Friday, July 25, 2014

Brush Up Your Vigenere

What affected me most profoundly was the realization that the sciences of cryptography and mathematics are very elegant, pure sciences. I found that the ends for which these pure sciences are used are less elegant. — James Sanborn
Knox College computer scientist John F. Dooley has helpfully compiled several pages about "Cryptology in Fiction," viewable (HERE). It should come as no surprise that many of the stories in his annotated bibliographical lists (several hundred all totaled) are of the detective fiction and mystery varieties.
Examples dealing with vintage mysteries:
Chambers, Robert W. 1906. The Tracer of Lost Persons. Hardcover. New York: Appleton and Company. 293 pgs. Mr. Keen, the Tracer of Lost Persons, solves a cipher that consists of rectangular symbols crossed with diagonals. The cipher turns out to be a monoalphabetic substitution where the symbols are crude representations of numbers. The numbers are mapped to letters using 1 = a, 2 = b, etc. to form the cipher system. Mr. Keen's solution allows him to unite two lovers.
Futrelle, Jacques. 1905. The Problem of Cell 13. Boston American, 1905. The Thinking Machine accepts a challenge to break out of a prison cell within a week. The story was originally published in the Boston American newspaper and later (in 1907) in the story collection "The Thinking Machine." The story contains a bit of steganography and a simple transposition cipher.
 -----1909. Elusive Isabel. Hardcover ed. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill. 273 pgs. The American Secret Service tries to break up a spy ring (really a plot by the Italian secret service). The novel contains messages in invisible ink (milk-based) and a cryptogram transmitted in Morse code (but the cryptogram is never deciphered in the novel), and also a mention of a "Secret Service code."
-----1910. Mystery of the Fatal Cipher. Hardcover. New York: Dodd, Mead and Company. The famous scientist and detective known as The Thinking Machine unravels the mystery of an inventor's apparent suicide. The suicide note is a cipher where each plaintext word is five words further on than the last. The story takes a couple of surprising twists.
. . . and more recent stories:
Keech, Scott. 1980. Ciphered. Hardcover. New York: Harper & Row. 253 pgs. The young and dedicated chief inspector of police in a university town has his work cut out for him when he finds himself in the middle of a murder case in which four of the five victims were German refugees - and one of them was engaged in secret biological research.
To make matters worse, ciphered messages suggesting spy activities are found near the scene of the crime. The cipher used is a Vigenere that uses an agenda for the key phrases. The plaintext messages were enciphered using the inspirational phrases on each page of the agenda as the key phrase. The ciphertext was then converted into numbers to further hide the meaning of the message.
Hall, Parnell. 2003. With This Puzzle, I Thee Kill. Hardcover. New York: Bantam Books. 322 pgs. A series of cryptograms warn The Puzzle Lady, Cora Felton, not to marry her latest beau. When the fiance is murdered, more messages uncover a drug smuggling ring. The messages are in a mixed alphabet monoalphabetic substitution and in a rectangular transposition cipher.
Kenner, Julie. 2005. The Givenchy Code. paperback. New York: Downtown Press. 351 pgs. Mathematician/historian Melanie Prescott is drawn into a real-live version of the online role-playing game "Play-Survive-Win." She's the target and an assassin, Lynx, is really trying to kill her on the streets of Manhattan. To win the game - and survive - Melanie has to evade Lynx and solve a series of coded messages to reach a final destination before she's killed. The messages include several puzzles, a pigpen cipher, an Enigma message, and a book cipher.

Category: Detective/mystery fiction (codes and ciphers)

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