Welcome to the fifth installment of PuzzleNation Book Reviews!
All of the books discussed and/or reviewed in PNBR articles are either directly or indirectly related to the world of puzzling, and hopefully you’ll find something to tickle your literary fancy in this entry or the entries to come.
Let’s get started!
Our book review post this time around — our first nonfiction book review — features Margalit Fox’s work The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code.
When archaeologist Arthur Evans unearthed the first of hundreds of preserved tablets from a dig on the island of Crete, he had no idea he was unveiling a puzzle that would last for decades.
It has all the trappings of a classic mystery: an exotic setting, an uncrackable code, a cast of brilliant and curious people brought together to solve it, and a final, world-changing deductive leap to the finish. The Riddle of the Labyrinth is the story of how the conundrum of Linear B was resolved, framed by the life stories of the three people most responsible for conquering a 50-year mystery.
The Riddle of the Labyrinth is terrific, a perfect fusion of historical writing and investigative reporting that presents an incredible mental and deductive achievement as a slow-boil mystery, and by doing so, rewrites the established narrative to spread the credit around.
The writing is meticulous and painstakingly detailed, allowing the reader to truly understand, sometimes graphic by graphic, how each breakthrough in the solving process was made, and just how phenomenal the detective work involved truly was.
I’ve written about real-life examples of codecracking in the past, but they all pale in comparison to the enormity and complexity of what Alice Elizabeth Kober and Michael Ventris accomplished when they unraveled the riddle of Linear B.
It’s impressive in the extreme that Fox was able to make some high-level deduction and linguistic skill so easily understood by the average reader. Even fans of cryptograms and other codebreaking-style puzzles could learn a great deal from Kober’s techniques and Fox’s wonderfully thorough and easily-parsed step-by-step analysis.
By citing examples like The Dancing Men from the famous Sherlock Holmes story, Fox provides great shortcuts for the reader, removing none of the wonder of Kober and Ventris’ accomplishments while still clearing away so much potential confusion.
In short, this is science writing, history writing, and storytelling in top form. What a treat.
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