PN Review: Crossword Mysteries: Proposing Murder

In January of 2018, it was announced that Hallmark Movies and Mysteries would be teaming up with Will Shortz of The New York Times Crossword to produce a mystery film with crosswords at the heart of the story.

On March 10th, 2019, Crossword Mysteries: A Puzzle to Die For debuted, introducing the puzzle world (and the mystery world) to crossword editor Tess Harper and detective Logan O’Connor, as the unlikely duo unraveled the murder of an art dealer with a crossword puzzle in his pocket.

During the final commercial break, three more Crossword Mysteries films were announced for October. (For reasons yet unexplained, that number has shrunk to two over the intervening months.)

This past Sunday, the second Crossword Mysteries film debuted on Hallmark Movies and Mysteries.

Its title? Proposing Murder.

I’ll recap the story below, and then give my thoughts on the whole endeavor. If you’d like to read my conclusions but skip the spoilers, scroll down to the next solid black line.

Ready? Okay, let’s do this!


FILM RECAP

The show opens with a lovely little introductory montage with the characters framed by crossword clues and grids. It’s a nice touch (and a sign that the network expects to continue with these).

An apartment door opens, and a young man picks up his newspaper, smiling at the crossword inside. He carefully sets it down with an elegant table setting for brunch, then answers a knock at the door. Everything goes white.

We cut to detective Logan O’Connor standing over the body.

A title card flashes on the screen:

FIVE DAYS EARLIER

Tess chats with her assistant Josephine about Josephine’s cousin, a new intern at the paper. She then bumps into Detective O’Connor for a lovely little meet-awkward. It’s been two months since they’ve seen each other.

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Logan is running around doing errands for his sister’s wedding. The sister, Angela, is also there, immediately making things more awkward, and asking if Tess can get a photo of the couple into the paper (alongside the usual wedding announcement). Tess makes no promises, but says she’ll see what she can do.

She then shares weird wedding trivia with Logan, and he and his sister leave. Oh, puzzle people and their trivia. (That part’s actually true.)

Tess meets the intern, who is (of course) a huge fan of her puzzle. He will be helping with research, apparently. Tess then solicits help for her puzzle, looking for a romantic 9-letter word, second letter H. Her assistant suggests CHRISTMAS (which simply has to be a tongue-in-cheek reference to Hallmark’s never-ending barrage of Christmas programming).

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Also, it must be stated, nobody actually constructs puzzles this way.

Tess’s puzzlesmithing is then interrupted by a call from a Professor Clark.

We cut to her and Professor Lyle Clark, who it turns out is the victim we saw in the opening sequence. Oh Tess, is every casual acquaintance of yours bound to be murdered? We can only hope.

He’s using one of her crosswords as a bookmark. She comments on that. This is in no way an important detail for later.

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Lyle brings Tess (and the audience up to speed): he’s a college professor, he’s got tenure now, and he has a knack for codes. (Tess namedrops Navajo codetalkers and World War II ciphers.) He’s also reading a book on the Beale papers.

Lyle talks about the big distraction in his life — his girlfriend Abby — and it turns out Tess’s crossword is not only solved by every human being on the planet, but it’s also a romantic talisman. You see, Lyle and Abby were both solving Tess’s puzzle, and that’s how they met. They do her puzzle together over brunch every Sunday. Awww.

He’s going to propose to Abby, showing off a massive diamond ring, and he asks Tess to hide his marriage proposal to Abby in her upcoming puzzle. Tess happily agrees.

We cut back to her working on the puzzle and explaining the concept to the new intern. She clues ABBY “Free with her advice” (which is terrible cluing) and the word WILL “Shakespeare, to friends,” and “Words that have a nice ring to them” for MARRY ME. The idea is to spell out ABBY, WILL YOU MARRY ME?

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[It’s so romantic. “LOAM ABBY WILL YOU VINYL CONTENTMENT.”]

FIVE DAYS LATER

Back at the murder scene, the Chief arrives, avoiding wedding planning with a convenient murder. (The Chief is also Logan’s father, for those who didn’t see the first Crossword Mysteries film.)

The victim has been stabbed. There’s no surveillance footage, no sign of the murder weapon, and no sign of forced entry. His girlfriend Abby found him, unfortunately.

We also meet Logan’s new partner, detective Winston Sams. He calls him “Rookie” and “Rook” because he’s charmingly condescending, I suppose. Winston notices one of the chef’s knives from the block is missing. Logan has him check the victim’s financials while he heads down to the hospital to question Abby.

At the hospital, Logan chats with the obviously upset Abby.

She hadn’t seen Lyle since the night before at a faculty party. She was going to meet him for brunch to solve the crossword. She found the door open and his body on the floor. Abby mentions that Lyle has been getting threats in the mail for months. (He said they were from his ex-girlfriend Bethany.) He always threw them the threatening notes away, but Abby kept one, which she promises to give Logan.

She also mentions a Professor Emory who was arguing with Lyle at the faculty party the night before. Lyle beat him out for tenure the previous month.

Back at the police station, the plot… well, doesn’t thicken. Simmers? Let’s go with the plot simmers.

The girlfriend’s alibi checked out. There was apparently a struggle between the victim and the killer, but the tip of the knife was embedded in his body. They’re waiting on more details from forensics.

Logan’s partner finds a note with the initials TH and a phone number in the victim’s wallet. He calls it, and surprise surprise, it’s Tess who answers.

