Today would have been the 104th birthday of British mathematician and computer pioneer Alan Turing. As you’ll know, among many other accomplishments, he played a crucial role in intercepting and deciphering Nazi coded messages. It’s estimated that he and the other members of the Bletchley Park team shortened World War II by several years.
To celebrate his birthday, I thought it might be interesting to take a look at a few of the ciphers and codes we’ve seen in crime fiction. You’ll notice that I don’t make reference to the many espionage thrillers in which codes are used: too easy. But even if you take that sort of book out of the equation, there’s plenty of coding used in the genre.
For instance, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Dancing Men, Sherlock Holmes gets a visit from Hilton Cubitt. He’s concerned about his American-born wife, Elsie. They’ve been happy together as a couple, but everything changed when she received a letter containing what looked like a child’s drawing of ‘stick people.’ She won’t explain what’s upset her so much, but she does say that it has to do with her past in Chicago. Other, equally cryptic, messages arrive, including some that are chalked onto one of the windowsills at the couple’s Norfolk home. Then one tragic night, Cubitt is shot and his wife badly injured. Holmes slowly decrypts the coded messages, and uses the code as a ‘bait’ to catch the killer.
In Dorothy Sayers’ The Nine Tailors, Lord Peter Wimsey and his valet/assistant Mervyn Bunter are stranded by a car accident in the small East Anglia village of Fenchurch St. Paul. While they wait for their car to be repaired, they stay with the local vicar, Theodore Venables. Their visit occurs during New Year’s Eve, the night of the traditional change-ringing at Venables’ church. One of the ringers has been taken ill, so Wimsey takes his place. The next day, word comes that Lady Thorpe, wife of the local squire, has died. Wimsey and Bunter stay on for her funeral, then go on their way when their car is fixed. A few months later, Wimsey gets a letter from Venables. It seems that Sir Henry has died, and there’s a mystery surrounding his death. When the gravediggers prepared the place next to that of Lady Thorpe, they found another corpse already there. Venables wants Wimsey to return to Fenchurch St. Paul to find out the truth about that ‘extra’ body. Wimsey agrees, and he and Bunter make the trip. He finds that the extra corpse is related to a robbery, some stolen jewels, and a mysterious cipher that’s found in the church’s bell tower.
Agatha Christie made use of ciphers and codes in more than one of her stories. In The Clocks, for example, British operative Colin Lamb is in the village of Crowdean, following up on a lead. A fellow operative named Hanbury has been killed, and Lamb wants to find out why and by whom. He knew that Hanbury was investigating an espionage ring, and he has only one clue to that ring: a cipher written on a piece of paper found in Hanbury’s pocket. Lamb happens to be on a street called Wilbraham Crescent when he gets drawn into a case of murder. A young woman named Sheila Webb has discovered the body of an unknown man in the sitting room of a house she was visiting. She gives the alarm and Lamb tries to help. The case is, on its surface, strange, so Lamb takes it to his father’s old friend Hercule Poirot. In the end, Poirot connects the dead man’s murder to two other deaths; in an odd way, it also connects with the case Lamb is working.
Horace Croyden, whom we meet in Talmage Powell’s short story To Avoid a Scandal, is an avid amateur cryptographer. His hobby of choice is working ciphers and he’s proud of his skill. As the story begins, Croyden’s life is going exactly the way he wants. He has a safe, very respectable job at a bank, and a well-ordered, quiet home life. Everything changes when he meets his boss’ cousin Althea. They begin to date and eventually marry, and that’s when the trouble begins. Althea turns out to be much more vivacious than her husband had thought (or hoped). What’s more, she begins to remodel their home with bright shades and modern furniture and décor – all of which Horace dislikes intensely. Then comes the proverbial straw: Althea discovers her husband’s beloved ciphers and burns them. She says she thought they were just useless scraps of paper. But to Horace, they were much more. It’s past the point of tolerance for him, and he takes drastic action because of it…
Of course, not all codes and ciphers have to be written on paper, or even electronic. In Martin Edwards’ The Cipher Garden, for instance, Oxford historian Daniel Kind discovers an unusual sort of cipher. He’s taken a cottage in the Lake District, and is setting it up the way he wants. He notices that the cottage’s garden is an unusual shape and, gradually, comes to see that it’s actually a cipher. As he’s slowly working out what it means, DCI Hannah Scarlett of the Cumbria Constabulary has a strange case of her own. Ten years earlier, landscaper Warren Howe was found murdered by his own scythe. At the time, his widow, Tina, was suspected of the crime. But the police couldn’t find enough evidence to pursue the case. Now, anonymous tips suggest that she really was guilty. So Scarlett and her Cold Case Review Team look into the matter again. As it turns out, that case is connected to Kind’s own mystery, and not just by the fact that Warren Howe worked for the company that created that garden.
Ciphers and codes have been embedded in crime fiction (and espionage fiction) for a very long time. And as Alan Turing’s work shows, they’ve been critical to real-life history, too. Which ‘coded’ stories have you enjoyed?
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of song by the Electric Light Orchestra (ELO).