Written by Kate Carlisle

carlisle_kate_bookshelfA Most Patriotic Puzzle


One of the things I love about writing the Bibliophile Mystery series is the research. At the center of each mystery is a rare book that bookbinder Brooklyn Wainwright has been asked to restore, and each rare book is tied to a different, fascinating moment in history. Unfortunately for Brooklyn, each one of those books is also tied to a present-day murder.

Sometimes the rare book in question is real, and sometimes it’s fictional, albeit plausible. Such is the case with the 237-year-old handwritten cookbook/journal at the center of A Cookbook Conspiracy. Within the margins of the old journal, Brooklyn discovers strange squiggles and symbols that could be a code. Is it possible that this journal was once used to pass messages during the Revolutionary War? And if so, for which side?

Accurate intelligence has always been a wartime game changer. Although quaint by today’s espionage standards, these codes were state of the art back then and still can puzzle a civilian such as Brooklyn:

I glanced more closely at the page. Numerous odd looking characters were lined up neatly in the margins. They resembled the type of signs and symbols I’d seen in photographs of the walls of the pyramids. Hieroglyphics.

This cipher was based on symbols, with each letter corresponding to a specific symbol. Another popular secret code of the time was the Cupid Code, in which each letter is represented by a different number, depending on the letter’s placement in the message. The number 1 might represent D if it’s the first letter of the secret message, but if it’s the third letter, it might represent the letter Q—or whatever other letter falls in that column in the chart the parties have established.

Benjamin Franklin, one of the first American intelligence operatives, used passage ciphers, also known as running key ciphers, in which the key to the secret code was a lengthy passage from a particular book. Each letter in the passage was assigned a number, and then the coded messages were written numerically. When a letter appeared more than once in that passage, then it would be represented by more than one number.

The founding fathers just blew your mind, didn’t they?

THE FREEMASON'S CIPHER

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The Freemason’s cipher is easiest for my brain to grasp—and, therefore, probably the easiest code to crack. Each letter is a fragment of a grid, some with dots and some without. In the Freemason cipher pictured here, the word book would look like this:

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Using this cipher, can you break the code below which answers the question: What did the British ambassador to Paris call Benjamin Franklin?

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A Cookbook Conspiracy by Kate Carlisle (NAL, June 2013, $23.95).

This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Summer Issue #130.

Solution: A veteran of mischief.

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