working on secret projects that couldn’t be talked about, even at home, and tallies one thrilling feat of counterespionage after another, culminating in the breakup of an extensive Nazi spy ring in South America. (Friedman and her small team solved multiple Enigma machine codes, just like the thousands of workers at Bletchley Park.) Unsurprisingly, she also faced obstacles ranging from FBI interference to dangerously revealing (and sexist) news profiles. Readers will be suitably impressed and riveted.

A bracing celebration of one gifted woman’s insufficiently heralded achievements in war and peace.

2024 Kirkus Starred Review

Elizebeth Friedman was successful at breaking some of the most complicated codes used by enemy powers during both World Wars. She’s practically unknown today, due to a combination of misogyny and the top-secret nature of her work. When contemporary media outlets released dismissive articles about the little lady tackling such important jobs, they put Elizebeth in actual danger. Elizebeth (the youngest of 10, her mother purposely misspelled her name) was raised to be a dutiful wife and mother, but she always wanted to be intellectually challenged. She overcame numerous obstacles and rose to the top of her profession, married another cryptologist, and had a family, all while posing as a typical stay-at-home mom. This unique biography fills in ample background information to underline the crucial importance and daunting time constraints of her work, while also explaining how codes and ciphers work. Graphic-novel inserts introduce every chapter, and the generous back matter includes famous historical codes and their keys along with challenging puzzles. This intriguing offering covers fresh information and spans curricular areas.

2024 Booklist