Secret Messages*

Codes and CiphersToday 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 EdwardsThe 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).


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy Sayers, Martin Edwards, Talmage Powell

38 responses to “Secret Messages*

  1. Ha, I did not know it was Turing’s birthday today! Thank you for this overview of codes and ciphers in crime fiction – very popular subject indeed. Where would we be without it in spy thrillers?

    • That’s true enough, Marina Sofia. I really couldn’t imagine a lot of spy thrillers without at least some sort of code playing a role. And I’ve always admired Turing and the work he did. What a mind!

  2. The Dancing Men is such a great story – as a child I used to love trying to decipher the messages for myself. Sadly now I know what they all say, so there’s not the same excitement. I love that there’s a “Dancing Men” font available though – maybe I’ll write my next review in it, and see how you all get on… 😉

    • 😆 I’d love to see that, FictionFan! I love …The Dancing Men, too. It’s a great story, and Conan Doyle used cryptic messages brilliantly in it, I think. As I recall, it was one of the first Holmes stories that I read, and it’s stayed with me. There is something about working out what the messages say, isn’t there?

  3. Oh I do love stories that feature ciphers and codes The Five Find Outers by Enid Blyton sparked an early love of this type of puzzle! However the Arthur Conan Doyle story you picked had me so frustrated when I tried to figure it out – I ended up having to read the rest to find the solution. I have the Cipher Garden on my TBR partly because of the title too and I’m really looking forward to reading it.

    • I’m so glad you mentioned Blyton’s work, Cleo! What a great example of stories that not only use codes and so on, but also got millions of young people interested in reading. What a legacy! As for The Cipher Garden, I do recommend it. Not only is it well-written, with interesting characters, but also, it links past and present in a fascinating mystery. And there’s the cipher, too, of course. If you get the chance to read it, I hope you’ll enjoy it.

  4. Tim

    Poe’s “The Gold Bug” is a classic, and it might be the (or among the) first of this type.

  5. Col

    I have a trip to Bletchley Park on the agenda in the next year or so – it’s only 5 miles up the road from me!
    I do like a delve into some espionage fiction every so often.

    • Oh, lucky you to live so close to Bletchley Park, Col! What a piece of history. And I know what you mean about espionage fiction. Every once in a while, a spy story can make for a terrific, taut read.

  6. Loved THE BLETCHLEY CIRCLE. Alas though the second season didn’t hold a candle to the first. Hard to top women helping to win a war.

  7. Interesting post, Margot. One of my favorites goes way back when to the early days of The Hardy Boys. I can’t recall the particular title right now, but Frank and Joe had to figure out the code to solve the mystery. Fun stuff!

    • Ah, the Hardy Boys! I know of plenty of young people who got their starts reading mysteries by reading those stories, Michael. And yes, codes were part of them.

  8. A couple of examples from classic writers, Margot – though quite different from each other.

    One of the main plot threads in Helen McCloy’s Panic has to do with efforts to crack a supposedly unbreakable cipher. Readers may learn more than they want to know about how to go about breaking that kind of code.

    Dorothy L. Sayers puts Harriet Vane and Lord Peter Wimsey through the very difficult task of decoding a common type of code known as a “Playfair square” in Have His Carcase.

    A completely different kind of code can be found in Arthur Upfield’s Bony mystery, Death of a Swagman. Bony decides to get involved in the case when he recognizes some apparently meaningless drawings (included in photos from a crime scene) which he recognizes as a kind of pictorial code which some of the itinerant workers known as swagmen would leave for other swagmen on the walls and doors of buildings and elsewhere.

    • Very glad, Les, that you mentioned both the Upfield and the Sayers. Both are excellent examples of the way codes and ciphers are used in classic crime fiction. There’s only so much room in any one post for examples, so I’m glad you filled in that gap. I confess I’ve heard of, but not read, the McCloy. But it sounds fascinating, and of course, it’s a great instance of ciphers in the genre. Thanks.

    • Anne H

      Helen McCloy has also written another book with a code in it, an even sneakier one in its way. The Impostor contains a message that has to be decoded, and this one decoded in its turn. The afterword to the book refers to Panic, which inspired this code puzzle. Incidentally, from memory The Impostor is also a much better novel than Panic which I’m nor inspired to re-read.

  9. Any time I hear codes mentioned, I think of the Navajo Code Talkers of World War II. And then there’s Morse Code, still actively practiced by ham radio operators (as well as voice transmissions) during disasters when modern communications are down or jammed. There’s a mystery I haven’t read yet by Marti Talbott called Seattle Quake 9.2 that features ham radio operators–maybe I should move it higher on the To Be Read list, especially since my husband and I are both hams (the radio kind).

