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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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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Unsung Tales of Women in American Code Breaking!

[Image courtesy of Amazon.]

Dot Braden. Agnes Driscoll. Betty Hyatt. Elizebeth Friedman. Genevieve Grotjan. Ann Caracristi. Virginia Aderholdt. Ruth “Crow” Weston.

You don’t know these names, but you should. Everyone should. They’re bona fide American heroes who dedicated their time and energy to protecting not only our country, but also every soldier in the Allied forces during World War II. And they did so when they should have otherwise been continuing their collegiate studies.

That’s right, these women who came from majors as diverse as botany, math, psychology, and English, were recruited out of college in order to build a dedicated code-breaking unit for the US armed forces.

Thankfully, their stories are now being told in Liza Mundy’s new book, Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II. And these are some amazing stories.

It all started in early 1942, as secret letters began showing up in college mailboxes. Schools like Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke, Barnard, Radcliffe, and more posed two questions to prospective female recruits:

1. Did she like crossword puzzles?
2. Was she engaged to be married?

All of these women replied yes, they like crossword puzzles, and no, they’re not engaged or soon-to-be engaged.

After answering these questions, the women began attending introductory meetings. They were issued manila envelopes containing “a brief introduction to the arcane history of codes and ciphers, along with numbered problems sets and strips of paper with the letters of the alphabet printed on them.”

Their orders? Complete the problem sets every week.

[Image courtesy of YouTube.]

Each packet contained one problem that could not be solved, to show that sometimes, a jumble of letters or numbers doesn’t stand for anything. Sometimes, gibberish remains just that, because sometimes a code-breaker fails.

They developed working knowledge of foreign languages they didn’t speak. They memorized the most common English letters — E, T, O, N, A, I, R, S — and took frequency counts.

And that’s how America built its answer to England’s Bletchley Park code-breaking operation. (The American effort, known as Arlington Hall, was considered by their Bletchley Park rivals as “just a lot of kids playing at ‘office’.”)

College presidents like Ada Comstock, the president of Radcliffe College (the women’s counterpart to Harvard), were recruited to identify candidates to learn cryptanalysis to help shorten the war.

And make no mistake, they did shorten the war. They helped crack Enigma, which was key to decimating the German U-boat fleet, and their code-breaking efforts were instrumental in defeating Japan as well, providing valuable intel on the island-to-island battles of the Pacific theater.

[Image courtesy of Military Factory.]

Of the US Army’s World War II code-breaking force, nearly 70 percent was female. We’re talking 7,000 female code-breakers. When you factor in US Navy recruits as well, that number jumps to 11,000 women out of 20,000 code-breakers.

From Code Girls: “Code breaking required literacy, numeracy, care, creativity, painstaking attention to detail, a good memory, and a willingness to hazard guesses. It required a tolerance for drudgery and a boundless reserve of energy and optimism.”

Genevieve Grotjan was key to cracking the Japanese cipher known as Purple, and William Friedman, the man who initially ran the Arlington Hall operation, described the Purple cipher as “by far the most difficult cryptanalytic problem successfully handled and solved by any signal intelligence organization in the world.” He specifically pointed to the contrbutions of Grotjan, Mary Louise Prather, and other women in the Arlington Hall group.

Codes used by twenty-five different nations were analyzed by Arlington Hall, including codes of friends and foes alike. “There was a French code called Jellyfish, a Chinese enciphered code they called Jabberwocky, another they called Gryphon.”

But even their staggering efforts in code-breaking weren’t all they contributed to the cause. They were also crucial to the success of the D-Day invasion, as many of the women were put to work reverse-engineering messages in order to create false information about imaginary troop movements and landing areas. And in order to create fake signal traffic, they had to know the real traffic backward and forward.

I could go into more detail, breaking down how they cracked some of the war’s most important code languages, or exploring their personal lives and how life changed for these college students-turned-military operatives, but I don’t want to reveal more than I have already.

Read Code Girls. You won’t regret it. It’s another terrific entry in a year of books full of revelations about wartime puzzle history. We’ve been taken behind the scenes of the NSA, Bletchley Park, and now Arlington Hall.

And once more, important and influential female voices are getting the limelight far later than they deserve. It’s about time.


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Puzzle History: Codebreaking and the NSA, part 3

[Image courtesy of NSA’s official Twitter account.]

At the end of part 2 in our series, we left off during the early days of the NSA, as American cryptographers continued to labor under the shadow of the Black Friday change in Russian codes.

You may have noticed that part 2 got a little farther from puzzly topics than part 1, and there’s a reason for that. As the NSA evolved and grew, codebreaking was downplayed in favor of data acquisition. The reasons for this were twofold:

1. Context. You need to understand why given encrypted information is important in order to put it toward the best possible use. As Budiansky stated in part 1, “The top translators at Bletchley were intelligence officers first, who sifted myriad pieces to
assemble an insightful whole.”