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She mentions the ring, but Logan says they didn’t find the ring at the crime scene. They all note how expensive the ring would’ve been for a college professor. Logan also recalls that Abby said the victim had been looking at property in Connecticut, which would be costly. But the victim’s record seems clean, save for a single parking ticket.

Tess confirms his sister’s photo will be in the paper before she hangs up. Logan and Winston discuss the ex-girlfriend, a surgeon, who is on the suspect list.

Cut to Tess and Aunt Candace (who knows simply EVERYBODY who’s ANYBODY) walking the streets of New York. Tess mentions that Lyle told her he hadn’t been researching anything lately, and ponders whether Lyle had a secret that cost him his life.

COMMERCIAL BREAK!

We get an ad for next week’s new edition of Crossword Mysteries. It’s titled Abracadaver. We cross our fingers for a David Kwong cameo.

COMMERCIAL BREAK CONTINUES!

Logan is talking to the victim’s mother. She talks about her childhood in Connecticut and how she wanted that idyllic life for Lyle. His grandfather was a World War II codebreaker, which sparked Lyle’s interest in the field of codes and ciphers. After she mentions Lyle always rooting around in the basement, Logan heads down there himself. He shines the light at the camera A LOT, which is atmospheric, yet annoying. He takes a picture of a military uniform hanging up in the corner.

Tess, meanwhile, is reading an article Lyle wrote about WWII operational codenames like Neptune. (Surprisingly, she doesn’t make the crossword connection there.) Her assistant reminds her that the Sunday puzzle is due, because Tess always has to be reminded to do her job. She decides to make it World War II-themed as a tribute to her friend, then heads off to do some research.

Tess heads to the library at Lyle’s college to look up his research on codebreaking. Along the way, she meets Clayton, who worked with him and helped with his research. He immediately identifies her as the famous crossword editor, because in this universe, “crossword editor” is just below “rock star” in terms of familiarity and name-recognition.

The assistant mentions that Lyle had just driven back from Connecticut before the faculty party. He had gone up there a lot recently, interviewing WWII vets. (He was also lying about his teaching schedule, only teaching one class instead of the many Tess thought.) The dude acts suspiciously, and the lights ominously click on and off behind them, thanks to motion sensors.

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Logan and his plot-exposition-device of a partner talk, confirming that there’s no record of a ring purchase in the victim’s bank account. No unexpected DNA or prints at the murder scene either.

Logan and Tess then have one of their classic meet-randomly-in-the-same-place run-ins. He asks her for a 7-letter word for “going where one shouldn’t”. She offers INTRUDE — which is not the same verb tense, COME ON, TESS — and they banter about his crossword skills. He tries to usher her off-campus, but she dangles the information she got from Lyle’s TA, and Logan folds like a pamphlet.

Tess mentions Lyle’s secret trip to Connecticut, and explains that he had a form of night blindness that made driving at night dangerous. He then shares that Abby said Lyle had been going to Connecticut on house-hunting excursions. She also mentions the scheduling lie.

Finally managing to send Tess on her way, Logan then gives her the exasperated “oh, her” double take as she walks off.

COMMERCIAL BREAK!

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On campus, Logan sits in on a college class. Christina Blake is the guest lecturer, an expert on antique books, and Logan talks to Professor Emory Nelson, who acts like the argument he and Lyle had at the faculty party was just animated debate. He offers an alibi for the time of the murder, a pancake breakfast covered in the school newspaper.

Logan then returns to the crime scene, noticing a can of beef stew in the cabinet and realizing that Lyle claimed he was a vegan. (Though he said that to Tess. I don’t recall her telling Logan this.) Inside the can is the wedding ring and a folded note, containing a series of numbers and dashes. It is quite obviously an encoded message.

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(Naturally, if I was trying to hide something from my vegan girlfriend, the fake can of beef stew in the front of the kitchen cabinet would be my first choice for a hiding spot.)

Back at the police station, Logan has Tess confirm that the ring is the same one Lyle showed her. The chief then suggests Logan show her the mysterious page of numbers. Logan thinks they’re bank account numbers, but Tess thinks it’s a code, because she’s not an idiot. When Logan tells her she can’t have a copy of the numbers, she tries to memorize them in front of him, before he folds like a lawn chair and gets her a copy of the codes.

At the hospital, Logan tries to talk to Bethany, the surgeon ex-girlfriend. She’s abrupt and bitter about moving to NY for Lyle, then getting dumped, and casually, bitterly mentions that Lyle was engaged just a year later. Logan points out that the proposal-to-be wasn’t common knowledge, and she replies that he proposed in the crossword. (You know, the crossword everyone knows about. Duh.)

The farm in Connecticut comes up again before she leaves. After she walks off, Logan manages to nab her water bottle. Detective work.

COMMERCIAL BREAK!

Tess has the intern researching high-end ceramic knives (like the one Logan’s partner accidentally mentioned), and he points out they’re used by chefs and scuba divers.

I immediately get my hopes up for an underwater knife fight scene.

I will be disappointed.

Logan and Tess bump into each other again at the jeweler’s. She drops more wedding trivia on him and then pretends they’re an item as they talk to a store employee. Logan confirms Lyle’s ring wasn’t purchased there. The jewelry store employee says that the diamond in Lyle’s ring is older, probably a museum piece. Then Tess tries to extort a diamond stickpin out of Logan. Hilarity!

Back at the paper, Tess has the intern working on the page of codes — though he’s comparing them to social security numbers and other numbers, instead of looking at them as an encoded message — and Tess remembers that Lyle was carrying a book about the Beale papers. They quickly namedrop the concept of book ciphers.

