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.
They make a pair that both compares and contrasts.
Two female authors with long-running well-known series about female private eyes.
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 Kinsey Millhone series is also called the Alphabet Mystery series because Grafton followed a pretty cool pattern with her titles:
- “A” Is for Alibi
- “B” Is for Burgler
- “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!
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!