Spies, Crosswords, and Secret Messages!

secret message

There are loads of ways to hide secret messages in puzzles. The field of cryptography is built around it. Many meta puzzles have a special secret lurking inside their clever constructions. Heck, our friends at Penny Press even have an entire word seek called Secret Message.

But have you ever noticed that there’s a strange fascination in pop culture with secret messages in crosswords?

No, I don’t mean constructors hiding quotations, poems, or word seeks in their crosswords, though those are impressive feats of cruciverbalism.

I’m talking about stories about actual secret messages concealed in crossword grids, meant to be hidden from even the most diligent solvers, only a special few possessing the keys to finding the hidden words.

Oh, believe me, it’s definitely a thing.

Look no further than the first Crossword Mysteries movie. The film opens with a murdered art gallery owner with a crossword in his pocket. And it turns out that a devilish criminal mastermind was submitting puzzles to Tess’s daily crossword that contained hidden instructions for robberies to be conducted that day. Diabolical!

You might laugh, but this is hardly the only time we’ve seen crime, secret messages, and crosswords combined. It was a plotline in the radio show The Adventures of Superman, and Lois Lane’s life once depended on Superman’s ability to solve a crossword puzzle.

There are any number of mystery novels, cozy and otherwise, that contain hidden messages in crosswords. Nero Blanc’s Anatomy of a Crossword and Corpus de Crossword come to mind, as do any number of murder mysteries where a strange message scribbled on a crossword grid turn out to be a pivotal clue to catch the killer.

And there’s an even more curious subset of this in pop culture: crosswords and spycraft.

I could give you a simple example, like Bernie Mac’s character in the Ocean’s 11 remake pretending to solve a crossword, but actually writing down key information about the casino for the upcoming heist.

But that’s not really a secret message IN a crossword. No, it’s more of a secret message ON a crossword, though it is a bit of decent spycraft.

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[From Spy vs. Guy.]

Let’s talk about spies and their crosswords, then.

In the TV show Burn Notice, former (and occasionally current) spy Michael Weston sometimes received hidden messages from his previous spy organization through the crossword, though we’re not given much info on how this is achieved.

In the James Bond prequel novel Double or Die, it’s actually the young Bond’s teacher who sneaks a secret message into a puzzle. He’s also a cryptic crossword editor, and he convinces his kidnappers to allow him to submit a crossword to the newspaper, because if he didn’t, it would let people know all was not well.

Naturally, the kidnappers didn’t spot the clues to his current location that the teacher had hidden in the puzzle. Bond, even in his youth, manages to do so with ease.

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In the short-lived TV show Rubicon, crosswords are at the center of a fascinating unsolved mystery. An intelligence agent named Will finds out his mentor committed suicide after seeing a four-leaf clover.

He then finds a pattern across several crosswords that leads him to believe his mentor’s death is somehow connected to the pattern in the crosswords, and he tells his superior about it.

And soon after investigating it himself, Will’s superior is also found dead. Unfortunately, we never get a resolution for this story, but it certainly fits the bill.

So yes, the curious connection between secret messages and crosswords in pop culture is definitely a thing.

But did you know it also extends beyond fiction? Yup, I’ve got some real-world examples for you too.

Back in June of 1944, physics teacher and crossword constructor Leonard Dawe was questioned by authorities after several words coinciding with D-Day invasion plans appeared in London’s Daily Telegraph.

The words Omaha (codename for one of Normandy’s beaches), Utah (another Normandy beach codename), Overlord (the name for the plan to land at Normandy on June 6th), mulberry (nickname for a portable harbor built for D-Day), and Neptune (name for the naval portion of the invasion) all appeared in Daily Telegraph crosswords during the month preceding the D-Day landing.

So it was possible (though highly improbable) that Dawe was purposely trying to inform the enemy of Allied plans, and the powers that be acted accordingly. In the end, no definitive link could be found, and consensus is that Dawe either overheard these words himself or was told them by his students — possibly slipped by soldiers stationed nearby — and placed them into his grids unwittingly.

Yes, this was just a big misunderstanding. But sometimes, accusations like this have real-world consequences.

In Venezuela, a newspaper has been accused multiple times of hiding encrypted messages within their daily crossword puzzles in order to incite revolt against the government.

Another Venezuelan newspaper was accused of concealing messages ordering the assassination of a public official named Adan, the brother of President Hugo Chavez!

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Some of the answers considered suspicious in the grid included “Adan,” “asesinen” (meaning “kill”), and “rafaga” (which can mean either a burst of gunfire, or a gust of wind).

Apparently this confluence was considered enough to warrant a half-dozen members of the intelligence service visiting the newspaper’s editorial office.

Now, were these cases of genuine secret messages being passed through the crossword, or were these coincidental events that appeared credible because the crossword/secret message concept has been part of pop culture for decades?

I leave that question to you, fellow puzzlers.

