Shadow Command


Title:                  Shadow Command

Author:                 Dale Brown

Brown, Dale (2008). Shadow Command. New York: William Morrow

LCCN:    2008298352

PS3552.R68543 S475 2008

Subjects

Date Updated:  April 29, 2015

The U.S. is still recovering from the American Holocaust, a Russian air strike that killed and wounded thousands in 2004, at the start of this clunky techno-thriller from bestseller Brown (Strike Force). In 2009, Lieutenant General McLanahan, commander of the High Technology Aerospace Weapons Center, fears the Russians are covertly arming Iran, now known as the Democratic Republic of Persia. An immoral and weak U.S. president, Joseph Gardner, doesn’t help the situation. Full of technical prose (Skybolt was powered by a MHDG, or magnetohydrodynamic generator, which used two small nuclear reactors to rapidly shoot a slug of molten metal back and forth through a magnetic field to produce the enormous amount of power required by the laser) and broadly drawn characters, from Gardner, who can’t keep his pants on even during a global crisis, to Senate majority leader Stacy Anne Barbeau, who wields her cleavage in the interests of her constituents as well as national security, this novel will appeal to readers who care more about advanced weaponry than a plausible plot.

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Edge of Battle


Title:                  Edge of Battle

Author:                 Dale Brown

Brown, Dale (2006). Edge of Battle. New York: William Morrow

LCCN:    2005057567

PS3552.R68543 E34 2006

Date Updated:  April 29, 2015

Violence and tensions along the U.S.-Mexican border have never been higher, sparked by battles between rival drug lords and an increased flow of illegal migrants. To combat the threat, the United States has executed Operation Rampart: a controversial test base in southern California run by Major Jason Richter and TALON, his high-tech special operations unit. Their success is threatened by a drug kingpin and migrant smuggler named Ernesto Fuerza. In the guise of Mexican nationalist “Commander Veracruz”, he causes a storm of controversy on both sides of the border, calling for a revolution to take back the northernmost “Mexican states” – the Southwest United States. His real intention is to make it easier to import illegal drugs across the border.

Action junkies for whom characterization is not a priority will zip through this near-future techno-thriller from bestseller Brown, a sequel to Act of War (2005). The elite American unit known as Task Force TALON continues to battle a Russian terrorist group known as the Consortium, whose leader, Yegor Zakharov, seeks to exploit the porous Mexican border to infiltrate the U.S. and has allied himself with a mysterious Mexican smuggler of drugs and people. When U.S. Border Patrol agents are massacred, the National Security Agency adviser proposes such radical steps as using robots and nanotechnology to protect the border with Mexico. Some readers may find the lack of any radical Islamic threat in 2007 a bit hard to swallow (even with this imagined universe’s capture of Osama bin Laden), while the escalation of tensions with Mexico, exacerbated by that country’s naive president who has jumped to politics from a career in television, also takes quite a bit of suspension of disbelief.

Plan of Attack


Title:                  Plan of Attack

Author:                Dale Brown

Brown, Dale (2004). Plan of Attack.New York: William Morrow

LCCN:    2003068885

PS3552.R68543 P58 2004

Subjects

Date Updated:  April 29, 2015

Longtime series hero Maj. Gen. Patrick McLanahan takes to the air again in this rousing-as-usual techno-military thriller by veteran Brown. Always the loose cannon, the general has been demoted and reassigned after sending his unmanned robo-planes against a Russian missile battery without permission. As narrated in Brown’s last book, Air Battle Force, the Taliban military, chased out of Afghanistan by American troops, has invaded Turkmenistan. The Russian Federation, reacting to the invasion and overthrow of the Russian-backed government, sends an occupying force. The Americans are part of the U.N. peacekeeping mission when the Security Council issues orders for all parties to halt military activity. The first third of the book relates the backstory and ramps up readers on all the new military hardware. Each weapons system is minutely described, and the characteristics of its employment lovingly detailed. But this minutiae fades into the background as Brown kicks on the after-burners when the nefarious president of the Russian Federation, Gen. Anatoliy Gryzlov, plans a long-range bomber attack on the U.S. mainland. The disgraced but unbowed McLanahan must convince the government and the armed services to follow his ingenious and daring plan to halt the Russian assault. The resulting battles, both in the air and on the ground, are riveting, as they are in all of Brown’s books, proving once again that he is the grand master of his genre.

