Review of “The Six Unsolved Ciphers”…

…or, in all its prolixitous glory, “The Six Unsolved Ciphers: Inside the Mysterious Codes That Have Confounded the World’s Greatest Cryptographers“, by Richard Belfield (2007). It was previously published by Orion in the UK as “Can You Crack the Enigma Code?” in 2006.

You’d have thought I’d be delighted by this offering: after all, it covers the Voynich Manuscript, the Beale Papers, Elgar’s “Dorabella” cipher, the CIA’s Kryptos sculpture, the Shepherd’s Monument at Shugborough, and the “Zodiac Killer” ciphers, all things that a Cipher Mysteries blogger ought to get excited about. But there was something oddly disconsonant about it all for me: and working out quite why proved quite difficult…

For a start, if I were compiling a top six list of uncracked historical ciphers, only the Voynich Manuscript and the Beale Papers would have made the cut from Belfield’s set – I don’t think anyone out there could (unless they happened to have cracked either of the two) sensibly nitpick about these being included.

Yet as far the other four go, it’s not nearly so clear. I’ve always thought that the Dorabella cipher was a minor jeu d’esprit on Elgar’s part in a note to a dear friend, and most likely to be something like an enciphered tune. The Kryptos sculpture was intended to bamboozle the CIA and NSA’s crypto squads: and though it relies on classical cryptographic techniques, there’s something a bit too self-consciously knowing about it (its appropriation by The Da Vinci Code cover doesn’t help in this regard). And while the Shugborough Shepherd’s Monument (Belfield’s best chapter by far) indeed has hidden writing, placing its ten brief letters into the category of cipher or code is perhaps a bit strong.

Finally: the Zodiac Killer ciphers, which I know have occupied my old friend Glen Claston in the past, forms just about the only borderline case: its place in the top six is arguable (and it has a good procedural police yarn accompanying it), so I’d kind of grudgingly accept that (at gunpoint, if you will). Regardless, I’d still want to place the Codex Seraphinianus above it, for example.

Belfield’s book reminds me a lot of Kennedy & Churchill’s book on the Voynich Manuscript: even though it is a good, solid, journalistic take on some intriguing cipher stories, I’m not convinced by the choice of the six, and in only one (the Shugborough Shepherd’s Monument) do I think Belfield really gets under the skin of the subject matter. While he musters a lot of interest in the whole subject, it rarely amounts to what you might call passion: and that is really what this kind of mystery-themed book needs to enliven its basically dry subject matter.

It’s hard to fault it as an introduction to six interesting unbroken historical codes and ciphers (it does indeed cover exactly what it says on the tin), and perhaps I’m unfair to judge it against the kind of quality bar I try to apply to my own writing: but try as I may, I can’t quite bring myself to recommend it over (for example) Simon Singh’s “The Code Book” (for all its faults!) as a readable introduction to historical cryptography.

PS: my personal “top six” unsolved historical codes/ciphers would be:-

  1. The Voynich Manuscript (the granddaddy of them all)
  2. The Beale Papers (might be a fake, but it’s a great story)
  3. The Rohonc Codex (too little known, but a fascinating object all the same)
  4. John Dee’s “Enochian” texts (in fact, everything written by John Dee)
  5. William Shakespeare’s work (there’s a massive literature on this, why ignore it?)
  6. Bellaso’s ciphers (but more on this in a later post…)

Feel free to agree or disagree! icon wink Review of The Six Unsolved Ciphers...

5 Comments

  1. avatar anonymouse June 14, 2011 7:42 pm

    How can I get in contact with Glen Clason?

    3 next
    15 enjoyx

  2. avatar nikos thanasoulas July 1, 2011 10:43 pm

    excelent informations you have in this site.weldone.am from Greece,sorry my bad english.

    http://cryptonikos.mywibes.com

  3. avatar rambler February 26, 2014 9:47 am

    So, do you think the Codex Seraphinianus might, at some point, be translatable then?

  4. avatar nickpelling February 26, 2014 10:08 am

    Rambler: I suspect the secret history of the CS is that Luigi S is embarrassed by the lively youthful contents of the plaintext, and so has no short-term plans to reveal it. But longer term, who knows?

    http://www.nickpelling.com/

  5. avatar Simon Cassidy March 4, 2014 2:30 am

    Glad to hear your cryptographic interest in all John Dee’s writings. I think I’ve cracked one or at least part of one (his Monas). Seems Dee was fishing (with Theorem XI of M.H.) to see if any other scholar knew the secret of the perfect Xtian calender reform, which became highly relevant due to his (just finished) trip to Italy during the last sessions of the council of Trent which he must have realised had pulled the trigger for a Catholic (Papal) reform of the Julian calendar (also noticed by Petrus Pitatus of Verona who immediately republished his calendar reform proposal specifically for presentation to the pope).

    http://drjohndee.info

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