Given the nature of my line of work, I think about puzzles a lot. But, as it turns out, even when I’m not thinking about puzzles, puzzles seem to find me anyway.
As followers of our Instagram account know, last night I was reading a collection of supernatural short stories, Dark Detectives, edited by Stephen Jones. Partway through a story titled “Vultures Gather,” I encountered the following passage:
That’s right, an encrypted passage smack dab in the middle of my supernatural mystery story!
As it turns out, our investigators uncover a message left behind by the deceased, indicating that he was murdered! Not only that, but he makes a cagey reference to one of my favorite horror movies in order to provide a method for both exposing and punishing his duplicitous attackers.
It all starts with a letter and two pieces of parchment with Greek lettering. The letter entrusts the paper and their secret contents to the two men, in case anything suspicious should happen. (Fortuitous!)
The investigators, with the help of two of their friend’s books — The Boy’s Book of General Knowledge and The Boy’s Book of Puzzles and Brain Teasers — try to crack it with a simple transposition code, meaning one letter or number represents another. This is the basis of standard cryptograms and many other crypto-puzzles.
[Leela tackling an alien code in Futurama.]
But this only yields gibberish. That is, until they remember something from the letter he left them: “The locks are my favorite books, the key is seven.”
The seventh letter is G, meaning that should be the starting letter of their transposition pattern.
Unraveling the encryption reveals some sinister-sounding magical incantations, which they put aside for the moment.
Then they turn their attention to the remaining bits of code in the letter: the strings (5,2,2,5) and 831214926142252425798. Assuming their friend would want these codes cracked quickly, they employ a simple alphanumeric cipher.
Now, alphanumerics can work several ways.
- Sometimes, the numbers coincide with those of a push-button telephone, meaning 5 can be J, K, or L.
- Other times, the numbers represent that letter’s position in the alphabet. A is 1, B is 2, Z is 26, etc.
- They can also be transposition codes, where each letter corresponds to a random number. This is the case in Codewords.
8312149261422524225798 uses the second style of alphanumeric code. So 8 would be H, 3 would be C…
Wait, that doesn’t work! Unless you remember that “the key is seven,” as mentioned above. Which means that G would be 1, H would be 2, etc.
So now, with some trial and error, 831214926142252425798 becomes 8/3/1/2/14/9/26/14/2/25/24/25/7/9/8, or NIGHTOFTHEDEMON. As it turns out, (5,2,2,5) is a hint to breaking up your answer into words, like the indicator of word length that follows a British-style crossword clue or cryptic crossword clue. This makes the answer NIGHT OF THE DEMON.
[Unfortunately, no one in the story seems to notice that THE is 3 letters, and the clue should’ve read (5,2,3,5). Oops.]
So, in the end, not only did I get a great supernatural detective story (with mystical revenge to boot!), I got a brief refresher on some of the most popular encryption styles employed by puzzlers today.
Not too shabby at all.
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