In Air Battle Force, Dale Brown introduced U.S. Air Force aerial warfare expert Major General Patrick McLanahan and his air combat unit of the future. Armed with a force of these robotic planes, the general and a handful of commandos were secretly deployed to the oil-rich nation of Turkmenistan to stop a Taliban invasion. And though the Americans won the battle, the war is far from over.

To punish McLanahan and his fleet of robot warplanes for their audacity, Russian president General Anatoliy Gryzlov decides to do the unthinkable: a sneak attack on America-unlike anything ever believed possible-that devastates her strategic air forces.

McLanahan has collected information that not only foretold the Russians’ daring plan, but also gave him the data he needs to plan a counterstrike that could stop the Russian war machine dead in its tracks. But Patrick is no longer in charge of Air Battle Force, and the Russian sneak attack has left the embattled U.S. president with few options: retaliate with every weapon in his arsenal, even if it triggers a global thermonuclear war, or to a cease fire on Russia’s terms.

Lost Symbol


Title:                  Lost Symbol

Author:                 Dan Brown

Brown, Dan (2019). The Lost Symbol. New York: Doubleday

LCCN:    2009464840

PS3552.R685434 L67 2009

Subjects

Date Updated:  April 29, 2015

Dan Brown scored high with his first two novels, Angels and Demons and The Da Vinci Code. He continues his story line with Robert Langdon, but to me, this was not nearly so successful.

Review by Maureen Dowd[1]

The new Dan Brown puzzler is the scariest one yet.

It’s not so much the barbarous machinations of the villain, another one-dimensional, self-mortifying hulk, that sends chills down your spine. Or the plot, which is an Oedipal MacGuffin.

No, the terrifying thing about The Lost Symbol is that Brown—who did not flinch when the Vatican both condemned the The Da Vinci Code and curtailed the filming of Angels & Demons in Rome—clearly got spooked by that other powerful, secretive ancient sect, the Masons.

His book is a desperate attempt to ingratiate himself with the Masons, rather than to interpret the bizarre Masonic rites and symbols that illuminate—as in Illuminati!—how the ultimate elite private boys’ club has conspired to shape the nation’s capital and Western civilization ever since George Washington laid the cornerstone for the Capitol building in a Masonic ritual wearing full Masonic regalia, including a darling little fringed satin apron. If the Masons are more intimidating than the Vatican, if Brown has now become part of their semiotic smoke screen, then all I can say is, God help us all.

Or as Brown, who is more addicted to italics than that other breathless Brown, Cosmo Girl Helen Gurley, might put it: What the hell?

Of course, who can blame him? How can you not be frightened by a brotherhood that includes Mel Blanc, the voice of Bugs Bunny; Buzz Aldrin; and Dave Thomas, the founder of Wendy’s?

During the five years he researched this book, did Brown begin to believe those sensational stories about how, if you expose the secrets of the Masons, they will slit your throat? Did he discover that the Masons are not merely a bunch of old guys dressed up in funny costumes enjoying a harmless night away from the wives? Could they really be, as a recent Discovery Channel documentary on the ancient order wondered, “Godless conspirators bound to a death pledge who infiltrate institutions and run the world”?

Did Brown decipher the cryptic documents locked in a safe at the C.I.A.—founded by another Mason, Harry Truman!—and figure out that some of those wild tales were true? That Jack the Ripper was a Mason whose identity was covered up by the Masonic police commissioner? That Salieri and others murdered Mozart after the young Masonic composer revealed some of the order’s secret symbols in “The Magic Flute”?