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At the police station, Tess explains book ciphers to Logan and the chief (and the audience). Angela, the sister, shows up (she and the chief have to practice for the father-daughter dance) and the sister not-so-subtly mentions Logan is dateless for the wedding.

At the college library, Tess tries to get the librarian to tell her what books Lyle had been taking out, but the librarian rightly points out that such information is private. Tess responds by stealing a staff member access card and sneaking into a restricted area, getting a look at Lyle’s last three checkouts, all books on Enigma and WWII codes.

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Back in the ominous stacks, Tess is book-hunting, looking for a clue by rifling through pages, and finds a receipt pointing to Heirloom Books for a book costing $300. (Ah, the “anything as a bookmark” comment from earlier comes home to roost.)

She calls Logan and leaves a voicemail explaining what she’s found, then spots Lyle’s TA and his girlfriend Abby together at a picnic table. She takes a picture before leaving.

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COMMERCIAL BREAK!

At Heirloom Books, Tess tries to find another copy of the book Lyle purchased, a collection of children’s stories. Christina, the guest lecturer from earlier, also owns the bookstore; Tess gives her a business card, asking to be contacted when Christina finds a copy of the book, and then she mentions how much work doing the crossword for The Sentinel is.

Seriously, Tess? You are NEVER there. I’m going to ask Will Shortz, Evan Birnholz, Mike Shenk, David Steinberg, Patti Varol, and Rich Norris how much free time they have to solve murders.

At the police station, Logan discusses the photo of Abby and Clayton that Tess sent him, and Detective Winston says Bethany called Lyle five times the day of the murder. He also mentions that Lyle’s mother, who had been facing foreclosure, suddenly had her mortgage paid off.

Tess arrives, having partially decoded the page of numbers using pages of the children’s book she was able to find online. (Conveniently, she gets words like JEWELS and BURIED, instead of lots of THE, AND, and -ING suffixes.)

It’s a letter from Lyle’s grandfather about caches of jewelry buried around the old farm in Connecticut. Logan sincerely tells her she did a good job on the codebreaking, then they have another petty back-and-forth about her taking a picture of Lyle’s grandfather’s uniform before Logan folds like a cheap suit.

Tess walks with Aunt Candace, who of course is attending Angela’s wedding (because she knows EVERYBODY) and mentions Logan’s datelessness. Tess doubts Lyle’s girlfriend, and makes a plan to surveil Abby. Aunt Candace points out she’s putting herself in harm’s way. So Tess ropes Aunt Candace into joining her.

I was right. Tess will be the death of everyone around her.

COMMERCIAL BREAK!

At Heirloom Books, Christina explains that Lyle had been throwing her odd jobs over the years, helping her cover the costs of maintaining the bookstore. She mentions that Lyle told her about the threatening notes he believed were from his ex, and then says she was working at the bookstore at the time of the murder.

Tess and the intern determine that the Fighting Badgers — the group represented by the patch on the grandfather’s uniform — were stationed near a castle in Europe where a bunch of jewels went missing. Logan is planning to go up there, and Tess wants to go. Logan rightly asks if she has work to do, and she promises to do it in the car during the ride up to Connecticut. Logan folds like an origami swan.

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We then get our Will Shortz sighting, as Tess asks for a clue for GOLD, and policeman Will offers “what some hearts are made of”.

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(She apparently doesn’t recognize him from their table tennis-centric meeting in the first film. This raises the question of whether he’s the same character or not. If not, then I look forward to another random Stan Lee-like cameo next week. If he is the same character, why didn’t Logan recognize him as another cop from the same precinct in the first film?)

During the ride up to CT, she helps Logan with his toast. They talk weddings and Tess’s farmgirl past. It’s a nice moment in a series where cutesy antagonism usually runs roughshod over the character beats.

At the old farmhouse, the current owner mentions chasing off two men who were digging a hole. He mentions the barley in the field, which sticks tenaciously to Logan’s clothes. (Hello, second bit of important detail!) When Logan shows him pictures of suspects, he confirms that it was Lyle and his TA Clayton digging the hole, but mentions that someone else had been snooping around the farm as well.

Back in NY, as Logan is dropping Tess off, she gets a call from someone about the children’s book. At the police station, the chief tells Logan that forensics found DNA on the envelope the threat was sent in.

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The chief notices that Logan didn’t go to Connecticut alone, and then mentions Logan’s datelessness for the wedding. Logan and his partner ponder how Lyle would’ve fenced the jewels if he found them.

Tess is back on the college campus, passing a film crew as she heads for the library. But the librarian can’t find the book; she clearly wasn’t the one who called Tess.

Tess goes hunting in the stacks for the book anyway, because we were promised ominous stacks and they are going to give us ominous stacks.

As Tess book-hunts, she hears someone stalking around, and the assailant keeps pushing books at her from the other side of the shelves. Panicked, she runs around the shelves lost, and narrowly avoids getting an entire bookcase dumped on her.

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COMMERCIAL BREAK!

Logan is with Tess at the university, admonishing her for getting involved in the murder case, before begrudgingly confirming that a burner phone was used to call her. They don’t know who tried to scare/hurt her.

At the station, Winston has an idea about how Lyle fenced some of the jewels. A parking ticket points toward a jeweler in Long Island, but the obviously shifty fellow claims he didn’t buy anything from Lyle.

