Secret Code II

‘X’ is for… ??

I’ve written about secret codes before. The Pigpen cipher was pretty simplistic, almost more a child’s game, but the Playfair cipher was a bit more interesting. That one came from a murder mystery novel by Dorothy L. Sayers. Today I thought I’d show you another simple code from another mystery novel.

1829 2125 0038 2226 1600 2125 0027 1722 4200 1829 1600 4219 2518 1617 1900 4122 3916 3200 3700 4019 0025 2016 0028 1724 2718 2241 4400 2118 0020 2516 2500 1829 1600 1819 2316 1517 2118 1617 0038 2226 1643 0015 2921 3829 0030 2025 1800 2425 2521 2841 2500 4120 4240 1617 2500 1822 0018 2916 0031 1619

Stop! See if you can decode the above before continuing.

You just kept on reading, didn’t you. Well, honestly, I would have too.

What the encoded paragraph says is:

“This code is from the mystery novel X by Sue Grafton. It uses the Typewriter Code, which just assigns numbers to the keyboard keys in order.”

It really is that simple. You start with a typewriter keyboard:

And just number the letters left-to-right, top-to-bottom. So Q=1, W=2, etc. up to M=26.

That makes this a simple substitution cipher — very easy to break given enough of a sample.

As described in the novel, it’s a restricted system: Just letters, uppercase only. No punctuation. No digits (write them: “ONE SIX” etc.). It doesn’t even encode spaces.

For the sample above, I’ve used the code mainly as described, but I added spaces (space=0) because it was an easy fix (and because mushing together words sucks).


There is a simple wrinkle in that all number codes are two digits, so 4 is 04, and pairs of numbers are joined together. Use a final 00 to fill out the last pair if necessary.

That’s all there is to it.

It’s not a good code, but it’s not a super obvious one either. If you figure out E=3, it doesn’t mean F=4, as it would in a simple decoder ring version of a substitution code. This at least scrambles the order of the letters.

The crucial thing (and the primary difficulty), as always, lies in both you and the message recipient sharing the code key. Using the keyboard trick means no code books; one creates the key as needed.

We can expand the cipher to include punctuation keys, even the Return key for line endings. It just requires both sides agree on the numbering scheme, whatever it is. (It can be backwards, for instance.)

We can even double up to get upper and lower case: Q=1, q=2, W=3, w=4, E=5, e=6, and so on. This makes the code ever so slightly harder to break by introducing more codes and mapping each letter to two numbers.

Simple and trivial (and not at all secure) but useful to keep something important (and brief) from casually prying eyes.

§ §

The code is really just to kick off another Mystery Monday post about two favorite authors: Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky.

They make a pair that both compares and contrasts.

Two female authors with long-running well-known series about female private eyes.

Grafton gave us Kinsey Millhone, working in “Santa Teresa” (a fictional Santa Barbara), California, and Paretsky gave us V.I. Warshawski, working in Chicago.

Both PIs have their own business and work alone. Both also live alone and have difficulty sustaining romantic relationships. Both have a retirement-age male neighbor who is a close friend, often helpful personally or with a case, but who is also sometimes a hindrance. Both have prickly irascible personalities.

That said, the two women are entirely different.


I’ll let Ms Millhone describe herself:

“My name is Kinsey Millhone. I’m a private detective by trade, doing business as Millhone Investigations. I’m female, thirty-eight years old, twice divorced, and childless, a status I maintain with rigorous attention to my birth-control pills.”

Later on the same page she adds: “I’m miserly and cheap.”

The quote is from the penultimate book in the series, simply titled “X”. The series ends with the last book Grafton wrote before she died: “Y” Is for Yesterday.

The Kinsey Millhone series is also called the Alphabet Mystery series because Grafton followed a pretty cool pattern with her titles:

  1. “A” Is for Alibi
  2. “B” Is for Burgler
  3. “C” Is for Corpse

You get the idea. Part of the fun was thinking ahead to what crime-related word Grafton would pick for upcoming books. I’ve been following her since the early 1980s — certainly by her second book if not the first.

“X” is unique in the series for not being for anything. (Grafton couldn’t come up with a good crime word for X. Instead, the book tries to use every possible X word it can in the text. It’s kind of a hoot.)

All the books follow a general arc of Kinsey investigating a case, doing a lot of leg-work, interviewing people, chasing clues, finally putting it all together, and then caught in some life-threatening situation at the end.

They are not murder mysteries; Kinsey is usually hired for the more ordinary private eye stuff: locating a missing person, for example. Often what she discovers ends up being life-threatening for her, hence the final showdown scene.

They’re extremely readable. Great books for travel or the beach or when you just want a really comfortable detective story. They’re great for escape because Grafton keeps Kinsey in her 30s in 1980s “Santa Teresa” throughout the series, which ultimately only covers a period of a few years.

As with most book series starting long ago, the early books are skinny, and the later books are fat. Someone never returned my paperback of “A” but “B” is 210 pages. My paperback copy of “X” is 498 pages.

I bought the ebook of “A” as well as “Y” so I have her first and last books electronically. There will never be a “Z” or any other letters. (Readers long wondered what she’d do after “Z”. Quit? Double letters? We’ll never know.)

