BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Codebreaker’s Secret’ by Sara Ackerman


“The Codebreaker’s Secret” has dual timelines. One takes place in the 1940s and the other in the 1960s. Isobel Cooper is a cryptanalyst during World War II. She works in Washington, D.C., trying to decipher encrypted Japanese messages. The job is tedious and stressful, but she enjoys the work. In 1965, Lu Freitas is a novice reporter for Sunset Magazine. Her editor sends her to Hawaii (her childhood home) to cover the grand opening of the Rockefellers’ newest posh resort.

After Isobel’s brother Walt’s plane is shot down during the attack on Pearl Harbor, she is at a loss because he was her best friend and only remaining family member. She wants to be transferred to Pearl Harbor so she can learn about Walt’s time in Hawaii and meet his best friend, Matteo Ruzzi.

After she is able to crack a particularly difficult code she is transferred to Pearl Harbor and assigned to a cottage with a roommate named Gloria. Gloria helps Isobel become sociable and eventually meet Matteo. Although she is not looking for romance, Isobel finds him irresistible. Gloria becomes involved with a serviceman whom Isobel thinks is not trustworthy. When Gloria does not return home from a weekend getaway with her boyfriend, she is thought to be a drowning victim. Isobel tries to convince the police to continue to investigate, but they insist the disappearance is not a crime.

The next storyline is 20 years later during the Vietnam war. The resort’s grand opening is an invitation-only event that includes celebrities and a few members of the press. Lu meets Joni Diaz, an up-and-coming musician, and the two become friends. She also meets her longtime idol, Ruzzi, who is now an acclaimed photojournalist living in Hawaii. Lu and Joni attend many parties together at the resort. They make plans to meet for a swim first thing in the morning. When Joni fails to show up on the beach, it is thought she overslept. But as the day progresses the police are called. When Join cannot be located, the police say it must have been a drowning. Lu insists Joni has been harmed, but the police refuse to investigate further.

After 20 years, could these two women’s disappearances be connected? Could both women have drowned? Why did the police refuse to thoroughly investigate?

The author creates an intense and suspenseful storyline. Her descriptions of Hawaii are so vivid, I could almost smell the plumeria.

The novel closely follows the history of the women in the cryptanalyst team. Around 10,000 worked with the U.S. Army and Navy as codebreakers. They worked on the Japanese navel code JN-25 and the cipher machine called Purple,  considered to be more complicated the German Enigma. In addition, they decoded many intercepted messages. The female codebreakers are considered to be one of the best kept secrets of World War II. These women continually broke the constantly changing codes. Their work provided intelligence to the U.S. military that helped keep troops out of danger and allowed the United States to be victorious.

Sara Ackerman is a USA Today best-selling author. She has written four prior novels. Born and raised in Hawaii, she studied journalism and later received graduate degrees in psychology and Chinese medicine. Learn more at

Cathy Lay Mayor grew up in Cullman and graduated from Cullman High School in 1976. She says when she writes book reviews, she tries to remember what Mrs. Gilbert taught her in 11th-grade English. She lived in Dothan for more than 30 years and is married with three adult children and six grandchildren. She retired to Panama City, but still calls Alabama home.