I was really looking forward to Brown’s excavation of Washington’s mystical power, ancient portals, secret passageways and shadow worlds. As a native, I’ve loved the monuments here since I was little. I’ve often driven past the Scottish Rite Masonic temple with its two sphinxes on 16th Street. And my first memory as a little girl was picking up my dad from work at night from the brightly lighted Capitol. I was eager to learn occult lore about our venerable marble temples and access the lost wisdom of the ages.

So I happily curled up with Robert Langdon, the author’s anodyne, tweedy doppelgänger, and suppressed my annoyance that the Harvard symbologist was still wearing his Mickey Mouse watch, hand-grinding his Sumatra coffee beans and refusing to entangle with the latest brainy babe who materializes to help untangle ancient secrets.

This book’s looker, Katherine Solomon, is a lithe, gray-eyed expert in Noetic science, the study of “the untapped potential of the human mind.” Brown must also want to explore the untapped potential of the human body, since he has made his heroine 50 years old, something that no doubt caused the Hollywood studio suits to spritz their Zico coconut water. Katherine, a few years older than Langdon, may be a tribute to Brown’s wife and amanuensis, Blythe, who is 12 years older and helped him write “187 Men to Avoid: A Survival Guide for the Romantically Frustrated Woman.”

Emotions are the one thing Dan Brown can’t seem to decipher. His sex scenes are encrypted. Even though Katherine seems like Langdon’s soul mate—she even knows how to weigh souls—their most torrid sex scenes consist of Robert winking at her or flashing her a lopsided grin.

Brown’s novels are obviously inspired by Indiana Jones and “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” But he can only emulate the galloping narrative drive and the fascination with mythological archetypes, pyramids, Holy Grails, treasure maps and secret codes; he can’t summon the sexy, playful side of the Spielberg-Lucas legacy.

His metaphors and similes thud onto the page. Inoue Sato, an intelligence official investigating a disembodied hand bearing a Masonic ring and iconic tattoos that shows up in the Capitol Rotunda, “cruised the deep waters of the C.I.A. like a leviathan who surfaced only to devour its prey.” Insights don’t simply come to characters: “Then, like an oncoming truck, it hit her,” or “The revelation crashed over Langdon like a wave.” And just when our hero thinks it’s safe to go back in the water, another bad metaphor washes over him: “His head ached now, a roiling torrent of inter­connected thoughts.”

You can practically hear the eerie organ music playing whenever Mal’akh, the clichéd villain whose eyes shine “with feral ferocity,” appears. He goes from sounding like a parody of a Bond bad guy (“You are a very small cog in a vast machine,” he tells Langdon) to a parody of Woody Allen (“The body craves what the body craves,” he thinks).

But Brown tops himself with these descriptions: “Wearing only a silken loincloth wrapped around his buttocks and neutered sex organ, Mal’akh began his preparations,” and “Hanging beneath the archway, his massive sex organ bore the tattooed symbols of his destiny. In another life, this heavy shaft of flesh had been his source of carnal pleasure. But no longer.”

Brown has always written screenplays masquerading as novels, but now he’s also casting. Warren Bellamy, the Masonic architect of the Capitol, is described as an elderly African-American man with close-cropped, graying hair who enunciates his words with crisp precision: “Bellamy was lithe and slender, with an erect posture and piercing gaze that exuded the confidence of a man in full control of his surroundings.” Morgan Freeman, call Ron Howard.

The Bellamy character provides another opportunity for Brown to burnish the Masons, as when the architect tells Langdon: “The craft of Freemasonry has given me a deep respect for that which transcends human understanding. I’ve learned never to close my mind to an idea simply because it seems miraculous.”

The author has gotten rich and famous without attaining a speck of subtlety. A character never just stumbles into blackness. It must be inky blackness. A character never just listens in shock. He listens in utter shock.