    • Oh, I think it’s so interesting that you and your husband do ham radio, Pat! I’ve heard it can be really fun. If you do read the Talbott, I’ll be interested in what you think of it. And you are so right about the Navajo Code Talkers. They played a critical role during the war, and their experiences should be remembered.

  10. Margot, I’m familiar with Alan Turing’s work. However, I’d be interested in reading a biographical fiction revolving around the codebreaker’s life. Tom Clancy’s “The Hunt for Red October” has some fascinating code work as is the film “Crimson Tide” starring Gene Hackman and Denzel Washington. In fact, the final scene in the film is centered around coding and its frantic decipherment at the very last minute prevents a nuclear war between the two superpowers.

    • Both of those examples really show how important coding can be, Prashant. Thanks for suggesting them. And I think you have a great idea about a biofictional life of Turing. The Imagination Game was a nicely-done film, but it’d be interesting to read a novel, too.

  11. A fascinating post, Margot. Made me wonder about Tony Hillerman’s
    Leaphorn & Chee series.

  12. kathyd

    The Imitation Game about Alan Turing was fascinating, and well-acted by Benedict Cumberbatch. Unfortunately, after the war, the British government hounded and abused Turing because he was gay, resulting in his suicide. It took 50 years for the government to apologize.
    I found a website which listed 150 mysteries with mathematical plot points, including codes. If only one had the time to read these.
    Also, The Oxford Murders has a code but it’s the murderer’s, doesn’t have global significance.

    • I really thought The Imitation Game was quite well done, too, Kathy. And it is so sad what happened to Turing after the war. As to that website? I’m not surprised there are so many mysteries/rime novels with mathematical/code plot points. It’s a fascinating topic. As you say, though, there’s the little matter of making time to read them…

  13. kathyd

    I meant to add also that not only a group of women, as depicted in the excellent Bletchley Circle TV series, but thousands of women were at Bletchley. I’ve read that 8,000 women were there in all sorts of capacities.

  14. Margot: Your post brought to mind the trial judgment in the literary piracy case by the writers of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail against Dan Brown with regard to the DaVinci Code. He embedded a secret message in the judgment. I thought they were just typos.

  15. True life can sometimes be even more gripping than fiction. Andrew Hodges’s 1983 biography “Alan Turing: The Enigma” is an indispensable read. It’s beautifully written and inspired the stage play “Breaking the Code” (later a TV drama, both with Derek Jacobi as Turing) and in turn “The Imitation Game”.

    For secret message systems in crime fiction, though, sometimes simple is best. Simple and innocuous, so that it doesn’t shout out that it’s a code to be broken. I particularly enjoyed one such system used in Ian Rankin’s very early spy novel “Watchman”.

    One character in the book – no, I won’t spoil it by saying which one – leaves messages for another character by slipping into his living room and rearranging his record sleeves in a particular section of his vinyl collection (this was the Eighties, remember?) in a specific order, so that the first letter of the surnames of each artist in the first few albums spells out the message. Hence Miles Davis (D), Roy Orbison (O), Harry Nilsson (N) and Tchaicovsky (T) would spell out the word DONT, and so on…

    • Oh, that’s a really interesting system of sending coded messages, Mel! And it sounds like a good story, too. I’ve read Rankin, but not that particular novel. Now I’m intrigued! And as to Turing, thanks for the suggestion of a good biography. His work was indispensable, but his life itself was interesting. Nice to have a good resource.

  16. I visited Bletchley Park recently – it’s a wonderful bit of history, and fascinating, and educational, my whole group of family and friends of all ages had a great day out. We all had something to learn. Then we watched Imitation Game a few days later. I’m also a big fan of Robert Harris’s Enigma, set at Bletchley.
    There’s a Ruth Rendell standalone (or is it Vine?) with a cipher in it… can’t remember the name, it was more a novella AND…when I read it years ago I cracked the code as I was reading it, and reckoned there was a mistake in the working out. These days I’d be doing a blogpost on that….

    • Lucky you, Moira, to have visited Bletchley Park. I would love to, some time. And I’m glad you got the chance to see The Imitation Game. I think it’s a fantastic film. Oh, and thanks for mentioning Enigma, too. And as far as the Rendell/Vine story goes…hmm….trying to think. I first thought of House of Stairs, but I don’t think that counts as a novella. If you think of more information, let me know, will you?

  17. tracybham

    I have The Cipher Garden and that sounds very interesting, Margot, I will try to get it in before the end of the year.

    • I’m a fan of Martin Edwards’ work, and of this series, Tracy. I do encourage you to try that series at some point if you get the chance. In my opinion, it’s quite well done.

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