Can you think of any examples of crosswords with secret messages in pop culture or intersections of crosswords and spycraft that weren’t mentioned here? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you.


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Solving Crosswords and Stopping Bad Guys With Superman!

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[Image courtesy of Amazon.]

When you think of comic books and puzzles, one character instantly springs to mind: The Riddler. He’s easily the most iconic puzzly figure in comics, and his many twisty challenges for Batman have ranged from simple word games to death-defying escape rooms.

But did you know that Superman also has some puzzling in his expansive superheroic past?

In fact, Lois Lane’s life once depended on Superman’s ability to complete crossword puzzles!

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[Image courtesy of Superman Fandom Wiki.]

Yes, back in 1948, from April 15th until May 3rd, The Adventures of Superman radio show (aka the Superman Radio Program) featured Superman facing off against a gang of kidnappers and thieves, as well as a devious mastermind, in “The Crossword Puzzle Mystery.”

At that point, the crossword hadn’t even become a daily feature in The New York Times yet. (The first Sunday edition crossword debuted in February of 1942. The daily version wouldn’t appear until 1950.)

So how did crosswords cross paths with The Man of Steel?

Well, it all starts with Lois Lane on an airplane, solving a crossword in order to find out where she’s going. Lois had received a tip from Horatio F. Horn, a local correspondent for The Daily Planet, and now she finds herself on a hunt across (and down) America for her next destination.

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[Image courtesy of DC Comics, via Alpha Coders.]

The puzzle leads her to Moundville, a mining town where Horatio has gone missing. She meets a sinister gold-toothed man, and then goes missing herself. Cub reporter Jimmy Olsen soon arrives in Moundville, trying to locate both Lois and Horatio, but having no luck.

Eventually, Clark Kent gets involved, solving the same crossword puzzle as Lois and heading to Moundville himself. He arrives just in time to save Jimmy Olsen from being dragged off a cliff by a spooked horse. (You know how it is with spooked horses in old mining towns.)

After a hotel fire (an attempt on Jimmy and Clark’s lives), Clark finds three more crossword puzzles, but they’re partially destroyed. So he returns to Metropolis to track down solvable copies of each crossword, hoping they’ll reveal the whereabouts of Lois and Horatio.

Yes, one of the episodic cliffhangers was Clark solving crosswords while Lois and Horatio were held in a secret cave at gunpoint. It’s gloriously silly.

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[Image courtesy of DC Comics, via David Morefield.]

Solving the crosswords leads Superman to believe that someone in Moundville is planning to steal a shipment of gold, so he returns to the town and teams up with Jimmy and a local sheriff to get more information. He deduces that a particular shipment going out that night is the target, and manages to rescue Lois and Horatio from the gang of ruffians planning the theft.

It turns out that the mastermind of the thefts is the owner of a Metropolis newspaper syndicate — who supplies puzzles to all the papers, including The Daily Planet — and would alert a vast network of gangs in the West to various gold shipments going out by putting the name of the town in the puzzle.

That’s how Horatio ended up investigating in the first place: he’s a crossword fan himself and noticed the pattern.

The serial concludes with Superman capturing the rest of the thieves in Moundville while the Metropolis police arrest the nameless puzzle mastermind. Good job, everyone! Another crime spree thwarted, thanks to solving puzzles!


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[Image courtesy of DC Comics, via View Comic.]

The plot of this radio serial is quite similar to the plot of the first Crossword Mysteries film — both featuring thieves informed about targets through the local crossword — and honestly, it tickled me to imagine all these gun-toting ne’er-do-wells scattered throughout the western states, solving crossword puzzles every day and waiting to see where they’d need to go robbing.

This plan also implies that the crossword constructor NEVER mentioned towns or cities at other times, because that would send his goons on wild goose chases. Imagine all the abbreviated Canadian provinces they’d be searching, not to mention the European rivers.

Perhaps this fiasco resulted in The Daily Planet hiring their own crossword editor, because later on in the comics, we see someone in the newspaper offices with a crossword pattern on his wall:

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[Image courtesy of Adam Talking Superman, who offered this caption: Huge fan of the newest Daily Planet character, crossword puzzle guy listening to Perry White’s vocabulary!]

Still, it’s fascinating to know that a major radio program — one with over two THOUSAND episodes — devoted literal weeks of airtime to a crossword-themed mystery.

It also makes you wonder what else is lurking in the daily crossword grids. What other devious crimes are afoot right under our noses?

I guess we better keep solving, folks! Our puzzly vigilance could be a crime-riddled town’s only hope!


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Answers to the Morphy_me Puzzly Challenge!

A few weeks ago, we challenged our fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers to puzzle out an artistic challenge created by an Instagram account called morphy_me.

The account, credited only as Benji, features images that merge elements of both celebrities, somehow creating an image that is reminiscent of both, and yet feels strangely new.