And consider this fraught interior monologue by the head of the Capitol Police: “Chief Anderson wondered when this night would end. A severed hand in my Rotunda? A death shrine in my basement? Bizarre engravings on a stone pyramid? Somehow, the Redskins game no longer felt significant.”

My dad always said in his day that the Masons were not welcoming to Catholics. The Catholic Church once considered the Masons so anti-Catholic, Catholics who joined were threatened with excommunication. Now the church hierarchy merely disapproves. (They like secret rites, blood rituals and the exclusion of women only when they do it.) But Langdon suggests to his Harvard students that the Masons are “refreshingly open-minded” and do not “discriminate in any way.” To a student protesting that Masonry sounds like a “freaky cult,” Langdon counters that it’s “a system of morality.” He notes, “The Masons are not a secret society . . . they are a society with secrets.”

He debunks stories of the founding fathers’ supposedly building a Satanic pentacle and the Masonic compass and square into the capital’s street design, scoffing, “If you draw enough intersecting lines on a map, you’re bound to find all kinds of shapes.”

The Masons are represented in the dazzling person of Peter Solomon, Katherine’s older brother, a handsome, wealthy historian and philanthropist who runs the Smithsonian Institution and inspired the young Langdon’s interest in symbols.

In interviews, Brown has said he was tempted to join the Masons, calling their philosophy a “beautiful blueprint for human spirituality.” In the next opus, Langdon will probably be wearing a red Shriner’s fez with his Burberry turtleneck and Harris tweed.

In this book, Langdon helps stop the villain from releasing a video to YouTube that he has surreptitiously taped during his Masonic initiation rites. The blind­folded initiate drinks blood-red wine out of a human skull and has a dagger pressed to his bare chest; he has to take part in an enactment of his own brutal murder—“there were simulated blows to his head, including one with a Mason’s stone maul”—and hear a biblical reference to human sacrifice, “the submission of Abraham to the Supreme Being by proffering Isaac, his firstborn son.” These are meant partly as warnings about what can befall anyone who leaks the order’s secrets—warnings Dan Brown clearly took to heart.

“Langdon could already tell that the video was an unfair piece of propaganda,” Brown writes, adding that the symbologist thought to himself, “the truth will be twisted . . . as it always is with the Masons.” Brown skitters away from giving us the book we expected: one that might have clued us in on which present-day politicians are still Masons and what mumbo jumbo they’re up to.

That job was left to Eamon Javers of Politico, who uncovered a list of Freemasons in Congress that reads like a vast right-wing conspiracy. Joe “You lie!” Wilson is a member of the Sinclair Lodge of West Columbia, S.C. Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia, the House minority whip, who’s trying to suffocate President Obama’s health care plan, is a member of a Richmond lodge his dad and uncle belonged to. Senator Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, who chimed in against “death panels,” urged Javers: “Don’t judge us by the funny hats we wear.”

Even more ominously, President Obama suddenly left the White House on a recent night and went to the Washington Monument, the obelisk that figures in Brown’s climactic scene, and stayed inside for 20 minutes. If you add the 13 minutes it probably took to walk to the limo and drive back to the White House and return to his residence, you reach the magic Masonic number of 33!

In the end, as with The Da Vinci Code, there’s no payoff. Brown should stop worrying about unfinished pyramids and worry about unfinished novels. At least Spielberg and Lucas gave us an Ark and swirling, dissolving humans. We don’t get any ancient wisdom that “will profoundly change the world as you know it”—just a lot of New Agey piffle about how we are the gods we’ve been waiting for. (And a father-son struggle for global domination, as though we didn’t get enough of that with the Bushes.)

What the hell, Dan?

[1] Maureen Dowd, “Capital Secrets,” in The International New York Times (September 30, 2009), downloaded April 29, 2015. Maureen Dowd is an Op-Ed columnist for The Times.

