Monday, March 8, 2010

Ciphers, Codes and Puzzles

Very often, part of the pleasure of reading a crime fiction novel is the intellectual challenge of figuring out the solution to the mystery. In some novels, the mystery isn’t who the criminal is, but what the motive is. In many novels, though, the intellectual puzzle is in finding out the criminal’s identity. Sometimes, the sleuth uses what you might call straightforward clues such as forensic evidence, checking into the victim’s background, interviewing suspects, and the like. Some criminals, though, don’t make it that easy. In some cases, the solution to a mystery lies in codes, ciphers and other puzzles that the sleuth (and the reader) solves. Those mysteries can be absorbing and intellectually engaging, and many readers like the challenge of “cracking the code.”

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes faces codes and other puzzles more than once. For example, in The Adventure of the Dancing Men, Holmes is approached by Hilton Cubitt, a squire who’s married an American, Elsie Patrick. Elsie has a mysterious past which she’s not willing to discuss, but Cubitt is content to let the past remain the past – until his wife begins to receive notes written in a mysterious hieroglyphic code. Elsie is frightened by the notes, but won’t confide in her husband, so Cubitt asks Holmes to find out who wrote the hieroglyphics and what the messages mean. When fresh messages are chalked on the window ledge of the Cubitt home, Cubitt takes rubbings of them and brings them to Holmes, who begins to try to decipher them. In the end, the messages are closely connected to Elsie’s shadowy past, which comes back, as the saying goes, to haunt her.

Agatha Christie’s novels don’t usually focus on codes, ciphers or other such puzzles. However, there’s one real exception in Manx Gold, a short story published in The Harlequin Tea Set and Other Stories. In that story, Fenella Mylecharane and Juan Faraker are engaged to be married. They hear of the death of their eccentric Uncle Myles, who lives on the Isle of Man, and go there to hear the reading of his will. The will reveals that their uncle found valuable buried treasure on the island, and provides that clues to that treasure will be given to Fenella and Juan as well as two other potential heirs. The first person to successfully decipher the clues will win the treasure. The next morning Juan and Fenella are given the first clue, as are their competitors, Dr. Fayll and Ewan Corjeag. Thus begins a race to find all of the clues and win the treasure. Agatha Christie was actually commissioned to write this story as a way to boost tourism on the Isle of Man. The story, published in installments and distributed to tourists, is a vehicle for cryptic clues to the location of four snuffboxes, each containing a Manx halfpenny with a hole through it, strung on a ribbon. The winner was to take the snuffboxes to the courthouse and claim a prize of 100 pounds. Interestingly enough, he final clues were never solved.

A coded message also figures in Christie’s The Clocks. In fact, it’s a coded message that sends Special Agent Colin Lamb to the town of Crowdean. He’s on the trail of a spy ring that another agent had begun to uncover. Unfortunately the other agent was killed before he was able to find out exactly who was behind the spying. He left a cryptic message that Lamb is trying to use to find the “brains” behind the spy ring. In the process of trying to decode the message, Colin Lamb meets a young woman who’s just found a dead man in a house she was visiting. That murder case leads Lamb to ask Hercule Poirot to investigate the murder. In fact, he challenges Poirot to do what he’s always said one should do: sit back in his chair and think, and solve the murder without leaving home.

Ellery Queen solves several mysteries that involve cryptic clues and symbols. One of them is the set of clues in The Origin of Evil. In that novel, Queen is visiting Hollywood on what’s supposed to be a writing vacation. Soon after his arrival, nineteen-year-old Lauren Hill asks him to help solve the mystery of the death of her father, Leander Hill. Hill died of a heart attack, but Lauren is convinced that his death was deliberately caused. She tells Queen that shortly before his death, her father had received the macabre present of a dead dog, with a warning that more was to come. She also tells Queen that her father’s business partner, Roger Priam, also received a “gift,” but that she doesn’t know what the gift is. Very reluctantly, Queen agrees to find out why Leander Hill died, and who might also be threatening Roger Priam. Queen receives no help from Priam himself, who wants Queen to stay out of the matter, nor from Priam’s wife, Delia. In fact, none of the people Queen meets in this story tells him the whole truth. So Queen has to rely on the set of cryptic packages and notes that Priam begins to receive. It’s only when he puts those clues together and “cracks the code” that he’s able to identify who’s responsible for Leander Hill’s death and for threatening Roger Priam.

We also see codes and ciphers in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, in which 14th Century Brother William of Baskerville and his assistant, Adso of Melk, travel to an Italian abbey to investigate rumors of heresy among the monks who live there. They’ve no sooner begun their investigation when some of the monks begin to die in symbolic ways. Now Brother William has to cope with a murder investigation as well as an investigation of heresy. He and Adso look deeper into what’s going on at the abbey, and find that the deaths are related to some of the major religious and political movements of the time. What’s fascinating about this novel is that Brother William uses logic and deductive reasoning to solve the case. That reasoning helps him “crack” several secret codes that lead him to the dark secrets that are hidden at the abbey.

