Showing posts with label puzzles. Show all posts
Showing posts with label puzzles. Show all posts

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!


05 March 2023

Wardle of Wordle

Josh Wardle
Josh Wardle

Long ago in the depth of the pandemic, our friend ABA mentioned a game she thought might interest SleuthSayers. Rob mentioned it in passing, but said nothing further. At the time, I was working on other articles and gradually it slipped into my mental æther until I stumbled upon it Friday. You remember ABAРShe won the Criminal Brief Christmas Puzzle way back when, an impressive feat.

As a puzzleist, she couldn’t resist telling us about Wordle… and believe me, auto-correct is right now having fun at my expense as it substitutes worldly, workable, and girdle. But ‘worldly’ is applicable:  Wordle is literally being played around the world– Europe, Africa, Asia, and Oceania. So I have to apologize, letting our SleuthSayers wallow mentally while the rest of the planet has been playing… unless you read the New York Times. It bought the game a year ago.

What is Wordle?

It’s been compared to the game Jotto and the television show Lingo. It’s a fame of guess-the-letters of an unknown word, simple like Hangman, but a stretch to the imagination. You must submit real words. You can’t probe by using, for example, ABCDE.

Each word (in standard play) has five letters with six attempts to guess it. Results are color-coded:

  • green     correct letter in the right place
  • yellow    right letter, wrong place
  • grey      wrong letter

Beginner’s Luck

On my first play joining this game world at large, From a single letter E, I nailed it in my third attempt (proof attached):

  1. STEAM   Notice how I cleverly deployed the commonest letters,
  2. DRECK   only to be punished with merely a single letter E,
  3. QUERY   but as luck would have it…

I simply couldn’t think of any other word with a letter E in the middle that didn’t use letters already ruled out (i.e, steak). And then boom! Got it!

First Wordle game ever. Not bad for a beginner!

Oh, before I forget, did I mention Wordle was invented by a Welshman named Wardle?

After the New York Times purchased the rights, concerns arose the newspaper would charge for the game. They haven’t done so, but clones have arisen. I include a couple here because Firefox gave me problems loading the original. Here are various places to play it:

25 December 2020

A Guest of Christmas Past

On the 13th of December 2009, the predecessor of SleuthSayers, Criminal Brief, launched a Christmas puzzle unique to the web. With all seven CB members contributing, it ran for a week… and a bonus eighth day, with clues appearing every in every article. The solution to the puzzle would reveal a holiday message.

Clue or red herring?

At first, we feared the puzzle would be too easy, that flocks of readers would solve it. Then after the 8th day when solutions didn’t flood in, we became concerned it was too difficult. What we initially concealed was that any one day could have revealed the answer, although we dropped numerous hints along the way.

In an unusual turn, one of our readers kept a diary of her efforts. She was dealing with annoying issues at the time, and picked up puzzle solving as a respite. She shared the notes after the solution was announced, and quite an epic struggle it was. A few times she thought she was on the right track, but wasn’t satisfied and the days ticked away.

And then… and then…

If you’d like to take a shot at it, visit the clues in the series of articles on Criminal Brief. Congratulations if you happen to solve it, but be sure to read the amazing journal of the solver herself, CJ Dowse.

In the meantime, I hope you had a happy Chanukah and are enjoying a safe and happy Christmas. But wait. Below find a charming tiny tale that appeared on the 8th day.

16 September 2016

Bouchercon Word Find

My column this week is scheduled right in the middle of Bouchercon, and while my goal originally was to post something direct from New Orleans—breaking news! fun photos! insider anecdotes about the mystery world's stars!—I realized quickly that I probably wouldn't get to the computer often or easily or....
So instead, posted in advance, here's a fun little game in honor of the event: an old-fashioned word find!

Featured here are the guests of honor, the various awards given out throughout the weekend, and a sprinkling of other mystery terms—including the name of one of the best blogs in the business. Do know that the clues appear vertically, horizontally, diagonally, and both forwards and backwards.

Whether you're in New Orleans or not, I hope you'll enjoy!

31 August 2014

An Homage To Poe

After struggling with the article on the colon, I once again turned my attention to the stories in the anthology The Dead Witness and selected “Arrested on Suspicion” by Andrew Forrester because the author pays homage to Poe. The narrator explains, “Of course I do not wish to hide from the reader that I was trying to copy Edgar Poe’s style of reasoning in this matter; for confessedly I am making this statement to show how a writer of fiction can aid officers of the law.”
In his brief introduction to the story the editor discusses the public’s attitude to detective stories, and the publication of the stories in “yellowbacks,” cheap magazines similar to the penny dreadfuls. Naturally, I had to see what the “yellowbacks” looked like. To Google once more I went. 