At one of Abby’s cooking classes, Tess and Aunt Candace are taking notes. As Tess and Abby chat — and the crossword comes up, of course — Abby mentions she hadn’t left the house since Lyle’s death (which is a lie, the photo Tess took of Abby and Clayton proves that). Tess uses her aunt as a distraction to bag one of Abby’s knives and hide it in her purse. Given that it was the knife Abby had JUST been using, there’s obviously no way she’d notice it was missing. Tess is a mastermind.

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Tess brings the knife to Logan, who is understandably furious that Tess endangered herself AND potentially contaminated evidence. Winston interrupts, mentioning wire transfers involving an account that traces to Abby AND Clayton, as well as the suspicious jeweler Logan talked to. The wire transfer that paid off Lyle’s mom’s house was probably made in exchange for the jewels. (Meaning that the jeweler technically didn’t lie to Logan about buying the jewels.)

At Lyle’s campus office, Tess adds flowers to an ever-growing pile of notes and offerings, before bumping into Bethany. They talk about Lyle’s love of puzzles. Bethany’s first likable moment as a character is immediately undercut by her assertion that puzzles are for kids and triathlons are for adults.

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Logan talks to Clayton at Lyle’s mom’s house, where the TA is helping load boxes into the moving truck. Logan mentions that Clayton was working during Tess’s attack, but he claims he snuck off for a workout. Logan points out how the meeting with Abby and the trips to CT with Lyle make him look pretty guilty, but Clayton claims he owes his life to Lyle, because Lyle gave him a chance after Clayton made some youthful mistakes.

Clayton mentions the book cipher and the diamonds they dug up, but that there’s a larger cache out there worth millions. He swears that Lyle only wanted a small cut of the jewels, and made Clayton promise to return the rest to the original owners, a European family.

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Clayton explains that he set up the Cayman Islands account with the first cache of jewels they found, and he was meeting with Abby after Lyle’s death to tell her about the money, but she didn’t want it. Lyle thought something might happen to him, because he spotted someone else up at the farm, looking for the jewels.

As he leaves Clayton at the house, he gets a call from Winston, confirming that Bethany’s DNA was on the envelope containing the threats to Lyle.

Back in the city, Logan and Tess talk about Clayton. He also mentions that Abby’s knife doesn’t match the murder weapon. He then runs off after a call, saying there’s been a break in the case.

COMMERCIAL BREAK!

The murder weapon has been found by a jogger, on a jogging trail that Bethany favors. All the evidence points to her.

Logan then makes a stop at the university, asking about film crew permits. Tess, meanwhile, talks to Lyle’s mom. She gets a text that Christina finally has a copy of the children’s book at Heirloom Books, and Tess asks about it. The book, it turns out, was her favorite. That’s why Lyle’s grandfather chose it.

At the police station, Logan tells Winston that Bethany confessed to sending the threats, but not to the murder. He also has the film crew’s footage from that night, and as Tess passes through the frame, she’s being closely followed… by Professor Emory.

Logan meets with Emory, who brushes off Logan’s conjecture and lack of hard evidence, and as Logan leaves, he sees a picture of Emory with Bethany and Christina. Meanwhile, Tess meets with Christina to pick up her book, and Christina shows her a copy of the first crossword puzzle, the word-cross created by Arthur Wynne. It looks like a pristine page copy of the actual printing of The New York World from December 21, 1913.

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As Christina heads off to grab her book, Tess notices barley stuck to a coat on Christina’s coat rack. GASP! She’s been at the farm.

Tess heads toward the door of the shop, and finds it locked. Christina pulls a box cutter on her. Logan has Winston looking up info on Christina, while Tess confirms that Christina has had the book all along.

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Christina is furious that she’d known Lyle all these years, but he didn’t let her in on the secret of the jewels. Between Lyle getting the book from her and asking Emory about unsolved crimes from World War II, she put it together pretty quickly. On the day of the murder, she confronted Lyle about the jewels, but he claimed he was just trying to return them to the rightful owners.

As she backs Tess away from the door with the box cutter, she talks about killing him with one of Abby’s knives and then searching the apartment. But she only found the book, not the cipher. (She took the knife with her in order to frame Bethany.)

She saw the cipher in Tess’s purse earlier and demands it from her, taking her purse and dumping its contents on the floor. She grabs the cipher and locks Tess in the freezer.

FINAL COMMERCIAL BREAK!

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Trapped in the freezer, Tess tries in vain to break the glass with one of the books on the shelves.

Winston confirms that Bethany and Christina were roommates in college, and Logan realizes that Tess was probably on her way to Christina’s bookstore. He heads there himself.

Tess tries her keys on the glass and fails, before remembering the diamond stickpin that she conned Logan into buying for her aunt. She breaks the glass with the diamond and escapes the freezer, just in time for Logan to arrive. Yes, Tess has saved herself, which is a nice change from the previous mystery.

Christina has a 20-minute head start on them, and Logan heads off to catch her. Winston finds out details about her car, and they put out an APB. She’s nabbed fairly quickly. Once Logan arrives, he charges her with the crime, and he asks why she attacked Tess in the library. She says it was Emory’s idea.

Back at the station, Tess and Logan talk about Christina and Emory’s plot. And he finally asks her to be his date to his sister’s wedding.

Cut to the wedding, for much clapping and frivolity, and the chief dancing with Aunt Candace. You sly dog, chief. Logan dances with Tess and there is lots of twirling. He asks if she knows the foxtrot, and she says it’s just like a crossword, “2 down, 1 across.”

And, naturally, the camera drifts upward to reveal the dance floor is a checkerboard… very reminiscent of a crossword grid.

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The end.