One thing I like about Grafton: She made it explicit in her will: Kinsey Millhone dies with me. There will never be “Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone” books, which I really respect. Major props on that one, Ms Grafton. Kudos!

§ §

Before I move on to Paretsky, as an aside, Lawrence Block has a really fun murder mystery series about Bernie Rhodenbarr, the gentleman burglar.

Bernie, a book-lover who owns a used book store as cover, only steals from those who have so much they can (and really, in Bernie’s opinion, ought to) share their wealth. Bernie’s dedicated to helping them do it (albeit without their knowledge or permission).

The problem is, all too often, during his perfectly innocent burglary, there’s a murder, and his only hope of clearing his name is catching the real murderer.

It’s a droll comedy series; lots of fun.

Point is, Bernie has a BFF, Carolyn, a lesbian soulmate who owns a pet-grooming salon. They regularly drink and chat together, and one of their pastimes is guessing Sue Grafton titles beyond “Z”. Bernie loves a good pun (as do I).

I no longer have those books, but two I recall were “AA” Is for Battery, and “DD” Is for Busted. (There was one about “F” Is for Train, too.)

Not only will we never know what Grafton would have done after; we’ll never even know what “Z” would have been.

§ §

Sara Paretsky’s Victoria Iphigenia Warshawski (“Vic” or “V. I.” but god help you if you say “Vicky”) is from the tough-as-nails breed of PI.

Both parents are dead (true of Kinsey, too). Dad was a tough Chicago cop; Vic still has friends on the force who remember him and who saw her grow up. Her dad’s best friend, Bobby Mallory, now a Chicago PD Lieutenant, is very unhappy with VI’s career choice.

VI has a good friend, Dr. “Lotty” Herschel, who also isn’t too happy with the career choice, especially as she often finds herself patching Vic up.

As with Grafton, these are also not murder mysteries. VI mainly specializes in financial crime and other white collar issues. But, as with Millhone, she tends to stumble over much larger crimes no one knew about.

Also as with Millhone, things often get dicey at the end, although Warshawski sometimes gets banged up long before the final scene (hence the tch-tch patching up by Lotty).

The contrast of locale, sunny little “Santa Teresa” versus big city Chicago, is very much reflected in the tone of the books. The Paretsky books are slightly darker and edgier.

Vic is slightly edgier than Kinsey, although neither take any BS.


I do have a gripe about a pattern these books follow that both surprises and annoys me.

VI stumbles onto some big crime that know one suspected was going on. And no one ever believes her. Not even her friends — they’re always dismissing what she says.

But it always turns out she’s right, so at what point does their light bulb go on? As far as readers know, VI is right every time. Why wouldn’t her friends figure she’s on to something this time?

(I do think Paretsky is making a pointed statement about men not believing, or even listening to, women, and having seen it in real life, I get it. But it’s still annoying how no one ever learns to believe her. Idiots.)

§ §

I’ve known these private eyes for decades and really enjoy the stories. If you like private eye stories, you can’t go wrong with Grafton and Paretsky.

I mentioned recently that Tony Hillerman is my second favorite mystery author. Going by what I’ve followed and bought over the years, Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky are tied for third place (with Dorothy L. Sayers and Rex Stout breathing down their necks).

One of these days I’ll tell you about first place.

Stay typewritten, my friends!

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

7 responses to “Secret Code II

  • SelfAwarePatterns

    Block wrote a book on writing that I read many years ago. I think it was the first one on writing I read. I still have it lying around somewhere. I don’t remember it being all that great as far as writing techniques, but it covered the basics and served to lift the air of mystery about how it works.

    He described his own writing process, which is largely discovery and hammering our five pages a day, something which seemed imminently doable to me at the time. (The fact that I haven’t done it to any great extent shows it isn’t as easy as I thought back then.)

    • Wyrd Smythe

      I can’t say Block is at the top of any of my lists, although I did enjoy his Bernie Rhodenbarr stories. I used to have a couple books of unrelated short stories he wrote, too. Crime stories mostly. They were okay.

      Robert Parker (who wrote the Spenser series) also supposedly wrote five pages a day. Long hand on legal pads. Every day without fail. And supposedly he never revised, never plotted, just wrote. Or so I heard long ago, and who knows what embellishments my mind has added over the years.

      I guess when it comes to (fiction) writing, you just have to make yourself do it. It’s that way sometimes with blog writing. I realized long ago I didn’t really have any good (fiction) stories to tell, and I’ve recently realized I just don’t like people enough to write fiction. (My whole approach seems more oriented in trying to educate them…. and I can just hear Dr. Phil’s voice,… “So, how’s that been working out for you?” 😮 )

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        One of the risks with discovery writing is you might have to end up making large scale structural changes. Some writers take pride in never making those kinds of changes, but typically some of their stories are less satisfying than they otherwise could have been. The writer might bring enough other stuff (interesting settings, characters, ideas, etc) that you don’t mind, but not always.

        I’m with you on the need to make yourself do it, particularly on blogging. I try to push myself to write at least one post a week. If I didn’t do that, I’d probably never post.

