In ‘The Rose Code,’ Kate Quinn highlights the women codebreakers of World War II

San Diego author Kate Quinn and her new book "The Rose Code"
(Courtesy photo by Laura Jucha Photography)

San Diego author’s new book explores the dynamics during World War II at Bletchley Park in England, where codebreakers must solve complex military codes, survive the pressures of secrecy and outwit a Soviet spy who tries to tear apart friendships


Best-selling author Kate Quinn probes archives for inspirational people to write about.

“I look for untold women’s stories in history — women of the past who wow me with their courage and unsung achievements, whose lives yearn for a spotlight,” the San Diego novelist said.

“I don’t look deliberately in world wars for those kinds of stories, but there’s no doubt that war offered opportunity to women of the past — whether a job or career they wouldn’t otherwise land, or a fight they couldn’t fight in peacetime. So, the history of a war is also often a stretch of time where you’ll find women doing extraordinary things. I’m not surprised I’ve found more than one novel’s inspiration in World War II! Who knows how many more I’ll find?”

Quinn’s newest novel, “The Rose Code,” explores the dynamics during World War II at Bletchley Park in England. There, codebreakers must solve complex military codes, survive the pressures of secrecy and outwit a Soviet spy who tries to tear apart friendships.

Quinn — whose previous novels include “The Alice Network,” “The Huntress” and the “Empress of Rome Saga” series — lives in San Diego with her husband and three rescue dogs.

Q: What is Bletchley Park?

A: Bletchley Park is the isolated English country house that, during World War II, became the intelligence hub of Great Britain. The best and brightest minds in England — many of them women — were sent to work there in secrecy to break the supposedly unbreakable Axis military codes, and they succeeded brilliantly.

Q: Do you have a favorite protagonist?

A: I love all three of my heroines! They’re all based closely on real women or composites of real women, and they represent the range of roles women could play in the Bletchley Park codebreaking process. Mab is an ambitious, sharp-witted East Ender recruited from a secretarial pool to operate and maintain the famous decoding machines. Osla is a beautiful, vivacious ex-debutante whose finishing school German is put to use translating decoded intelligence from German to English. And Beth is the shy village wallflower whose skill at crossword puzzles and patterns makes her a brilliant cryptanalyst, turning encrypted code traffic into readable military communications.

Q: What makes writing about broken friendships intriguing?

A: Friendship between women can be a complicated thing. Even without the reductive stereotype that women can’t be friends without catfights, women are expected to put family ties before friends. But for these three women, their friends are their family because they can’t tell anyone outside Bletchley Park about the top-secret war work they do. Yet even as they become closer than family, they are still bound above those ties by their oath of secrecy, and ultimately, it’s that oath — not romance or jealousy or any of the usual clichés — that strains their friendship to the breaking point.

Q: Why did you want to have a book club within your plot?

A: Mab, Osla and Beth come from completely different walks of life. They have almost nothing in common when they first meet, so I had to give them a way to connect outside of their work — which they can’t talk about anyway, because it’s too secret. I made these three very different women avid readers, and books are the way in which they initially bond. They rope a series of brilliant, eccentric codebreaker colleagues into it along with them.

Q: Who is your favorite historical person you incorporated as a cameo?

A: Prince Philip of Greece, in the days when he was just a dashing young officer in the British Navy rather than royal consort to Queen Elizabeth II. In the course of my research, I found out that Prince Philip’s long-term wartime girlfriend just happened to be a beautiful, vivacious ex-debutante named Osla who had been recruited to Bletchley Park as a translator! From that moment, I knew I had to include the two, and it was a lot of fun to explore the complex young man Philip was before he ever knew he’d be the Duke of Edinburgh.

Q: What was the bombe machine?

A: The British bombe was a decoding machine developed by the great Alan Turing who, before he became one of the great computer science minds of the 20th century, broke German naval codes in Hut 8 at Bletchley Park. He also appears in “The Rose Code” as a minor character, and I had great fun writing him. Turing was one of the early recruits, and he designed his machine using the Polish “bomba” — designed earlier by brilliant cryptologist Marian Rejewski — as a basis. The first British bombe machines were operating in Bletchley Park by 1940, helping to shorten the codebreaking process by discovering some of the daily settings on the Enigma machines that were used to encrypt Axis military traffic.

Q: What’s next?

A: My next book is tentatively titled “The Diamond Eye,” about the most famous female sniper in history: a Russian history student and single mother named Lyudmila Pavlichenko, who left graduate school to defend the Soviet Union when the Germans invaded during World War II, and whose tally of 309 earned her the nickname “Lady Death.” I can’t wait to see it in print!

The Rose Code” by Kate Quinn (William Morrow, 2021; 656 pages)

Adventures by the Book presents Kate Quinn

When: 11 a.m. March 27

Where: Virtually hosted by Adventures by the Book: “The Fab Four of Historical Fiction: Patti Callahan, Sadeqa Johnson, Martha Hall Kelly, Kate Quinn”

Tickets: Prices vary

Phone: (619) 300-2532


Warwick’s presents Kate Quinn

When: 11 a.m. April 24

Where: Virtually hosted by Warwick’s: Kate Quinn in Conversation with Kristin McMorris

Tickets: Free on Facebook; Prices vary for autographed book “The Rose Code”

Phone: (858) 454-0347


Denise Davidson is a freelance writer for The San Diego Union-Tribune.