CONCLUSION

I know, I know, we never find out if the rest of the jewels are dug up or if that castle-dwelling European family got their jewelry back. We also don’t find out why a book of children’s stories is 440 pages long (according to one of the codes). But other than that, how was the movie?

All in all, I thought the plot was a slight step down from the previous entry in the series. The crime (and how the main puzzle tied into it) was certainly more realistic than the robbery-plans-through-crosswords plot of the first installment.

Both were competently assembled mysteries with lots of small, important details that get followed up on, but the relative dearth of suspects and the nature of the puzzle as the heart of the mystery just felt a little lacking.

And I don’t mean Tess’s proposal puzzle. Which… oof.

I mean, we’re beaten over the head with the fact that the guy was a codebreaking expert. So why is Tess’s intern not researching types of codes? (Also, does he know what a social security number is? They follow a pretty specific pattern that does NOT match the list of codes on the paper.)

I did enjoy that one crime — the murder of Lyle — leads to Tess committing seemingly dozens of crimes. Trespassing, stealing, breaking and entering, coercing a police officer, damaging private property, whatever it’s called when you damage antique books… not to mention neglecting her duties as crossword editor.

Nonetheless, this was a fun watch. It’s ridiculous and cheesy in all the best ways, jam-packed with over-the-top generalizations, and coincidences pile up like unfinished puzzles on Tess’s desk. (Yes, there was the obsessive ex-girlfriend, which is a trope we could all do without, but that filled our Crossword Mysteries quota of cartoonishly obvious red herring suspects.)

Tess remains immensely likable, despite her criminal nature. The detective, meanwhile, grew on me quite a bit. Yes, his constant efforts to keep Tess away from the case seem more and more labored over time, but hopefully that’s all over. Also, I think he laughed more in the last five or ten minutes of the episode than he did in the entire previous installment.

And, of course, John Kapelos shined as the police chief and father figure of the film, funny and distracting in equal measure. Though, sadly, there were no baked goods to be stolen in this one.

It’s light, frothy, slightly murdery fun. No harm in that. (Unless you’re one of Tess’s friends, that is.)

Did you watch the film? What did you think? Will you be watching Abracadaver next weekend? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you.


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Alan Turing Will Be on the New £50 Note Soon!

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When it comes to influential puzzlers, it’s hard to top the impact mathematician and codebreaker Alan Turing had on the world.

Admittedly, there are numerous names — too numerous to mention, really — associated with the ENIGMA project and Bletchley Park’s codebreaking efforts in general that deserve recognition. World War II was shortened by YEARS by the work of the folks at Bletchley Park, and Alan Turing was a pivotal figure in the war effort.

And he has been selected as the face of the new £50 note for British currency.

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[Image courtesy of the BBC.]

The Bank of England received over 227,000 suggestions of British scientists to appear on the new version of the note, and Turing was selected from the shortlist of 12 official nominees, a list that included Rosalind Franklin, James Clerk Maxwell, Dorothy Hodgkin, Mary Anning, Paul Dirac, Srinivasa Ramanujan, and Stephen Hawking, as well as pairs like Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage and William and Caroline Herschel.

Naturally the Queen will still appear on the front of the note, and Turing on the reverse side, replacing former note design figures as James Watt, Matthew Boulton, and Christopher Wren.

But the elevation of Alan Turing isn’t just a victory for a historical figure or a puzzling icon, it’s one for the LGBTQ+ community as well. Because of his sexuality, Turing was forced out of his work at the GCHQ — Britain’s governmental codebreaking operation — and driven to suicide by government persecution and abuse.

After a campaign led by numerous British luminaries like Richard Dawkins, Stephen Fry, and Peter Tachell, an apology was issued by then prime minister Gordon Brown in 2009. A posthumous pardon by the Queen in 2013 followed.

These acts don’t undo the crimes of the past. But they are a symbolic promise for the future that anyone like Turing — no matter their historical importance, social status, or personal choices — will not endure the same horrors that he did.

Nearly 70 years after he and his colleagues helped bring an end to World War II, Turing will continue to inspire and impact the world as a face on the £50 note. That’s something to celebrate.


For more details on this announcement, please check out this article from Pink News. For more information on Turing’s work and Bletchley Park in general, you can check out a previous PN Blog post here. And for the American equivalent of Bletchley Park — Arlington Hall — you can click here.

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A Video Game Puzzle Hunt Reaps Real-World Rewards!

We’ve written about some pretty amazing and elaborate puzzle hunts here in the past. There was the Gravity Falls cipher hunt that led to an actual statue of the show’s villain Bill Cipher in the woods of Reedsport, Oregon. (And a mayoral position for the first person to find him and shake his hand!) There was the puzzle-turned-global-scavenger hunt from Trials Evolution that won’t be completed until 2113 at the base of the Eiffel Tower.

And now, a massive crowdsourcing effort has cracked another masterpiece, a puzzle hidden in an expansion pack for the video game Destiny 2. Destiny 2 is an online first-person-shooter loaded with sci-fi trappings and in-depth storytelling where players explore a shared environment while engaging in their own personal plot and adventures.

The most recent expansion to the game, Warmind, was released last week, and players noticed an elaborate symbol on a wall in the bunker of Rasputin, a sentient robot. The symbol appeared to be a lock surrounded by keys and curious symbols.

This Kotaku post went live on Friday, three days after the Warmind release, revealing the incredible online effort already in motion to unravel the secrets of the Rasputin puzzle. The subreddit r/raidsecrets was ground zero for the puzzle-solving efforts, and players compiled their theories and discoveries there.

