28 April 2023

The Mystery at the Heart of “Masquerade”

My notes and case dossier from 41 years ago.

Buried treasures, anagrams, and complex puzzles are all tropes found in mystery fiction. They’re also elements of a delightful children’s book that spawned a sub-genre in kidlit in the 1980s.

It all started with a 1979 picture book called Masquerade, written and illustrated by a British artist and “wizard” named Kit Williams. (The book was published by Jonathan Cape in the UK, by Schocken Books in the U.S., and by publishers elsewhere around the globe. The plot of the book is simple. A sprightly hare is charged with transporting a precious amulet, a gift from Lady Moon to the aloof Sun-God. Jack Hare travels the length and breadth of England to deliver the prize, but loses the amulet along the way. Readers are encouraged to use the clues hidden in the book’s 15 hyperrealistic illustrations to find a very real sculpture, which Williams crafted from gemstones, faience, and 18k gold, and buried somewhere in that blessed plot, England.

Like some kind of latter-day Willy Wonka, Williams promised to send an airplane ticket anywhere in the world to the person who wrote him and convincingly demonstrated that they had cracked the code. He further promised to travel with the winner to the secret site and assist in the dig.

Thus ensued a colorful couple of years that saw (mostly) adult readers of the book going nuts digging up gardens, soccer fields, and other public and private lands all over the nation, in search of Williams’ jewel-encrusted rabbit. One long-suffering woman told British media that people kept digging up her rabbit-shaped topiary in search of the treasure. As the book’s fame spread, its New York publisher proudly bragged to the media that no less an entity than the FBI bought copies for their trainees to test their mettle cracking the code. They couldn’t, but with all the publicity the book sold at least 2 million copies worldwide.

While I never cashed in my childhood savings bonds and booked my ticket to England, I too became obsessed with the book, which arrived in U.S. bookstores about the time I was entering high school. I paged through the book countless times, and even “taught” the book for a time when I was tutoring kids in math and reading at a local elementary school. I was counting on the genius of little kids to help me unravel the case, because I was hopelessly stumped.

Like any good mystery, the book piled red herrings on top of red herrings. The visual clues included atomic numbers, magic squares, and so on, all designed to lead you astray. Williams actually painted a herring gull—a type of seabird—into one image. In another, he painted a goldfish whose scales appeared red where they overlapped with an underlying image of a hare. Each image featured a riddle painted in its borders. Some of the letters were red, others had barbed serifs. The barbed or red-letter clues, once decoded, amounted to a handful of innocuous and often unhelpful anagrams.

While Williams insisted in the book flap copy that no knowledge of British geography was necessary to solve the mystery, the book nevertheless touched on history, mathematics, literary references, British train schedules, astronomy, physics, botany, and the animal kingdom. For example, one clue found in the border of the very first image reads: “One of Six of Eight”—a reference to Catherine of Aragon, the first of six wives of Henry VIII.

In 1982, newspapers around the world revealed that the rabbit amulet had been found by a gentleman who sent what he believed to be the solution to Williams. Williams later published a smaller paperback in which he spelled out the solution in excruciating detail. Obsessive that I was (and still am), I rushed out to get that new version of the book and was astonished by the diabolical complexity of the puzzle.

To summarize this quickly, the key to the puzzle was drawing a line from the eyes of the living figures—humans and animals—in each of the paintings through their fingers (or paws/claws/fins) until those lines crossed and touched letters in the border. But you had to get the hierarchy of beings—men, women, children, hares, and lesser animals—in the proper order if you ever hoped to assemble the letters in the right sequence. One clue to this arrangement is found on the title page: “To find the hidden riddle, you must use your eyes, / And find the hare in every picture that may point you to the prize.” (Italics mine.)

If you do this, the marginalia spelled out the following:


From here, it becomes a matter of locating a monument in England dedicated to Catherine of Aragon, and waiting for the sun on the day of the vernal equinox to cast a shadow pointing to the location of the treasure. Where was the monument, you ask? An acrostic formed by the bolded letters above reads: Close by Ampthill. That’s Ampthill, Bedfordshire, where Catherine was exiled following the annulment of her sad marriage.