 

Sherlock Holmes


Title:                  Sherlock Holmes

Author:                 Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Arthur Conan Doyle (2001). Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Illustrated Novels. London: Chancellor Press

LCCN:    2002437324

PR4621 2001c

Subjects

Date Updated:  April 29, 2015

Sherlock Holmes is a fictional detective created by author and physician Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. A London-based “consulting detective” whose abilities border on the fantastic, Holmes is famous for his astute logical reasoning, his ability to adopt almost any disguise, and his use of forensic science skills to solve difficult cases.

Holmes, who first appeared in publication in 1887, was featured in four novels and 56 short stories. The first novel, “A Study in Scarlet”, appeared in Beeton’s Christmas Annual in 1887 and the second, “The Sign of the Four,” in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine in 1890. The character grew tremendously in popularity with the first series of short stories in Strand Magazine, beginning with “A Scandal in Bohemia” in 1891; further series of short stories and two novels published in serial form appeared between then and 1927. The stories cover a period from around 1880 up to 1914.

All but four stories are narrated by Holmes’s friend and biographer, Dr. John H. Watson; two are narrated by Holmes himself (“The Blanched Soldier” and “The Lion’s Mane”) and two others are written in the third person (“The Mazarin Stone” and “His Last Bow”). In two stories (“The Musgrave Ritual” and “The Gloria Scott”), Holmes tells Watson the main story from his memories, while Watson becomes the narrator of the frame story. The first and fourth novels, A Study in Scarlet and The Valley of Fear, each include a long interval of omniscient narration recounting events unknown to either Holmes or Watson.

Doyle said that the character of Sherlock Holmes was inspired by Dr. Joseph Bell, for whom Doyle had worked as a clerk at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary. Like Holmes, Bell was noted for drawing large conclusions from the smallest observations. However, some years later Bell wrote in a letter to Conan Doyle: “You are yourself Sherlock Holmes and well you know it.” Sir Henry Littlejohn, lecturer on Forensic Medicine and Public Health at the Royal College of Surgeons, is also cited as a source for Holmes. Littlejohn served as Police Surgeon and Medical Officer of Health of Edinburgh, providing for Doyle a link between medical investigation and the detection of crime.

Explicit details about Sherlock Holmes’s life outside of the adventures recorded by Dr. Watson are few and far between in Conan Doyle’s original stories; nevertheless, incidental details about his early life and extended families portray a loose biographical picture of the detective.

An estimate of Holmes’ age in the story “His Last Bow” places his birth in 1854; the story is set in August 1914 and he is described as being 60 years of age. Commonly, the date is cited as 6 January.

Holmes states that he first developed his methods of deduction while an undergraduate. His earliest cases, which he pursued as an amateur, came from fellow university students. According to Holmes, it was an encounter with the father of one of his classmates that led him to take up detection as a profession, and he spent the six years following university working as a consulting detective, before financial difficulties led him to take Watson as a roommate, at which point the narrative of the stories begins.

From 1881, Holmes was described as having lodgings at 221B, Baker Street, London, from where he runs his consulting detective service. 221B is an apartment up 17 steps, stated in an early manuscript to be at the “upper end” of the road. Until the arrival of Dr. Watson, Holmes worked alone, only occasionally employing agents from the city’s underclass, including a host of informants and a group of street children he calls “The Baker Street Irregulars”. The Irregulars appear in three stories: “A Study in Scarlet,” “The Sign of the Four,” and “The Adventure of the Crooked Man”.

Little is said of Holmes’s family. His parents were unmentioned in the stories and he merely states that his ancestors were “country squires”. In “The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter”, Holmes claims that his great-uncle was Vernet, the French artist. His brother, Mycroft, seven years his senior, is a government official who appears in three stories and is mentioned in one other story. Mycroft has a unique civil service position as a kind of memory-man or walking database for all aspects of government policy. Mycroft is described as even more gifted than Sherlock in matters of observation and deduction, but he lacks Sherlock’s drive and energy, preferring to spend his time at ease in the Diogenes Club, described as “a club for the most un-clubbable men in London”.