Players quickly determined that each of the keys had a symbol that linked back to other imagery from the game, and by following those breadcrumbs, they had a chance to crack the cipher.

The first symbol was found in several places, each time with a set of digits and a bar in a particular position. Solvers theorized that these symbols represented the word “reverse.”

The second symbol appeared beside a Braille grid, leading hunters to crates with Braille lettering on them: OEAARRTFWTH. This anagrams to The Art of War, Sun Tzu’s famous tome. In this case, The Art of War was used as the source material for an Ottendorf Cipher. (That particular cipher was made famous by Nicolas Cage’s National Treasure movies.)

This type of cipher uses numbers in groups of three, and these numbers correspond to positions of letters in a book. Most often the numbers refer to Line, Word, and Letter. Decoding the number-combinations in the image above led to the answer “Destroy all second A and B. Then destroy all third C and R.”

These two clues were assumed to be instructions for what to do with the encoded ciphertext others had discovered in the game:

This encrypted message was the heart of the puzzle. But there was more to uncover first.

As it turns out, the last three keys in the image represented different words to apply to the ciphertext in order to properly decode it.

The fourth symbol was found near a Morse Code sequence that spelled out “NTEHNMLNEEGIT,” an anagram for “Enlightenment.”

The fifth symbol pointed toward a monitor with some peculiar code on it. It turns out the code was actually Jianpu, an ancient form of Chinese notation for writing music. When translated into actual music, a player identified the piece as an excerpt from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake.

One intrepid codebreaker then tried to decrypt the ciphertext given the clues everyone had assembled thus far.

He reversed the ciphertext, according to the instruction of the first key. He then removed every other A and every other B from the text, then every third C and every third R, according to the instructions of the second key.

Then, employing a Vigenere cipher, he used the two key words he had — “enlightenment” and “swan lake” — to begin decrypting the text. He managed to decrypt the entire text, but more incredibly, he also reverse engineered the missing third key word — “mechanized” — while doing so.

And what was the final message, after all this?

thank you for taking the time to piece together this message, friend. the time of our final conflict is drawing closer and you and ana have an important role to play in the events to come. so watch over her, guardian. i would have no life without ana or the exoprogram. i regret that we have become strangers, but we each have a path that we must walk. and, ironically, there never seems to be enough time. tell her, rasputin’s first attempt was in the right location, but the wrong moment. look here: 43.549573, -73.544868 – e

As you might suspect, those numbers at the end are GPS coordinates, which correspond to Sleeping Beauty Mountain in upstate New York. (The company that developed Warmind, Vicarious Visions, is based in upstate New York.)

A small treasure trove of prizes awaited the brave soul who trekked out to Sleeping Beauty Mountain on Saturday morning. The centerpiece was a giant spear, a replica of a weapon from the game known as the Valkyrie.

From the Kotaku article following up on the puzzle’s resolution:

There was also a box of gold coins (along with instructions asking the finder to only take one), a set of notes, and a journal for recording visitors. The note, from Warmind design lead Rob Gallerani, encouraged the finder(s) to share photos of this discovery and told them that there are only three spears like that in existence — one at Vicarious Visions, one at Bungie, and this.

The spear, shown above (alongside the visiting team from Vicarious Visions) now resides at a comic shop called The Freakopolis Geekery.

As for the gold coins and the geocache Vicarious Visions had set up for others who make the trip, unfortunately, park rangers removed it because the designers didn’t get a permit. The coins have been returned to Vicarious Visions, who are currently reaching out to all the folks at r/raidsecrets who contributed to the solution of the puzzle, hoping to get them the coins they so richly deserve.

And, as if all that wasn’t amazing enough, it turns out… this might not be the end of the adventure.

Because a sharp-eyed observer noticed some text embossed on the upper portion of the replica Valkyrie spear:

At the moment, no one knows what the letters mean. But if I had to wager, I’d say the master puzzle solvers at r/raidsecrets should keep digging. Who knows what they’ll find next?


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Elizebeth Smith Friedman, Codebreaker and Scourge of Nazi Spymasters

[William and Elizebeth Smith Friedman, hard at work.
Image courtesy of National Geographic.]

Last year, I rather ambitiously attempted to summarize the early history of American codebreaking and the NSA in a series of blog posts spanning World War II through the modern day. One of the names I cited in that series, William Friedman, is synonymous with American cryptography, thanks to his contributions to the cracking of the German ENIGMA code and his efforts to establish the National Security Agency.

Unfortunately, there is a gaping hole in the narrative I constructed. Because none of my sources made any reference to another crucial Friedman: Elizebeth Smith Friedman, William’s wife and partner in code-cracking.

Yes, she was name-dropped in my post about the book Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II, but she had to share those pages with a host of underappreciated women who were codebreaking geniuses.

[Image courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers.]

As The Woman Who Smashed Codes explains, she wasn’t just a talented codebreaker. She literally wrote the book on it. Eight of them, in fact. The Riverbank Publications — although often credited to her husband — covered new codebreaking techniques in rich detail, and they are still referred to today as part of the foundation of modern cryptography.

She also started the first and only American codebreaking unit ever run by a woman, serving as Cryptanalyst-in-Charge while jointly working for both the Treasury and the Coast Guard during and after World War II.

A history of American codebreaking without Elizebeth Smith Friedman is woefully incomplete, and in today’s post, I hope to rectify that oversight.

[Image courtesy of the Marshall Foundation.]