The two most important images in the book was one featuring Sir Isaac Newton and another depicting a woman known as the Penny-Pockets Lady. These two spell out the color-coded hierarchy of beings that solvers were intended to follow. 

In the Isaac Newton image, the barbed letters (circled in blue) spell SIR, and
the red letters (circled in red) spell ISAAC—both of which have nothing to do with
solving the final mystery. However, if you draw lines from the eyes of certain figures
through their hands, toes, paws, fins, etc, the resulting lines point to letters
that spell the secret word HOUR in the above acrostic.
Please do not ask me how to draw the lines;
I knew how when I was 16 years old, but not today.

By now I think we can agree that an American high school kid, aided only by his love of mysteries and a gaggle of second graders as his Baker Street Irregulars, had little hope of cracking the case.

Many years after the treasure’s discovery, The Sunday Times of London alleged that the finder had not played fairly. Instead of decoding the clues properly, he learned of the hare’s approximate location from an ex-girlfriend of Williams, and started digging holes until he struck pay dirt. The prize should have gone to two physics teachers from Manchester who cracked the code exactly as its creator intended, but whose letter reached Williams too late.

Scandalized, Williams apologized to the world at large. By then he had moved on to writing other puzzle books, painting more gorgeous images, and designing fanciful public clocks. As one who struggles constantly to conceive of even one or two clues to embed in my stories, I can only marvel at someone who possessed the creativity to layer such a dizzying array of clues for a book spanning a mere 32 pages. In my eyes, Kit Williams is some kind of a genius.

Masquerade is no longer in print, but you can still find reasonably priced copies online. If you’re buying for a child, you will want the 9-by-11-inch hardcover. If you want to learn how to decipher the code in the author’s own words, look for the 6-by-7.5-inch paperback version of the book “with the answer explained.”

See you in three weeks!



  1. I had not heard of Masquerade, Joe, but it sounds fascinating.

    Lewis Carroll was no slouch at puzzles and games. I took advantage of an Apple Macintosh development product called HyperCard to build a game upon Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. I mapped Wonderland with residents and planted lots of puzzles and clues. I vaguely recall one game with her train ride and another where she played croquet. Croquet involved Alice in a disguised network puzzle, chasing her opponent one move at a time. Although it seemed she could never catch her adversary, one wicket among 15 or 20 was asymmetrical, meaning she could catch her rabbit if she could prevent him from racing back to the same 'mathematically magic' wicket. The game included a number of word puzzles including a borderline unfair UNDER___UNDER, which I'd found in an 1800s puzzle book. Sadly Hypercard passed on and so did the game.

    1. Leigh: I wish I had the mind to concoct such an elaborate puzzle like this, software-based, print, or any other medium, but I think I lack the patience, not to mention brain power.

  2. Oooh, how I wish I'd had something like this to wrestle with when I was a kid! BTW, I can highly recommend the books of Raymond Smullyan for mind-bending logic problems. Try "What Is the Name of This Book? The Riddle of Dracula and Other Logical Puzzles", still available on Amazon!

  3. Elizabeth Dearborn28 April, 2023 15:08

    Many of y'all are probably familiar with Einstein's five-house riddle. It is on the internet at https://www.brainzilla.com/logic/zebra/einsteins-riddle/ & elsewhere. Supposedly only 2% of the population can solve it. I don't consider myself a brainiac but I solved the puzzle in about 15 minutes using pencil & paper. If I had to work it out in my head without writing anything down, I know I never would have been able to solve it.

    1. Well done, Elizabeth. Same as Eve, I worked it with pencil and a grid I'd created in Excel to solve Dell's Logic Puzzles (the same publisher as AHMM and EQMM).

  4. Oh, Elizabeth, I did the same. But then, I love logic puzzles. And yes, I used pencil and paper too.


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