Holmes shares the majority of his professional years with his good friend and chronicler Dr. John H. Watson, who lives with Holmes for some time before his marriage in 1887, and again after his wife’s death. Their residence is maintained by the landlady, Mrs. Hudson.

Watson has two roles in Holmes’s life. First, he gives practical assistance in the conduct of his cases. He is the detective’s right-hand man, acting variously as look-out, decoy, accomplice and messenger. Second, he is Holmes’s chronicler (his “Boswell” as Holmes refers to him). Most of the Holmes stories are frame narratives, written from Watson’s point of view as summaries of the detective’s most interesting cases. Holmes is often described as criticizing Watson’s writings as sensational and populist, suggesting that they neglect to accurately and objectively report the pure calculating “science” of his craft.

Detection is, or ought to be, an exact science and should be treated in the same cold and unemotional manner. You have attempted to tinge it (“A Study in Scarlet”) with romanticism, which produces much the same effect as if you worked a love-story … Some facts should be suppressed, or, at least, a just sense of proportion should be observed in treating them. The only point in the case which deserved mention was the curious analytical reasoning from effects to causes, by which I succeeded in unravelling it.

Nevertheless, Holmes’s friendship with Watson is his most significant relationship. In several stories, Holmes’s fondness for Watson—often hidden beneath his cold, intellectual exterior—is revealed. For instance, in “The Adventure of the Three Garridebs”, Watson is wounded in a confrontation with a villain; although the bullet wound proves to be “quite superficial”, Watson is moved by Holmes’s reaction:

It was worth a wound; it was worth many wounds; to know the depth of loyalty and love which lay behind that cold mask. The clear, hard eyes were dimmed for a moment, and the firm lips were shaking. For the one and only time I caught a glimpse of a great heart as well as of a great brain. All my years of humble but single-minded service culminated in that moment of revelation.

In all, Holmes is described as being in active practice for 23 years, with Watson documenting his cases for 17 of them.

To me, the most interesting of the Holmes stories is “The Case of the Dancing Men,” because it involves cryptography.

Mr. Hilton Cubitt of Ridling Thorpe Manor in Norfolk visits Sherlock Holmes and gives him a piece of paper with this mysterious sequence of stick figures.

The little dancing men are at the heart of a mystery which seems to be driving his young wife Elsie to distraction. He married her about a year ago, and until recently, everything was well. She is American, and before the wedding, she asked her husband-to-be to promise her never to ask about her past, as she had had some “very disagreeable associations” in her life, although she said that there was nothing that she was personally ashamed of. Mr. Cubitt swore the promise and, being an honourable English gentleman, insists on living by it, which is one of the things causing difficulty at Ridling Thorpe Manor.

The trouble began when Elsie received a letter from the United States, which evidently disturbed her, and she threw the letter on the fire. Then the dancing men appeared, sometimes on a piece of paper left on the sundial overnight, sometimes scrawled in chalk on a wall or door, even a windowsill. Each time, their appearance has an obvious, terrifying effect on Elsie, but she will not tell her husband what is going on. Holmes tells Cubitt that he wants to see every occurrence of the dancing men. They are to be copied down and brought or sent to him at 221B Baker Street. Cubitt duly does this, and it provides Holmes with an important clue. Holmes comes to realize that it is a substitution cipher. He cracks the code by frequency analysis. The last of the messages conveyed by the dancing men is a particularly alarming one.

Holmes rushes down to Ridling Thorpe Manor only to find Cubitt dead of a bullet to the heart and his wife gravely wounded in the head. Inspector Martin of the Norfolk Constabulary believes that it is a murder-suicide, or will be if Elsie dies. She is the prime suspect in her husband’s death. Holmes sees things differently. Why is there a bullet hole in the windowsill, making a total of three shots, while Cubitt and his wife were each only shot once? Why are only two chambers in Cubitt’s revolver empty? What is the large sum of money doing in the room? The discovery of a trampled flowerbed just outside the window, and the discovery of a shell casing therein confirm what Holmes has suspected — a third person was involved, and it is surely the one who has been sending the curious dancing-man messages.