Elizebeth’s work with codes started in a most peculiar way. While seeking a job as a librarian after college, she was recruited by eccentric millionaire George Fabyan to live and work at Riverbank, his palatial estate that doubled as a self-funded research center for all sorts of scientific endeavors.

Elizebeth’s deep knowledge of Shakespeare was put to work attempting to prove Fabyan’s theory that there were secret messages encoded in the writings of Shakespeare. Although her work failed to uncover any hidden pattern in Shakespeare’s words or font choices, it did lead to two unexpected developments: a career in codebreaking and a budding romance with fellow Riverbank recruit William Friedman, whose own interest in codebreaking was sparked by the works of Edgar Allan Poe.

Thanks to the proliferation of radio, there was a seismic shift in how information was being passed between military units, governments, and other organizations, so the ability to listen in on one’s enemies (and allies) was not only a new strategic opportunity, but it was a relatively new science.

In short, America needed codebreakers who could crack the secret messages being transmitted (and intercepted). The military didn’t have them. The government didn’t have them.

But Riverbank did. And for the first eight months of World War I, the small group of William, Elizebeth, and those they trained handled ALL of the codebreaking for every part of the US government, from the State Department to the Army to the DOJ. William and Elizebeth began running a codebreaking school out of Riverbank, even embedding a secret message in a photo of the class taken on the last day of the course.

[Images courtesy of Elonka.com.]

In the aftermath of the First World War, codebreaking had become so important that countries were turning to machines to help develop uncrackable codes. And yet, at this point, American cryptography as a whole consisted of about 50 people. William went to work for the government, establishing the American version of Bletchley Park — Arlington Hall — and setting the stage for the creation of the NSA.

Elizebeth, on the other hand, cracked codes from home. And she did so for both the Treasury Department and the Coast Guard, who would send her sealed packages of intercepted encrypted intel and communications. In her first three months hunting down rum-runners during Prohibition, she solved two years’ worth of backlogged messages.

During World War II, Elizebeth’s Coast Guard Cryptography Unit turned their attention from smuggling (which waned during wartime) to cracking German codes. Under her tutelage, they would crack three different variations on the Enigma codes, each more complex than the last. (The British also cracked ENIGMA, independently of American efforts.)

Sadly, in the aftermath of the Pearl Harbor attack, the US military didn’t want civilians in charge of sensitive operations, so Elizebeth was demoted. Yes, she was no longer in charge of the group she started, trained, and cultivated, instead answering to a new boss of dubious cryptographic talents.

(Of course, the sexist dimwits making decisions like this had to grin and bear it when numerous other organizations and agencies continued to asked for Elizebeth’s assistance by name.)

And stealing Elizebeth’s credit was practically a cottage industry over at the FBI. We have them to thank for erasing Elizebeth’s role in particular — and the Coast Guard’s role in general — in hunting down, exposing, and compromising Nazi spy networks in South America, even though the FBI’s hamfisted blundering actually served to expose codebreaking operations in the past, forcing Elizebeth to crack new codes in order to regain the advantage the FBI had squandered.

Oh, yeah, did I mention that both during AND after World War II, Elizebeth continued to hound the Nazi forces in South America who sought to destabilize the region?

As one historian put it, referring to the thousands of pages of decryptions Elizebeth produced:

These pieces of paper saved lives. They almost certainly stopped coups. They put fascist spies in prison. They drove wedges between Germany and other nations that were trying to sustain and prolong Nazi terror. By any measure, Elizebeth was a great heroine of the Second World War.

The British knew it. The navy knew it. The FBI knew it. But the American public never did, because Elizebeth wasn’t allowed to speak.

[Image courtesy of Find a Grave.]

Even in their retirement, the Friedmans continued to contribute to the world of cryptography. They returned to the subject of Shakespeare with The Shakespeare Ciphers Examined, thoroughly debunking the whole idea of hidden codes in the Bard’s works.

When William died, Elizebeth even hid a secret message on his tombstone, for those who knew how to look. (It was Bacon’s cipher, something they both studied extensively during their time at Riverbank.) What a touching tribute to how she met her partner and husband.

And although the accolades and appreciation for Elizebeth’s incredible contributions have been slow in coming, they are trickling in. In the 1990s, the NSA renamed its auditorium from the William F. Friedman Memorial Auditorium to the William F. Friedman and Elizebeth S. Friedman Memorial Auditorium. A Justice Department building also has an auditorium bearing her name.

More information about the massive expansion of codebreaking worldwide is coming to light with every passing year. Hopefully that will mean greater attention for minds like Elizebeth, who used her puzzly mind to protect the world. That’s someone worth celebrating.

[Much of the information in this post comes from a wonderful book on Elizebeth, The Woman Who Smashed Codes by Jason Fagone, and it’s well-worth your time to check out her story in full.]


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The Voynich Manuscript: Finally Cracked?

[Image courtesy of BBC.com.]

A year and a half ago, I introduced my fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers to the Voynich Manuscript, a cryptologic curiosity unlike anything else we’ve seen before. Discovered over a hundred years ago but believed to date back to the fifteenth century, the Voynich Manuscript is a hand-written book that has baffled linguists and puzzlers for decades.

The writing, which reads from right to left, has yet to be identified. It’s unclear if this is some sort of sophisticated code, an unknown or lost language which was then encoded, an invented language, an example of glossolalia (a written equivalent of speaking in tongues), or simply an elaborate hoax.

The only known copy of the text resides in Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, although Yale has printed replica texts.