 Since the anthology was compiled in 2012, I assumed the editor also had access to Google. I therefore was somewhat skeptical of his claim that he couldn’t verify the  author’s birth and death. He also claims, “Andrew Forrester was a pseudonym employed by an important early writer whose real name is lost.” I looked up Andrew Forrester on Wikipedia. His actual identity was unknown until recently when a story of his, “A Child Found Dead: Murder or No Murder?” was discovered, reprinted, and published as “The Road Murder” under the name J. Redding Ware (1832-1909). He was a writer, novelist, and playwright, and created one of the first female detectives. He was apparently one of those writers whose works didn’t survive into the twentieth century, for I couldn’t find any of his books on the Project Gutenberg site. I did find on Google Play a book of stories, The Female Detective, that he edited.  
“Arrested On Suspicion” is a puzzle story with echoes of “The Purloined Letter” and Poe’s essay on ratiocination in the beginning of “Murder in the Rue Morgue.” John Pendrath, the narrator/protagonist, must free his sister Annie who has been arrested on suspicion of shoplifting a blue-stone ring. He employs Poe’s method of ratiocination to identify and catch the real thief or thieves. John refuses to give the reader his profession, but he apparently has some pull with the local police because he requests and is given an officer to help him catch the real thieves. Could he be a “writer of fiction?”
The arrest is a case of mistaken identity. Shortly after Mrs. Mountjoy moved in the apartment above John and Annie, he saw a blue-stone ring on Annie’s finger. Annie couldn’t afford to buy such a ring and certainly wouldn’t steal it. Mrs. Mountjoy’s  daughter, Mrs. Lemmins, sometimes visits her and looks enough like Annie to be her sister. Because of their strange behavior, John suspected Mrs. Mountjoy and her daughter were criminals from the day they moved in. He suspects Mrs. Lemmins stole the ring, and Mrs. Mountjoy gave it to Annie.
The puzzle has two parts. In the first part, John must find the piece of paper containing the message that Mrs. Lemmins sent to Mrs. Mountjoy in a laundry basket. John doesn't help the officer search the room because  he needs to hunt “with his brains.” To get into Mrs. Mountjoy’s mind, he sits in the same chair she occupied when she heard the officer coming up the steps.
In the second part, he decodes the message, which is written in criminal slang, to determine the criminal duo’s next move. With charts inviting the reader to try his or her hand at what, for John, is a simple code, the decoding takes up most of the story. Since I don’t normally like puzzle stories because I’m not very good at solving puzzles, I didn’t accept the invitation.
 “Arrested on Suspicion” is a nice example of an early writer following Poe’s rules. For me, not knowing how the theft was committed was a little disappointing.

22 April 2012

Puzzles, Part 1

The past few weeks I received eMails and suggestions from a reader or two who remembered I like puzzles and word play. First up is a puzzle brought to us by an educational organization, the British Council. Try to ignore the creepy gopher critter as you play:

Wonder how it works? You saw this trick (and full solution) before on Criminal Brief. When playing it, look carefully at multiples of 9 because one multiple will be your result. Multiples of 9 are:
09, 18, 27, 36, 45, 54, 63, 72, 81

Magic Gopher

You'll notice multiples of 9 all have the same associated symbol. The magician doesn't have to know your original number, only that your result will be a multiple of 9, which is how the trick is done.

NFL Draught

One of the stories wasn't about puzzles at all, but about football and the Wonderlic Intelligence Test. It seems LSU cornerback and candidate for the NFL draft Morris Claiborne scored 4 on the Wonderlic.

Okay, okay. Many blogs and sports news tittered about it, slyly mocking or deriding. Listen, football isn't my game: It wasn't part of the sports programs at my small schools and play is so slow, watching it wreaks havoc with my ADD. Watching after-game highlights are fine, but in-game lowlights are as painful as watching golf or cricket before they made it look like baseball.

It's wise to remember an adage: Everyone is my superior in some way. Morris Claiborne can take hits I can't and he'll probably make more money in a year than I will in ten. Moreover, he may be the kindest person or wholly honest or have admirable traits not factored into a test.

But, from my criminally suspicious mind comes a serious question: If a score of 4 is considered six points less than literate, if the multiple choice should have randomly scored ranging 20-33%, how has Mr. Claiborne managed to pass his LSU courses? Have they done Claiborne any favors graduating a man who can't read and pass a simple exam?

Wondering about Wonderlic

Wait… Is the test really that simple? Several sample questions are available on the web and I found a full set of fifty on Man Cave Sports, which drew from ESPN. Clearly not written by professional tech writers, the wording of several are awkward but parsable. A friend and I took the test separately. We each got them all, although not in the allotted 12 minutes, a task easier in high school, but not so easy now.

Looking at the sample test, an error leaped out. If you want to see for yourself, it's near the end of the test, in fact, the very end. Not only is the wording faulty, the answer is incorrect. If this is an actual question and answer (which ESPN purports the test to be), then shouldn't we turn a critical eye on the exam itself? Who's testing the testers?

If you want to take the test, after the break, I point out the error.

Wonderlic Error
50) Divide 30 by half. Add 10. Multiply by 3. Add 6. What is does this equal?
The given answer is 81. That is wrong. The correct answer is 216.

Whoever wrote the test question either meant take half of 30 or they didn't understand dividing by one-half is the same as multiplying by two. Try it yourself on your calculator, recalling .5 is the same as ½:

(30 ÷ ½ +10) x 3

Now my question is: how can we craft this as a murder clue?