Holmes knows certain things that Inspector Martin does not. He seemingly picks the name “Elrige’s” out of the air, and Cubitt’s stable boy recognizes it as a local farmer’s name. Holmes quickly writes a message — in dancing men characters — and sends the boy to Elrige’s Farm to deliver it to a lodger there, whose name he has also apparently picked out of the air. Of course, Holmes has learned both men’s names by reading the dancing men code. While waiting for the result of this message, Holmes takes the opportunity to explain to Watson and Inspector Martin how he cracked the code of the dancing men, and the messages are revealed. The last one, which caused Holmes and Watson to rush to Norfolk, read “ELSIE PREPARE TO MEET THY GOD”.

The lodger, Mr. Abe Slaney, another American, unaware that Elsie is at death’s door and quite unable to communicate, duly arrives at Ridling Thorpe Manor a short while later, much to everyone’s astonishment, except Holmes’s. He has sent for Slaney using the dancing men, knowing that Slaney will believe that the message is from Elsie. He is seized as he comes through the door. He tells the whole story. He is a former lover from Chicago and has come to England to woo Elsie back. She originally fled his clutches because he was a dangerous criminal, as Holmes has found out through telegraphic inquiries to the US. When an encounter at the window where the killing happened turned violent with Hilton Cubitt’s appearance in the room, Slaney pulled out his gun and shot back at Cubitt, who had already shot at him. Cubitt was killed and Slaney fled. Apparently, Elsie then shot herself. Slaney seems genuinely upset that Elsie has come to harm. The threatening nature of some of his dancing-man messages is explained by Slaney’s losing his temper at Elsie’s apparent unwillingness to leave her husband. The money found in the room was apparently to have been a bribe to make Slaney go away.

Slaney is arrested and later tried. He escapes the noose owing to mitigating circumstances. Elsie recovers from her serious injuries and spends her life helping the poor and administering her late husband’s estate.

How did Holmes crack the code?

What would most people make of this childish-looking scrawl: a piece of useless junk drawn by a primary school pupil? Or is it actually a secret code?

…or more to the point, what does Sherlock Holmes make of it?

The little dancing men are at the heart of a mystery which seems to be driving his young wife Elsie to distraction. He married her about a year ago, and until recently, everything was well. She is American, and before the wedding, she asked her husband-to-be to promise her never to ask about her past, as she had had some “very disagreeable associations” in her life, although she said that there was nothing that she was personally ashamed of. Mr. Cubitt swore the promise and, being an honourable English gentleman, insists on living by it, which is one of the things causing difficulty at Ridling Thorpe Manor.

The trouble began when Elsie received a letter from the United States, which evidently disturbed her, and she threw
the letter on the fire. Then the dancing men appeared, sometimes on a piece of paper left on the sundial overnight, sometimes scrawled in chalk on a wall or door, even a windowsill. Each time, their appearance has an obvious, terrifying effect on Elsie, but she will not tell her husband what is going on. The first message brought to Holmes is the one above.

Holmes tells Cubitt that he wants to see every occurrence of the dancing men. They are to be copied down and brought or sent to him at 221B Baker Street. Cubitt duly does this, and it provides Holmes with the most important clue in the whole mystery.

Collecting all the messages that were shown to Holmes we get:

Criminal message 1.

Criminal message 2

Elsie’s Reply

Criminal’s message 3

Holmes quickly realizes that it is a substitution cipher. Through much brainwork, he cracks the code. How does he do this? Manipulating the dancing men characters is a nuisance. It is much easier if we assign each character a letter from a random alphabet. We choose a random alphabet so we are sure we do not put any patterns in place that might mislead owing to an artifact. The random alphabet I chose is

G  W  U  C  B  H  O  P  Q  X  A  Z  D  J  L  T  V  R  E  M  F  Y  K  S  N  I

However, before assigning letters to the men we note that in message 1, 2, and 3 some of the men are identical except that they are holding flags. Also note that there is no indication of word breaks in any of the messages. I will assume that the characters with flags and without, otherwise identical, represent the same letter, and that the flag represents a word break. Now I can assign letters to each of the figures.