From the Yale University website:

Many call the fifteenth-century codex, commonly known as the “Voynich Manuscript,” the world’s most mysterious book. Written in an unknown script by an unknown author, the manuscript has no clearer purpose now than when it was rediscovered in 1912 by rare books dealer Wilfrid Voynich. The manuscript appears and disappears throughout history, from the library of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II to a secret sale of books in 1903 by the Society of Jesus in Rome. The book’s language has eluded decipherment, and its elaborate illustrations remain as baffling as they are beautiful.

[One of several fold-out pages in the manuscript.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.org.]

But computer scientists at the University of Alberta believe they’ve finally unraveled some of the mysteries behind the Voynich Manuscript.

They designed an artificial intelligence program with the intent of figuring out the language in the manuscript. The AI analyzed versions of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 400 different languages in order to establish different linguistic patterns to compare against the text of the Voynich Manuscript.

And according to the AI, the text was most likely written in Hebrew.

Now that they had a language to work with, they needed to begin deciphering precisely how that language was encrypted.

[Image courtesy of Wikipedia.org.]

There have been many theories regarding what form of encryption was employed in the Voynich Manuscript. Some investigators theorized that vowels had been removed from the words in the text in order to obscure their meaning further, while others have suggested writing that has been mirrored or otherwise written backwards. Anagrams and other forms of word manipulation are a common theory, and the University of Alberta team went with a variation on the anagram idea.

They theorized that the encoded words were alphagrams, anagrams where the letters in a word are placed in alphabetical order. (For instance, if VOYNICH was encoded this way, it would read CHINOVY.)

Turning loose the AI once again under these parameters, they found that 80% of the words in the Voynich text could be anagrammed into Hebrew words. They managed to cobble together a possible opening sentence for the text:

“She made recommendations to the priest, man of the house and me and people.”

Is it clunky? Sure. But it’s also a partial translation that has held up to some scrutiny, which is better than most amateur AND professional attempts to crack the Voynich Manuscript have done.

The team is currently hoping to team up with experts in ancient Hebrew and continue the process, but until then, they’re excited to apply their AI to other ancient manuscripts to see what it uncovers.

Although we are a long way from calling the Voynich mystery solved, this is a very intriguing step forward for cryptographers and codebreaking enthusiasts everywhere.


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These Puzzly Puns Will Echo Through Eternity…

Oh yes, it’s that time again! It’s time to unleash our puzzly and punny imaginations and engage in a bit of sparkling wordplay!

You may be familiar with the board game Schmovie, hashtag games on Twitter, or the Hashtag Wars segment that used to run on @midnight on Comedy Central.

For years now, we’ve been collaborating on puzzle-themed hashtag games with our pals at Penny Dell Puzzles, and this month’s hook was #PennyDellPuzzleHistory, mashing up Penny Dell puzzles with historical figures, historical moments, and historical quotations!

Examples include: Daisy Defeats Truman, V-Words-Day, or “Ask not what your mystery country can do for you…”

So, without further ado, check out what the puzzlers at PuzzleNation and Penny Dell Puzzles came up with!


Penny Dell Puzzle Historical References!

Oregon Word Trails

Monrows Garden Doctrine

Woodstock Flower Power

Right of Wayflower Compact

Christopher Explore-a-word Columbus

Samson says and Dilemma

Lucky Star of Bethlehem

Lincolnwords

Federalist-a-Crostic Papers

Hannibal Crisscrossing the Alps

Washington Cross Pairs the Delaware

Military Sudo-coup

Alan Turing’s Codebreaking and Cryptocrossing during WWII

Fancy Ninety-Five Theses / Ninety-Five of Diamonds

Transcontinental Railroad Ties

Circles in the Tiananmen Square

Enigmatch-up Machines (for making Codewords)

Middle of the Silk Road

Boston Three-D Party

Sum Totals of ’69

Spanners Armada

The Treaty of Versyllability

The Stars-Spangled On Parade Word Search Banner


Penny Dell Puzzle History Quotes!

“Four Letter Score and seven years ago” / “Plus fours scorewords and seven-up years ago…”

“Other than that Mrs. Lincoln, how was the Word Play?

“Read my Blips: No new text messages…”

“The Buck Stoplines Here” / “The Buck Stops Here & There”

“Ich bin ein Berlinkworder…”

Napoleon: “Never interrupt your enemy when he’s making a Give-and-Take.”

Churchill: “The Battleship of Britain is about to begin.”

“Letterboxes them eat cake!”

Bill Parcells: “No matter how much you’ve won, no matter how many games, no matter how many championships, no matter how many Super Bowls, you’re not winning now, so you stink.”

Even Shakespeare can get into the hashtag game! From The Tempest:

ALONSO
And Trinculo is reeling ripe. Where should they
Find this grand liquor that hath gilded ’em?—
How camest thou in a pickle?

TRINCULO
I have been in such a pickle since I saw you last that,
I fear me, will never out of my bones. I shall not fear flyblowing.


There were also several submissions that deserve their own section, as these intrepid puzzlers went above and beyond.

One player offered this historical summation: HubCaptain Smith Who Became More than a Blip When He Ventured Across and Down with His Ship: A Titanic Tradeoff

Another player created his own puzzly Pledge of Allegiance:

“I pledge Accordion Words, to the flag, of the Untied Mystery States of America.
And to the republic, for which it Anagrams, one nation under Guess Who,
in Decisions, with liberty and Jigsaw Puzzles for all.”


Have you come up with any Penny Dell Puzzle History entries of your own? Let us know! We’d love to see them!

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