Start with crosswords, graduate to unbreakable ciphers; Bacon’s works ‘were nailed to the walls by the friars and left there to rot’

For Alan Turing, it all started with crossword puzzles. At least, if one is to believe the fictionalized tale of his life, The Imitation Game. The film tells of how a small group of Brits unraveled the German “Enigma” code during World War II, which helped lead the Allies to victory.

Turing loved crosswords, and auditioned potential code-breakers during the war with one; those who managed it in 10 minutes were invited to a job interview (which turned out to be another puzzle). And from there, two went on to solve ciphers with Turing.

The Lennoxville Library has two fabulous how-to (and un-do) tomes on secret writing, both filed in the children’s section. First, en francais, the book Les Codes Secrets, by Eileen O’Brien and Diana Riddell (1997, filed at c-530), includes that marvelous creature, the invisible ink recipe. Is that just a blank piece of paper, or is it a reminder to the kids to clean their rooms?

The book’s quite lively, and features lots of pictures and advice on different types of codes – even ones that aren’t secret, like Morse. You can create your own secrets, using simple pen and paper, or, with a handful of inexpensive office supplies, graduate up to cypher wheels.

In English, Your Book Of Secret Writing, by Geoffrey Lamb (1976, also at c-530) is more text heavy, but just as interesting and just as helpful. The noughts-and-crosses cipher, for example, was used in the American Civil War by soldiers of the North.

Both include all sorts of projects and quizzes, and you, er, I mean, your kids, will be well-versed in secret codes by the time they’re finished these two books. Then they can read Spy X: The Code (by Peter Lerangis, 2004, in c-244, this is the first in a series).

The mother of 11-year-old twins Evie and Andrew has disappeared, leaving a riddle behind. Mom works for The Company, and dad is in the military; the family moves every few months, and father seems clueless.

The kids, however, begin to discover odd notes and patterns. Youthful readers can try to break the codes before the protagonists…

Of course when one thinks ciphers, one thinks of Dan Brown’s bestselling thriller, 2003’s The Da Vinci Code (the library has the book on 13 discs in the Audio section; in Large Print; and in Adult Fiction in both French and English). A symbologist and a cryptologist join forces to crack a conspiracy and break various codes.

Cipher thrillers are fun to read, but Brown’s success seems to have given publishers the license to encourage sales by implying that a book is based around solving a secret code. Even when it isn’t.

Consider William Dietrich’s Dakota Cipher (2009, in Adult Fiction). It’s a fabulous read, third in a series of seven following the life of (slightly cowardly) adventurer and ladies man Ethan Gage. Gage is pal to Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and Napoleon, and has fought for the Americans, the British and the French, yet survived multiple accusations of treason.

Dakota Cipher is atmospheric and filled with great history dating from the time of the founding of the United States. There’s a smidgeon of Canada here too, of early homesteaders (“always we smelled smoke, hardscrabble farmers trying to burn back the forest to make room for corn”), the fur trade, voyageurs, Indians, and (of course) the Knights Templar and Masons, who appear to have a conspiracy goin’ on. At the centre of it all is a one-eyed Norwegian who’s the spitting image of the Norse god Odin, searching for Thor’s lost hammer.

The quest for the cipher is the supposed conceit, but it’s the thrills and the portrait of early settler life and politics that will keep you reading.

The Babylonian Codex, by C.S. Graham (2010, in Adult Fiction), is a more modern-day conspiracy theory whose title also implies secret writings to be deciphered. It stars Ensign October Guinness, a “remote viewer” whose psychic abilities allow her to see an ancient manuscript which is somehow connected to the Apocalypse. She enlists the help of a CIA agent named Jax Alexander to stop the wealthy industrialists and politicians who seek to hasten the Second Coming, as promised in the Book of Revelation.

Babylonian Codex is the third in the Guinness/Alexander series. And it’s a solid thriller, with the heroes flying around the world in the search of bad guys.

Finally, check out The Jefferson Key (by Steve Berry, 2011, in Large Print). It really does star a secret message, written by US President Andrew Jackson back in 1835, using a code created by Thomas Jefferson. Cue the present day, where a large number of bad guys and good guys are all after the key.

The tale has a nautical feel, and is filled with 21st century privateers and the US Constitution (although Canada makes an appearance, as well). It stars a Copenhagen bookseller, the retired intelligence agent Cotton Malone, and his girlfriend, Cassiopeia Vitt, an heiress who lives in a French chateau and knows how to handle a gun.

Here are multiple conspiracies, you see, involving American industrialists and government security agencies… Entertainingly, a mathematician tries to solve the code using a Turing machine – what we now call a computer.

The Jefferson Key is seventh in a series of nine Malone books (with a 10th due in March).

All three thrillers discussed here include authors’ notes that offer help on what’s based on fact, and what’s totally made up.

Here’s one last cipher. The German’s Enigma was long thought to be unbreakable; there is one manuscript in the world that has captured the imagination because it is still not readable. It’s manuscript number 408, stored in the Beinecke library at Yale University. But it’s better known as the Voynich Manuscript, for the man who found it stuffed into a trunk in an Italian castle.

It’s beautiful, 200 pages long, and filled with drawings of plants, charts, naked women (and some men), and endless pages of incomprehensible writing.

The Friar And The Cipher: Roger Bacon And The Unsolved Mystery Of The Most Unusual Manuscript In The World, by Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone (2005, filed in non-fiction at 091) is another mistitled book.

It’s a great read, but it’s not really about the cipher. So little information remains of Bacon himself that he is profiled through his times. That is, the book is an educated analysis of the battle between the philosophies of religion and science in the Roman Catholic Church (including Aristotle and St. Thomas), a picture of Europe in the Middle Ages, and of the culture and politics of the times of Roger Bacon.

Bacon expired in 1292 in disgrace: “After his death, all of Bacon’s works that were on hand at the monastery in Oxford were nailed to the walls by the friars and left there to rot.”

And of course, the authors argue that Bacon wrote the manuscript, although there again, the authors are guessing.

The book then jumps through time, popping up in the 16th century amid efforts to rehabilitate Bacon. The friar was certainly a talented cryptographer, mathematician, and savant, regardless of what his tormentors thought.

The Friar And The Cipher’s last 30 pages or so offer a brief modern history of cryptography and efforts to break the manuscript’s code. For seekers of secrets, that’s fascinating. Many attempts have been made to translate number 408, but none seems quite right.

Care to have a go? The complete Voynich Manuscript is available online.

– Eleanor Brown, January 16, 2015

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About BiblioLennLibrary

The Lennoxville Library, in Quebec's Eastern Townships, offers free memberships to all residents of Sherbrooke. We have a great selection of books in French and English, plus books on tape and CD, too! Check out our large-print section, our graphic novels... La Biblio Lennoxville se situe dans les Cantons-de-l'Est du Quebec. Les residents de Sherbrooke peuvent devenir membre gratuitement. Nous avons une grande selection de livres en francais et en anglais. Venez donc nous voir! Hours/Heures d'ouverture: Mardi-Tuesday, 10am to 5pm -- 10h a 17h Mercredi et Jeudi -Wednesday and Thursday, 10am to 6pm -- 10h a 18h Vendredi-Friday, 10am to 5pm -- 10h a 17h Samedi-Saturday, 11am to 4pm -- 11h a 16h Pour plus d'info, vous pouvez nous trouver au http://www.bibliolennoxvillelibrary.ca/ Click on the above to get to our website!
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