A few days ago, chess-playing crypto guy Tony Gaffney emailed Cipher Mysteries about “The Subtelty Of Witches” in the British Library: I also blogged about his attempted solution to the Dorabella Cipher and the (not-very-)Ancient Cryptography forum where he often posts on historical ciphers. Since then, the copy of his 2005 book “The Agony Column Codes & Ciphers” (which he wrote under the byline “Jean Palmer”) I ordered has arrived… but is it any good?

(Incidentally, “agony columns”  in Victorian newspapers were originally for readers to post personal announcements and messages about/for missing friends and relatives: while “advice columns” (which became popular in the 1950s) were actually a continuation of an eighteenth century newspaper feature known as “letters to the lovelorn“, as well as the advice column in popular magazine “The Lady’s Monthly Museum”. All of which means that the phrase “agony aunt” is a kind of uneasy linguistic marriage between two quite different types of newspaper column.)

People liked the ability to leave messages in agony columns: but some,  wishing to remain anonymous, submitted their messages in code, in cipher, or in some other cryptic manner. Tony’s book collects together 1000 of these (simultaneously public and private) messages.

On the one hand, I can well appreciate the compositional agony of transcribing so many ciphertexts (which themselves may well have been scrambled by harried typesetters) and then trying to decipher them (which may not always be possible). I can also appreciate that a collection of these could well offer a nice commuter alternative to the sheer maddening pointlessness of Sudoku (oh look, all the numbers add up… and here’s my station).

On the other hand, who (apart from cipher history junkies such as me) would really connect with the content of such a project? Stripped of background, context, and outcome, the results are – if you go through your own agony of deciphering them – typically no more than fleeting half-scenes from lost Victorian soap operas, full of thwarted & hopeful love and clandestine meetings.

Structurally, the book comprises a series of dated cipher fragments sorted into chapters according to the newspaper in which they appeared (The Times, The Morning Chronicle/Observer, etc) and sorted by date, with a cipher key listed at the end for most (but not all) of the enciphered ones. All very logical and sequential as a reference work: but does it really work as a piece of cipher solving entertainment?

With my historical cryptography hat on, I’d say yes: the reader is presented with a cleaned up set of cipher transcriptions, with exactly as much information as a curious newspaper reader of the day would have had. It’s straightforward and clear, a nice little slice of cipher history.

But with my publisher hat on, I’d say no: as an editor, I would have discarded the merely cryptic, and rearranged the same material as a series of enciphered threads graded by difficulty, so that a commuter could engage with it as if it were a cipher puzzle-book. I’d also have opted for a larger page size, and included pre-printed solving grids and a sorted frequency count for all monoalphabetic ciphers.

(A fine example of this kind of cipher puzzle book is Elonka Dunin’s (2006) “The Mammoth Book of Secret Codes and Cryptograms”, which also briefly describes the Voynich Manuscript on pp. 489-493, as well as the Beale Papers, the Dorabella Cipher, the Zodiac Ciphers, and the Phaistos Disk).

I would also have moved all the (currently) unsolved ciphers to an end chapter, together with brief failed solving notes.

On balance, then, I’d say that the cipher historian side of me enjoyed the book, but the cipher puzzler side of me felt frustrated by its structure. However, because I would guess that cipher puzzlers outnumber cipher historians 100:1, perhaps it might be an idea for Tony to revisit this project, to Elonka-ify it?

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