2. Russian surveillance and bugging continued to grow more clever and sophisticated, pushing attention away from codebreaking. After all, what good is breaking codes or developing new ones if they can just steal unencrypted intel firsthand by monitoring
agents in the field?

Moving forward, the NSA would continue to pursue all manner of data mining, eventually leaving behind much of the codebreaking and analysis that originally formed the backbone of the organization. But that was in years to come. Cryptography was still a major player in NSA operations from the ’50s and onward.

[The progression of “secret” and “top secret” code words.
Image courtesy of NSA’s official Twitter account.]

In May 1956, NSA cryptanalytic veterans pushed a proposal titled “Recommendations for a Full-Scale Attack on the Russian High-Level Systems,” believing that specially designed computers from IBM could provide the key for cracking the impenetrable Russian cryptography wall. Some cryptographers believed that ever-increasing processor speeds would eventually outpace even sophisticated codes.

By 1960, the NSA had spent $100 million on computers and analytical tools.

The problem? The NSA was collecting so much information that their increasingly small team of cryptoanalysts couldn’t dream of processing even a tiny portion of it.

But the quest for data access would only grow more ambitious.

In the wake of Sputnik’s launch in October of 1957, US signals intelligence would go where no man had gone before. The satellite GRAB, launched alongside Transit II-A in June of 1960, was supposedly meant to study cosmic radiation. (GRAB stood for Galactic Radiation and Background.)

[Image courtesy of NSA’s official Twitter account.]

But it was actually intended to collect radar signals from two Soviet air-defense systems. This was the next step of ELINT, electronic intelligence work. (The younger brother of SIGINT.)

The NSA would later find a huge supporter in President Lyndon Johnson, as the president was heavily invested in SIGINT, ELINT, and any other INTs he could access. This did little to quell the intelligence-gathering rivalry growing between the CIA and NSA.

Of course, that’s not to say that the NSA ceased to do any worthwhile work in codebreaking. Far from it, actually.

During the Vietnam War, NSA analysts pored over North Vietnamese signals, trying to uncover how enemy pilots managed to scramble and respond so quickly to many of the US’s airstrikes conducted during Operation Rolling Thunder.

Careful analysis revealed an aberrant character (in Morse code) in messages that appeared in North Vietnamese transmissions before 90 percent of the Rolling Thunder airstrikes. By identifying when the enemy used that aberrant character, the analysts
were able to warn US pilots whether they were heading toward a prepared enemy or an unsuspecting one during a given sortie.

Other NSA teams worked to protect US communications by playing the role of an enemy analyst. They would try to break US message encryptions and see how much they could learn from intercepted US signals. Identifying flaws in their own procedures — as well as members of the military who were cutting corners when it came to secured communications — helped to make US communications more secure.

[Image courtesy of NSA.gov.]

In 1979, Jack Gurin, the NSA’s Chief of Language Research, wrote an article in the NSA’s in-house publication Cryptolog, entitled “Let’s Not Forget Our Cryptologic Mission.” He believed much of the work done at the agency, and many of the people
hired, had strayed from the organization’s core mission.

The continued push for data acquisition over codebreaking analysis in the NSA led to other organizations picking up the slack. The FBI used (and continues to use) codebreakers and forensic accountants when dealing with encrypted logs from criminal organizations covering up money laundering, embezzlement, and other illegal activities.

And groups outside the government also made impressive gains in the field of encryption, among them IBM’s Thomas J. Watson Research Center, the Center for International Security and Arms Control, and even graduate student programs at universities like MIT and Stanford.

For instance, cryptographer Whitfield Diffie developed the concept of the asymmetric cipher. Joichi Ito explains it well in Whiplash:

Unlike any previously known code, asymmetric ciphers do not require the sender and receiver to have the same key. Instead, the sender (Alice) gives her public key to Bob, and Bob uses it to encrypt a message to Alice. She decrypts it using her private key. It no longer matters if Eve (who’s eavesdropping on their conversation) also has Alice’s public key, because the only thing she’ll be able to do with it is encrypt a message that only Alice can read.

This would lead to a team at MIT developing RSA, a technique that implemented Diffie’s asymmetric cipher concept. (It’s worth noting that RSA encryption is still used to this day.)

[Image courtesy of Campus Safety Magazine.com.]

The last big sea change in encryption came when the government and military realized they no longer had a monopoly on codebreaking technology. Increased reliance and awareness of the importance of computer programming, greater access to computers with impressive processing power, and a groundswell of support for privacy from prying government eyes, led to dual arms races: encryption and acquisition.

And this brings us to the modern day. The revelations wrought by Edward Snowden’s leak of NSA information revealed the incredible depth of government data mining and acquistion, leading some pundits to claim that the NSA is “the only part of government that actually listens.”

Whatever your feelings on Snowden’s actions or government surveillance, there is no doubt that the National Security Agency has grown and changed a great deal since the days of cracking the ENIGMA code or working with the crew at Bletchley Park.

Where will American codebreaking go next? Who knows? Perhaps quantum computing will bring codes so complicated they’ll be impenetrable.