G         W #        U           C       B        C #    G       O      C #    P         Q       G      X      C      A

Z       D        J       C  #    C      Q       P        L       C

X     C       T     C      B

C       Q      P        L       C #     T     B      C      T      G      B      C

V      D #      J       C      C      V #    V      U      A #    M    D       F

Simplifying we have the cryptogram

G     W      U  C   B   C      G  O   C     P  Q  G   X  C  A

Z    D    J    C            C   Q    P    L    C

X     C       T     C      B

C   Q   P   L   C            T   B   C   T   G   B   C                V    D         J    C    C     V        V   U   A         M  D  F

Where the word breaks are indicated. Now we can do a frequency analysis.

C is by far the most frequently appearing letter. We assign C = e and we find

G     W      U  e   B   e      G  O   e     P  Q  G   X  e  A

Z    D    J    e            e   Q    P    L    e

X     e       T     e      B

e   Q   P   L   e            T   B   e   T   G   B   e                V    D         J    e    e     V        V   U   A         M  D  F

Holmes knows that the girl’s name, Elsie, probably appears in the message since she reacted to each message so strongly.  The group e   Q    P    L    e is the only one that fits the name Elsie so we find Q = l,    P = s, L = i. Making these changes we get

G     W      U  e   B   e      G  O   e     s  l  G   X  e  A

Z    D    J    e            e   l    s    i    e

X     e       T     e      B

e   l   s   i   e            T   B   e   T   G   B   e                    V    D         J    e    e     V        V   U   A         M  D  F

The first group on the second line is a four letter word ending in “e” so we can guess it is “come.” Thus    Z = c, D = o, J = m and we get

G     W      U  e   B   e      G  O   e     s  l  G   X  e  A

c    o    m    e            e   l    s    i    e

X     e       T     e      B

e   l   s   i   e            T   B   e   T   G   B   e                    V    o         m    e    e     V        V   U   A         M  o  F

Trying U = h, B = r we get

G     W      h  e   r   e      G  O   e     s  l  G   X  e  A

c    o    m    e            e   l    s    i    e

X     e       T     e      r

e   l   s   i   e            T   r   e   T   G   r   e                      V    o         m    e    e     V        V   h   A         M  o  F

“V” occurred 4 times so we try V = t (third group, last line)

G     W      h  e   r   e      G  O   e     s  l  G   X  e  A

c    o    m    e            e   l    s    i    e

X     e       T     e      r

e   l   s   i   e            T   r   e   T   G   r   e                      t    o         m    e    e     t        t   h   A         M  o  F

Now it looks like A = y, X probably is n, and T = v (although this is inconsistent with the last line where T clearly is p.

a     m      h  e   r   e      a  O   e     s  l  a   n  e  y

c    o    m    e            e   l    s    i    e

n     e       v     e      r

e   l   s   i   e            p   r   e   p   a   r   e                      t    o         m    e    e     t        t   h   y         g  o  d

We can get everything except the name in the first line. It could be Ace or Abe – we have no way of knowing from the given information. Holmes seems to know of the person and gets it as Abe. Thus the messages are

a     m      h  e   r   e      a  b   e     s  l  a   n  e  y

c    o    m    e            e   l    s    i    e

n     e       v     e      r

e   l   s   i   e            p   r   e   p   a   r   e                      t    o         m    e    e     t        t   h   y         g  o  d

This solution shows the cryptographers problems (errors in encrypting) and missing information that can be obtained only by more traffic or other information (such as knowing a sender’s name, etc.)

If the solution isn’t clear (I’ve omitted some graphics) post a note and I can send you a WORD file tht has all graphics in it.