Dan Brown also makes use of sometimes-complicated cryptic codes and symbols. For example, in The Da Vinci Code, Harvard historian Robert Langdon is summoned to the Louvre Museum in Paris to help solve the murder of curator Jacques Saunière. Around his body are cryptic symbols that lead to other clues and symbols, and Langdon and his companion, Sophie Neuveu, have to unravel the mystery of the symbols before they can find out who killed Saunière. The symbols that they find are all related to the ancient group, the Knights Templar, and the search for the Holy Grail that the Knights have been charged with guarding. Once the symbols and other cryptic clues are “decoded,” Langdon and Neuveu are able to find out not only who killed Saunière, but also what happened to the Holy Grail.

Brown uses codes and cryptic ciphers again in Angels and Demons. In that novel, Langdon is recruited to help solve the murder of respected physicist Leonardo Vetra. Vetra was found with a brand on his chest that’s a symbol of an old society, the Illuminati. This group was composed of scientists and other Enlightenment figures who opposed the Catholic Church’s rigid stand on dogma. Apparently, that group still exists, and has stolen antimatter from Vetra’s lab, in order to use it to blow up the Vatican. Langdon is now in a race against time as he tries to decode the cryptic symbols he finds before the damage is done.

Martin Edwards’ The Cipher Garden is also centered on a strange and cryptic code – the odd shape of the garden at the house that Oxford historian Daniel Kind has just taken. Kind and his girlfriend, Miranda, have taken a cottage near the village of Old Sawrey. Kind notices the unusual shape of his garden, and in trying to find out more about it, he contacts the landscaping firm that did work on the garden. That’s how he becomes involved in investigating the murder of Warren Howe, an unpleasant and abusive landscaper who worked for the firm. DCI Hannah Scarlett and her Cold Case Review team are also investigating Howe’s murder. What Kind and Scarlett find is that the garden’s shape is a kind of cipher. When Kind figures out what the cipher means, and how it connects to past events in the village, he’s able to help Scarlett and her team solve Howe’s murder.

Mystery novels that include ciphers, codes and other puzzles can be intellectually absorbing, and those puzzles add a layer of interest to the mystery. Of course, it can also be frustrating if the puzzle is too abstruse or not relevant to the plot. What’s your view? Do you enjoy the challenge of “cracking the code?” Which are your favorite novels that use ciphers, codes and other puzzles?

Oh, and the photo? That's a photo I took of the Rosetta Stone when I first saw it at the British Museum. For someone with a background as a linguist, that was quite a moment.


  1. Most of my mysteries are code based. I love code based ones. I want the extra challenge. If you want to try to crack the codes, they can be found on my blog...

  2. Ann,
    I agree with you; code-based stories strech one's mind and challenge one : ). Folks, please do visit Ann's terrific blog and check out her codes. It's very good mental exercise : ).

  3. Cracking a code can be fun, like Angels and Demons, although I didn't crack it until it was explained at the end.

    As a writer I do like to hide clues. That's about as close to a code as I can write.

    Stephen Tremp

  4. Stephen - I know *exactly* what you mean. When I hide clues in my own writing, I don't do it with codes or ciphers. I sometimes wish I could, but I'm not clever like that. I do enjoy trying to "outwit the author," though, and figure out codes, ciphers and puzzles when I read. That's not to say I'm successful all the time, of course... ;

  5. I am a bit of a sucker for books with puzzles and codes but they can't be too gimmicky (do not ask me what I thought of a book that involved a Sudoku champion as the protagonist in which sudoku was wedged into the plot with all the finesse of an elephant in a china shop). Recently I've enjoyed the two books published as audio only by the Thriller Writers Association - The Chopin Manuscript and The Copper Bracelet - both involved puzzly codes and both were lots of fun. Each chapter was written by a different author so it must have been difficult to keep code-related threads running sensibly but they managed to do it.

  6. Bernadette - I had to laugh at your description of that Sudoku book! Oh, that's *hysterical!* I know what you mean, too. Codes and ciphers are no different from anything else one puts in a novel; they have to fit naturally. Otherwise, the whole thing is ruined.

    Thanks for mentioning The Chopin Manuscript and The Copper Bracelet. The authors who contributed to those works are so talented, and do those puzzles quite well, so I'm not surprised you enjoyed them. I agree, too, that it takes real finesse to put a collaborative effort like that together so that it's seamless. Folks, Bernadette's excellent review of The Chopin Manuscript is here. Her equally-excellent review of The Copper Bracelet is here.