Did you puzzle out which pairs of celebrities formed these images? Let’s find out!


#1

benji 1

Answer: Emily Blunt and Katy Perry

#2

benji 2

Answer: Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro

#3

benji 3

Answer: Jessica Alba and Ariana Grande

#4

benji 4

Answer: David Bowie and Kurt Cobain

#5

benji 5

Answer: Kim Kardashian and Taylor Swift

#6

benji 6

Answer: Robert Pattinson and Christian Bale
(a future and former Batman)

#7

benji 7

Answer: Margot Robbie and Sharon Tate

#8

benji 8

Answer: Heath Ledger and Joaquin Phoenix
(an all-Joker edition)

#9

benji 9

Answer: Tom Welling and Henry Cavill
(an all-Superman edition)

#10

benji 10

Answer: Winona Ryder and Jennifer Connelly

#11

benji 11

Answer: Billie Eilish and Scarlett Johansson

#12

benji 12

Answer: Rihanna and Cara Delevingne

#13

benji 13

Answer: Bill Nye and Bill Nighy
(that’s just delightful wordplay)

#14

benji 14

Answer: Tom Holland and Jake Gyllenhaal
(hero AND villain from the latest Spider-Man film)

#15

benji 15

Answer: Zendaya and Vanessa Hudgens


How many did you get? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you!

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It’s Follow-Up Friday: Cartoons and Crosswords edition!

Welcome to Follow-Up Friday!

By this time, you know the drill. Follow-Up Friday is a chance for us to revisit the subjects of previous posts and bring the PuzzleNation audience up to speed on all things puzzly.

And today, I’m posting the results of our #PennyDellPuzzleCartoons hashtag game!

You may be familiar with the board game Schmovie, hashtag games on Twitter, or@midnight’s Hashtag Wars segment on Comedy Central.

For the last few months, we’ve been collaborating on puzzle-themed hashtag games with our pals at Penny Dell Puzzles, and this month’s hook was #PennyDellPuzzleCartoons, mashing up Penny Dell puzzles and anything and everything having to do with stand-up comics, film and television comedians, funny movies, funny shows, funny plays…even one-liners or jokes!

Examples include Letter Powerpuff Girls, SpongeBob Four SquarePants, and Betty Blips.

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


Slide-o-Futurama (and therefore Around the Bender)

Aaahh!!! Real Mon-Star Words

The Anagram Magic Square Bus

Who Fiddler’s Framed Roger Rabbit? / Who Frameworked Roger Rabbit?

He-Man and the Masterwords of the Universe

“By the power of GraySkill-O-Grams! I have the power!”

“That’s All Fours, folks!”

“Wonder Twins Flower Power, activate!”

“There’s no need to fear, Underdog is Here & There!”

“I hate meeces to Bits and Pieces!”

“Ups and Downs and at ‘em, Atom Ant!”

“Exit! Stage Right of Way!”

“Zip It Dee-Doo-Dah!”

“Heroes in a Halftime, Turtle Power!”

Teenage Multiplier Ninja Turnabouts

Beavis and Butt-Headings / Beavis and Buttheads and Tails

Crypto-Family Guy

Porky Piggybacks

The Jungle Bookworms

Dr. Joshua Sweet Stuff

Flower (from Bambi) Power

Lotsa Buck Cluck

Looney Rooney Tunes

Dancing Bo-Peep Feet

Top to Bottom Cat

Quick Draw the Line McGraw

Courage the Coming and Going Dog

DartBoard Duck / Bartboard

Dartwing Duck

(Home R)uns Simpson

101 Dial-a-Grams

Blackout-man and Robin

Successorgram-man

Johnny Word Quest

Dudley Do-Right of Way

Scooby Two by Two, Where are you?

Mystery Word Machine

Alvin and the Chips-munks

Patchwork Patrol

“Friendly Neighborhood Spider’s Web”

Wonder Twin Crosswords

“Lolly, Lolly, Lolly Get Your Add Ones Here” / “Lolly, Lolly, Lolly Get Your Codewords Here”

“Three From Nine Is the Anagram Magic Number”

“In A Word Planet Janet”

“Syllability, Syll-a-bility”

“I’m Just a Blips, Yes I’m Only a Blips”

“Connections Junction, What’s Your Function”

AnagraManiacs Magic Squares, with Yakk-odewords, Wakk-o Words and Dot Matrix.

Stepping Flintstones

Miss Piggybacks


A fellow puzzler even cooked up a version of the Steven Universe theme song all about Crypto puzzles!

We are the Crypto-Gems
We’ll always save the day
And if you don’t believe us
We’ll always find a way
That’s why the people of this earth
Believe in
Geo, Zoo, and Verse…
And Steven!


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

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You can also share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on TwitterPinterest, and Tumblr, and explore the always-expanding library of PuzzleNation apps and games on our website!