All I know is… it’s part of puzzle history.


I hope you enjoyed this multi-part series on the history of 20th-century codebreaking in America. If you’d like to learn more, you can check out some of the valuable sources I consulted while working on these posts:

Code Warriors: NSA’s Codebreakers and the Secret Intelligence War Against the Soviet Union by Stephen Budiansky

Whiplash: How to Survive Our Faster Future by Joichi Ito

The Secret Lives of Codebreakers by Sinclair McKay


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Puzzle History: Codebreaking and the NSA, part 2

[Image courtesy of NSA’s official Twitter account.]

At the end of part 1 of our look at the history of the NSA and American codebreaking, we left off with the pivotal Black Friday event.

On November 1, 1948, all intel coming from monitored Soviet signals went quiet. All traffic on military, naval, and police radio links was replaced with dummy messages. It was such an unprecedented and alarming event that London and Washington briefly considered that it might’ve been the first indication of preparations for war.

According to Code Warriors author Stephen Budiansky:

The full extent of the disaster only became apparent the following spring when real traffic started reappearing on the radio nets, now employing greatly improved — and completely unbreakable — technical and security procedures. The keying errors or other mistakes that had allowed most of the Soviets’ machine-enciphered military traffic to be routinely read by US and British codebreakers for the last several years had been corrected, and the much more disciplined systems that now replaced them slammed the cryptanalytic door shut.

Even the one-time pads that had offered some hope to attentive American codebreakers were updated, eliminating the ability to sort messages by which organization they originated from.

Codemakers had suddenly outpaced codebreakers.

[The Kryptos sculpture outside CIA Headquarters. The NSA cracked
several of its codes before the CIA did. Image courtesy of Slate.com.]

The Office of Naval Intelligence wanted to take over from Signals Intelligence (SIGINT), demanding to see “everything” so they could do the job. They claimed SIGINT should limit their work to message translation, leaving interpretation to “the real experts.” This sort of territorial gamesmanship would continue to hamper government organizations for decades to come.

And that demand to see everything? That probably sounds familiar, in light of the revelations about government data collection and the PRISM program that were revealed in Edward Snowden’s leaks.

Black Friday was the start of all that, a shift from codecracking to the massive data collection and sifting operation that characterized the NSA for decades to come.

More amazingly, there was SO MUCH information collected during World War II that SIGINT was still poring over it all in 1949, decrypting what they could to reveal Soviet agents in the U.S. and England.

The fact that a high-ranking member of British Intelligence at the time, Kim Philby, was actually a Soviet double agent complicated things. After a decade under suspicion, Philby would flee to the Soviet Union in 1963, stunning many friends and colleagues who had believed in his innocence.

[The spy and defector, honored with a Soviet stamp.
Image courtesy of Britannica.com.]

Although the Russians had flummoxed SIGINT, other countries weren’t so lucky. The East German police continued to use ENIGMA codes as late as 1956. Many of the early successes in the Korean War were tied to important decryption and analysis work by SIGINT. Those successes slowed in July of 1951, when North Korea began mimicking Russia’s radio procedures, making it much harder to gain access to North Korean intel.

Finally, the chaotic scramble for control over signal-based data gathering and codebreaking between the government and the military resulted in the birth of the National Security Agency on November 4, 1952, by order of President Truman.

One of the first things the NSA did? Reclassify all sorts of material involving historical codebreaking, including books and papers dating back to the Civil War and even the American Revolution.

[The actual report that recommended the creation of the NSA.
Image courtesy of NSA’s official Twitter account.]

The creation of the NSA had finally, for a time at least, settled the issue of who was running the codebreaking and signals intelligence operation for the United States. And they were doing fine work refining the art of encryption, thanks to the work of minds like mathematician and cryptographer Claude Shannon.

One of Shannon’s insights was the inherent redundancy that is built into written language. Think of the rules of spelling, of syntax, of logical sentence progression. Those rules define the ways that letters are combined to form words (and those words form sentences, and those sentences form paragraphs, and so on).

The result? Well, if you know the end goal of the encoded string of characters is a functioning sentence in a given language, that helps narrow down the amount of possible information contained in that string. For instance, a pair of characters can’t be ANYTHING, because letter combinations like TD, ED, LY, OU, and ING are common, while combos like XR, QA, and BG are rare or impossible.

By programming codecracking computers to recognize some of these rules, analysts were developing the next generation of codebreakers.

Unfortunately, the Russian line was holding. The NSA’s failure to read much, if any, Soviet encrypted traffic since Black Friday was obviously becoming more than just a temporary setback.

Something fundamental had changed in the nature of the Russian cryptographic systems, and in the eyes of some scientific experts called in to assess the situation, the NSA had failed to keep up with the times.


I hope you’re enjoying this look at the early days of America’s 20th-century codebreaking efforts. Part 3 will continue next week, with the sea change from active codebreaking to data mining, plus Vietnam, the space race, and more!


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