  7. Oh the mystery of it all. I feel very challenged as I read mysteries-and excited.

    Great post. Lots of helpful information to drink in.

  8. Journaling Woman - Thanks : ). You've got a point that mysteries and crime fiction novels that include codes, ciphers and puzzles add a level of, well, mystery, and challenge the reader. I think that's part of their appeal.

  9. Every mystery should be a cypher of sorts - find the clues and you solve the mystery - just as solving the code will reveal the message.

    i wish I was smart enough to invent codes of my own - but my non-mathematical mind is somewhat of a hinderance! While doing research for one of my Claudio Rossi books (yet to be written - well, I have the first 3 or so pages) I'm learning about the Enigma code. Dear heaven.

    Margot, if you've never read it, I highly, highly recommend Robert Harris's ENIGMA. It's a wonderful mystery set in Bletchley during the war.

  10. Elspeth - Thanks for the "heads up" about Enigma. I haven't read it, although I have heard of it. An exciting addition to my TBR list, methinks.

    You've got a good point, too, about the nature of a mystery novel. In a way, mystery novels really are ciphers in themselves. I like that perspective :).

    I know what you mean, too about creating codes. I can't do that, either; I just don't have that kind of a logical-mathematical brain, I suppose. Still, I have deep admiration for those who can do it well. I look forward to your Claudio Rossi series, Elspeth : ).

  11. I loved ciphers so much as a child that I often made my own and wrote code messages for myself for weeks. Afterwards I would put them away until I had forgotten what they were about so I could try to break them.

    But Margot, how could you forget Dorothy Sayers´ cipher? The one in "Have his Carcase".

    And I am sure you will say it was because you left it for me so I had something reasonably intelligent to say :D

  12. Dorte - I didn't know you loved ciphers so much! How interesting! I admire people like you who can do that.

    It's funny about Have His Carcase. Of course, there's a brilliant cipehr in that. I will confess that I forgot about that novel when I first posted this. Then, this morning, I remembered it (with shame, because it's such a good example). Then I was hoping you would post and save me : ). So yes, in a way, I saved it for you : ). But I have to admit to a forgetful moment, too. Aging is not for the weak-willed, so thank you for correcting my deplorable lapse.

  13. Edward D. Hoch wrote quite a few short stories based around codes and ciphers. And I suppose the start of it all was with Edgar Allan Poe.

  14. I've been there! To see the Rosetta stone, that is...and the wonderful Egyptian room, and the Grecian ruins. Love the Brit museum.

    I love reading about ciphers. My dad solves ciphers daily (cryptoquote). I'm, unfortunately, not so hot at them.


  15. Martin - Yes, I'd have to agree with you; it all did start with Poe, as so much in crime fiction did. Thanks, too, for mentioning Hoch. I'm so glad when folks like you add comments, because invariably, there are names and titles that elude me when I'm writing, but that I think of later. I appreciate that.

    Elizabeth - Isn't the British Museum wonderful? One of my real "moments" there - apart from the Rosetta Stone, of course - was when I saw the original handwritten lyrics that John Lennon wrote for the song Here, There and Everywhere. That was my husband's and my "special song" at our wedding...

    And about ciphers? I wish I were good at them, but I'm not, really, at all.

  16. Isn't it funny that you use The Adventure of the Dancing Men as an example here? I loved Sherlock Holmes as a young girl and remember vividly coming to that short story in the book and absolutely loving it. I think that story, more than any other, stimulated my life-long love of crime fiction. I love stories with codes and puzzles but, as Bernadette says, not if it is some artificial construct on the plot - I could think of some examples but won't mention them here.
    I love doing real-life crosswords, sudoku and other puzzles, too. Killer sudoku is my favourite.

  17. PS another funny thing, I really did not like The DaVinci Code, though I thought I might given the title. I really don't like that "ancient mystery" class of novels. On the other hand, I love and adore Harry Potter, the seven books are just full of puzzles and conundrums.

  18. Maxine - Oh, that is interesting that I'd have mentioned the story that really sparked your interest in crime fiction. For me, it was Doyle's The Red-Headed League. Maybe that's because of my own hair...

    I agree with you, too, that anything that's contrived - and that includes ciphers and codes - takes away from a plot. To me, the most important thing is a solid plot and good characters.

    I wish that I was good at sudoku. Mr. Confessions.... very much enjoys those puzzles and is quite skilled at them. I'll have to tell him about "killer Sudoku." As for me, I like word puzzles much better, no doubt because I can actually do them ; ).

    And as for the Harry Potter series? I would just love to see J.K. Rowling receive the Nobel Prize for Literature. Any one who can make millions of children love reading deserves whatever prizes and awards are offered. And the books are wonderful reads for adults, too.