        I don’t know that you have to like people all that much in order to write fiction. Some writers have a pretty dismal view of humanity. I think of writers like Richard K. Morgan, the author of the Altered Carbon series, whose misanthropy permeates those books. It’s a view that can lead to pretty grim stories, although it can also be flipped and used for dark comedy.

        On educating people, I think, like persuasion, it has to be seen as a long term game, one that will sometimes bear fruit, but often won’t. It’s very rare that I see someone change their mind during a discussion. It virtually never happens. (When it does happen, it’s usually because the person wasn’t that committed to whatever view they started with.) When I’ve successfully convinced someone of something, I usually only found out about it long after the fact, and then only if the conversation ended on amicable terms.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        All I can say is that my writing definitely benefits from as much going over as I can stand. That said, I have banged out posts that didn’t suck.

        Maybe if one has a strong writing voice and a good sense of where the plot goes it can work. Parker certainly had a specific writing voice. I have no idea how he went about building a plot. I would figure any mystery writer would have to have a plot outline, otherwise where’s the mystery?

        The misanthropy thing for me is Yin-Yang; there’s a fascination, too. The misanthropy is mostly a product of my experiences. And it’s a good point, I could express that in fiction. I think the recent realization has to do with where we are these days — we’re going backwards, and I’ve become disengaged. It’s probably more the first thing I mentioned; I just don’t have any stories that burn in me to tell.

        I think I’ve mentioned there are a lot of teachers (and some preachers) in my family tree. There can be a persuasive element to teaching, but persuading someone towards knowledge is, as you suggest, very much an uphill battle. Education should be about feeding the thirst to learn.

        Debate is a whole other mode and it’s true that, especially these polarized days, one doesn’t change minds so much as maybe plant thought seeds. These days it’s rare for most people to even go so far as being able to say, “Yeah, I see your point, it’s valid, but my view differs.” It seems more about separate corners and refusing to grant any validity to opposing arguments.

        It does take a strong ego, a confidence that one is usually right, to be able to admit being wrong, or even that the other guy has a valid point. It’s easy to see a slippery slope where admitting to one point leads to another and down you go. (It doesn’t seem many people value truth and facts quite as much as not being wrong.)

        The irony is that, at least in my experience, it’s our mistakes and being wrong that teach us the most. Those lessons always seem more well-remembered to me than the slow slog of learning. Like touching a hot stove. Don’t do that again!

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        I’m with you on writing being improved by going over it again. The amount of passes I need to make through a post seems to grow as the size of the post increases. I can typically nail out a short 300-500 word post without too much editing. But once it grows past 1000 words, the amount of editing increases. It’s not exponential, but it feels more than linear.

        One of the nice things about writing a story is you always have the ability to go back and make relatively minor edits in the earlier portions that can serve to effectively foreshadow later events. At least with modern word processing, it’s easy, and I suspect every author does it, whether or not they’ll admit it. It was a lot more effort in the typewriter era.

        I don’t know that people today are really that much more argumentative than they’ve been historically. The book, How to Win Friend and Influence People, was published in 1935. Many of its examples range from the Civil War through the early 1930s, but the way people act in those examples seems very resonant with how they act today. What seems to be different today is that it all happens much faster, and it’s therefore much easier for it to cascade out of control.

        Yes, admitting when we’re wrong can be hard. It’s even harder when the person on the other side is being nasty. Carnegie was right, you can’t win an argument. It’s still sometimes fun to have them. 🙂

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Interesting point about the growth of complexity with size. Due, perhaps, to increasing interconnections between aspects of the text, so there’s more that has to sync up? I do find I have to focus on coherence as a post gets more complex.

        I’m sure I’ve mentioned the thing about how it always requires N+1 proof readings to catch all errors, where N is the actual number performed. Regardless of how large you make N, this rule applies.

        I go back far enough to have used a typewriter to write. Software editors are a whole world better. Spell check alone is worth its weight.

        “I don’t know that people today are really that much more argumentative than they’ve been historically.”

        Oh, hell no! We haven’t changed as a species in a good long time.

        What’s different is the amplification factor social media provides. Combined with the sheer numbers of people involved these days. For any weird fringe view, there will still be a ton of people in that group. Social media amplifies that, and our thirst for something new feeds the amplification. Cascades, as you say, out of control.

        Combine that with a mainstream pulling away from facts and science, and it’s a recipe for a really bad stew.

        “Yes, admitting when we’re wrong can be hard.”

        Polarization is a pretty easy trap to fall into, especially when facts and the dialectic are devalued as they are currently. We stick with our perceived tribes, especially in insecure times.

        Those who are deeply into science can be a little better at processing unwelcome facts, but even those who place the highest reverence on facts are still human. I think the mark of a true intellect is that those seeds do sprout (assuming they were good seeds). At some point, if one is true to the ideals of knowledge, a good argument eventually breaks through.

        At least it does for me. Maybe I’m atypical. 😉 (Actually, I know that’s true!) 😀

  • Secret Code III | Logos con carne

    […] days back in 2015 and more recently about other codes from books. See The Playfair Cipher and Secret Code II. And now you see why this is Secret Code […]

And what do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: