The Saturday Guardian “Review” section contained a fascinating summary of “The Suspicions of Mr Whicher; or, the Murder at Road Hill House” (2008, Bloomsbury) by its author Kate Summerscale. In it, she argues that the gruesome events at a country house in Road Hill in Wiltshire (and the police response to them) formed the template for English detective novels, such as in Wilkie Collins’ well-known novel “The Moonstone” (1868).

The London detective sent to Road Hill, Inspector Jonathan Whicher, quickly “developed an ingenious solution to the mystery”: however, when his theory became publicly known, he was “reviled in the press and the House of Commons”, causing him to have a nervous breakdown and to retire from the force. Yet when, five years later, the murderer confessed, the grisly details were essentially as the detective had thought. All too late for poor Whicher, though.

What particularly caught my (Voynichological) eye in Summerscale’s article was the Road Hill case’s echo in Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s (1862) novel “Lady Audley’s Secret“. Braddon’s “tormented amateur detective Robert Audley” fearfully wonders who is the real madman – the woman he suspects of murder, or Audley himself caught in some kind of “obsessive delusion”:-

“What if I am wrong after all? What if this chain of evidence which I have constructed link by link is constructed out of my own folly? What if this edifice of horror and suspicion is a mere collection of crotchets – the nervous fancies of a hypochondriacal bachelor? Oh, my God, if it should be in myself all this time that the misery lies.”

All of which I think near-perfectly expresses the self-reflective terror that is (or at least should be) ever-present in the Voynichologist: reconstructive imagination perched on a precipice.

Before “The Moonstone”, the American history of the detective story goes back to Edgar Allan Poe’s (1841) “The Murders in the rue Morgue“, a locked room mystery with a surprising twist: but there is something about the English country house – its self-enclosed world of servants, class, envy, superficiality, insularity, etc – that lends itself to novel-length fiction.

Yet this is a false kind of knowledge, as the real Road Hill case demonstrates (Kate Summerscale reveals that Whicher believed two people were complicit in the murder, though only one confessed). In the context of constructing a 250-page book with neat closure, it is attractive: but the real world rarely fits into neatly filed boxes, carefully abstracted case-studies like the ones Harvard Business School professors famously used to construct in the 1960s and 1970s.

To me, this whole Victorian quest for smoking guns – for Holmesian certainty – is a kind of adolescent fantasy thinking, a pipedream of pure causality. In the real world, all we can actually do is sign up for the chase and give it our best shot: perhaps we will reach a satisfactory resolution in our attempts, perhaps we will not. But we must continue to try, all the same.

Voynich News just raced past the 2000 visitor mark (not counting mails sent to email/blog subscribers), which is nice: time to take stock and aim for a million visitors now, surely?

Over the last few days, I’ve been trying to do too many things at once, particularly with the arrival of a truly fabulous book from the American Philosophical Society (Vincent Ilardi’s “Renaissance Vision from Spectacles to Telescopes”), which has somehow even been able to displace Thorndike Volume IV from the top of my reading list. I’ve also been writing an article, writing up more of the Treadwell’s Magic Circles evening, reviewing both Evelyn Welch’s “Shopping in the Renaissance” and an incredible web-based “booklet” that has to be seen to be believed… but I’m getting ahead of myself. You’ll see soon enough!

Someone with more confidence than I have in Voynichian botanical identification has put an image of f56r on the Wikipedia page for Sundew. Presumably the key feature match was the plant’s alien-style sticky tentacles, that bend forward when they’re touched by prey to entrap it (yes, it’s a carnivorous plant), a mechanism you’ll be delighted to know goes by the name of thigmotropism.

Hmmm… what if there are other carnivorous plants depicted in the VMs? All of a sudden, might our manuscript have acquired a “Little Shop of Horrors” cachet? Altogether now: “Feed me, Seymour… feed me now!

Here’s a claimed solution to the Beale Papers (but press Cancel on the login popup, and if browsing there under Windows, I wouldn’t advise installing the ActiveX control that pops up) which I didn’t know about until very recently. I thought I’d mention it here because, as any fule kno, the Beale Papers are one of the few encrypted historical mysteries to parallel the Voynich Manuscript to any significant degree.

To be precise, the Beale Papers comprise not one long ciphertext (putting the VMs’ thorny Currier A-B language continuum issue to one side) but three short codetexts, all allegedly dating from 1819-1821: part 2 was publicly announced in 1885 already solved (for its codebook, the encoder used a slightly mangled/miscopied version of the Declaration of Independence)… but the directions to the buried treasure were in the undecoded part 1, while the shorter (and also undecoded) part 3 listed the people involved. Of course, only someone who has broken the two remaining codes would know if all of this is true or not. 🙂

So, it’s basically a kind of Wild West bandit take on a pirate treasure map (which to me sounds like an Alias Smith and Jones script, oh well) but made obscure with some kind of dictionary code: all of which is reassuringly familiar if you’ve just read PopCo. Confusingly, some people argue that the Beale Papers are a fake (possibly by the promoter of the 1885 pamphlet, or even by Edgar Allen Poe, etc), claiming justification from statistical aspects of the cryptography and/or on claimed anachronisms in the language, etc: but a definitive answer either way has yet to be found.

For what it’s worth… my opinion is that, as with the VMs, cries of hoax are more Chicken Licken than anything approaching an ironic postmodernist reading. Really, it does look and feel basically how a home-cooked Victorian code-text ought to, with an emphasis towards lowish numbers (up to 350) plus a sprinkling of higher numbers (possibly for rare or awkward letters): Jim Gillogly’s observation (in October 1980 Cryptologia) of an alphabet-like pattern in part 1 (if you apply part 2’s codebook) seems to me more like a clue than a reason to reject the whole object as a hoax. As an aside, a few years ago I heard (off-Net) whispers of one particular cryptographic solution that had yet to be made public: but Louis Kruh in Cryptologia reported several such plausible-looking solutions as far back as 1982, so what can you say?

However, all of this is an entirely different claim to the “Beale Solved” code solution linked above, which was (re)constructed by Beale treasure hunter Daniel Cole (who died in 2001). Even though the dig that was carried out as a result of Cole’s decryption revealed an empty chamber (the website claims), the cryptographic details (ie, of how the codetext links with the plaintext) have yet to be released… which is a tad fishy.

A quick check of the first page of Cole’s version of part 3 reveals that he didn’t read it as a simple cipher or codebook, because repeated code-numbers only rarely get decoded as the same letter (for example, the five instances of ’96’ get decoded as “s / e / r / h / n”). Yet this seems somewhat odd: if there was some kind of strange offsetting going on, the distribution of code-numbers would not need to so closely resemble the kind of distribution you see in code book ciphers.

But once you confess to having taken a single step down the whole “it’s actually a strange cipher pretending to be a codebook code” route, nobody will believe a word you say, right?

I’ve been reading up on the pre-history of the telescope recently (hence my reviews of Eileen Reeves’ Galileo’s Glassworks and Albert van Helden’s The Invention of the Telescope), but have omitted to mention why I thought this might be of relevance to the Voynich Manuscript.

The answer relates to Richard SantaColoma’s article in Renaissance Magazine #53 (March 2007) with the title “The Voynich Manuscript: Drebbel’s Lost Notebook?”, which claimed to find a persuasive familial similarity between the curious jars arranged vertically in the pharma sections and Renaissance microscopes, specifically those described or designed by Cornelius Drebbel. His (updated) research also appears here.

The biggest problem with Voynich hypotheses is that, given 200+ pages of interesting stuff, it is comparatively easy to dig up historical evidence that appears to show some kind of correlation. In the case SantaColoma’s webpage, this category covers the stars, the hands, braids, caps, colours, four elements, Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis and handwriting matches suggested: none of these is causative, and the level of correlation is really quite low. All of which is still perfectly OK, as these parallels are only presented as suggestive evidence, not as any kind of direct proof.

It is also tempting to use a given hypothesis to try to support itself: in the 1920s, William Romaine Newbold famously did this with his own circular hypothesis, where he said that the only way that the manuscript’s microscopic cipher could have been written was with the aid of a microscope, ergo Roger Bacon must have invented the microscope. All false, of course. Into this second category falls the “cheese mold”, “diatoms” and “cilia” of SantaColoma’s webpage: if these are to used as definitive proof of the presence of microscopy in the VMs, the level of correlation would need to be substantially higher. But these parallels are, once again, only presented as suggestive evidence, not proof.

Strip all these away, and you’re still left with the real meat of SantaColoma’s case: a set of striking similarities between 17th century microscopes and the curious devices in the Voynich Manuscript’s pharma section. Even if (as I do) you doubt that all the colouring on the pages was original (and upon which some of SantaColoma’s argument seems to rest), it’s an interesting observation.

Having said that, no actual proof or means of proof (or disproof) is offered: it is just a set of observations, resting upon a relatively little-tested tranche of history, that of the microscope. Can we do better? I think we can.

Firstly, modern telescope historians (I’m thinking of Albert van Helden here, though he is far from alone in this respect) now seem somewhat dubious of the various Janssen family claims: and so I’m far from comfortable with placing the likely birth of the microscope with the Janssens in 1590. As Richard SantaColoma points out, Cornelius Drebbel is definitely one of the earliest documented microscope makers (from perhaps a little earlier than 1620, but probably not much before 1612, I would guess).

Secondly, it is likely that the power of the lenses available for spectacles pre-1600 was not great: Albert van Helden calculated that a telescope made to della Porta’s (admittedly cryptic) specification could only have given a magnification of around 2x, which would be no more than a telescopic toy. I would somewhat surprised if microscopes constructed from the same basic components had significantly higher magnification.

Thirdly, the claimed presence of knurled edges in the VMs’ images would only make sense if used in conjunction with a fine screwthread, to enable the vertical position of an element along the optical axis to be varied: but I’m not sure when these were invented or adapted for microscopes.

All in all, I would assert that if what is being depicted in the VMs’ pharma section is indeed microscopes from the same family as were built by Drebbel from (say) 1610 onwards, there would seem no obvious grounds for dating this to significantly earlier than 1610: even if it all came directly from Della Porta, around 1589 would seem to be the earliest tenable date.

The problem is that there is plenty of art historical data which places the VMs circa 1450-1500: and a century-long leap would seem to be hard to support without more definitive evidence.

As always, there are plenty of Plan B hypotheses, each of which has its own unresolved issues:-
(a) they are microscropes/telescopes, but from an unknown 16th century inventor/tradition
(b) they are microscropes/telescopes, but from an unknown 15th century inventor/tradition
(c) they’re not microscopes/telescopes, they just happen to look a bit like them
(d) they’re not microscopes/telescopes, but were later emended/coloured to look like them
(e) it’s all a Dee/Kelley hoax (John Dee was Thomas Digges’ guardian from the age of 13)

Despite everything I’ve read about the early history of the telescope and microscope, I really don’t think that we currently can resolve this whole issue (and certainly not with the degree of certainty that Richard SantaColoma suggests). The jury remains out.

But I can offer some observations based on what is in the Voynich Manuscript itself, and this might cast some light on the matter for those who are interested.

(1) The two pharma quires seem to be out of order: if you treat the ornate jars as part of a visual sequence, it seems probable that Q19 (Quire 19) originally came immediately before Q17 in the original binding.

(2) The same distinctive square “filler” motif appears in the astronomical section (f67r1, f67r2, f67v1), the zodiac section (Pisces, light Aries), the nine rosette page (central rosette), and in a band across the fifth ornate jar in Q19. This points not only to their sharing the same scribe, but also to a single (possibly even improvised) construction/design process: that is, the whole pharma section is not simply a tacked-on addition, it is an integral part of the manuscript.

(3) Some paint on the pharma jars appear original: but most seems to be a later addition. For example: on f99v, I could quite accept that the palette of (now-faded) paints used to colour in the plants and roots was original (and I would predict that a spectroscopic or Raman analysis would indicate that this was probably comprised solely of plant-based organic paints), which would be consistent with the faded original paint on the roots of f2v. However, I would think that the bolder (and, frankly, a little uglier) paints used on the same page were not original.

Put all these tiny fragments together, and I think this throws doubt on one key part of SantaColoma’s visual argument. He claims that the parallel hatching inside the ornate jar at the top of f88r (the very first jar in Q17) is a direct indication that it is a lens we are looking at, fixed within a vertical optical structure. However, if you place Q19 before Q17 (as I believe the original order to have been), then a different story emerges. The ten jars immediately before f88v (ie at the end of Q19) all have vertical parallel hatching inside their tops, none of which looks at all like the subtle lens-like shading to which SantaColoma is referring. For reference, I’ve reproduced the tops of the last four jars below, with the final two heavily image-enhanced to remove the heavy (I think later) overpainting that has obscured much of the finer detail.

This is the “mouth” of the top jar on f102r: the vertical parallel hatching seems to depict the back wall of a jar, ending in a pool of faintly-coloured yellow liquid (probably the original paint).


This is the mouth of the bottom jar on f102r, which appears to have vertical parallel hatching right down, as though the jar is empty near the top (or perhaps its contents are clear).

This is the top jar on 102v, enhanced to remove the paint. I think some vertical hatching is still visible there: it would take a closer examination to determine what was originally drawn there.

This is the bottom jar on f102v, again heavily enhanced to remove paint. Vertical hatching of some sort is visible.

The Voynich Manuscript meme continues to tap at our cultural windows, asking politely to be let in from the rain. And sometimes people do…

For example, here’s a knitted squid sitting on a copy of Gawsewitch’s “Le Code Voynich” (don’t be put off by the LiveJournal 14+ age warning, it really is a knitting page).

Over at evilbore, Eric P is getting cross about how the VMs is sneaking in under the cultural radar: “What’s caused this subconscious societal permeation of this obscure text?” he asks, before linking to Voynich News (good call!)

Or alternatively, here’s someone called Malcolm starting a game of Lexicon based around a (fictional) deciphering of the VMs. Lexicon is an RPG where players take on the role of cranky scholars building a faux Wikipedia (one letter at a time, hence the name) around a fictional world, while trying not to cite themselves. Errrm… just like the real Wikipedia, then. 😉

Norbert R. Ibanez has posted up some thoughts on the VMs in ‘English’ (with a PDF you can download): though his ideas may be basically OK, I don’t like his automatic translator much. 🙁

And finally, I’ve had some visitors from a posting about my VQ (“Voynich Quotient“) page put up on the Yog-Sothoth forums (dedicated to H. P. Lovecraft and Call of Cthulhu players). One poster mentions “Keeper’s Companion Vol. 1, p.63“, where it presumably links the VMs to the Necronomicon: add that to the ever-growing web of Voynich references out there.

Shopping in the Renaissance“, Evelyn Welch [finished, still need to write review]

Astrology: a history“, Peter Whitfield [about half-way through, lots of good stuff]

Elizabeth’s Spy Master“, Robert Hutchinson [80 pages in, but a bit of a dour character to read much about]

The Renaissance in Europe: A Reader”, Keith Whitlock [Still not yet started this, beginning to wonder if I ever will]

Decipher” Stel Pavlou [33 pages in, a nice bit of superficial fun, shame I don’t have a beach holiday to take it on]

“History of Magic & Experimental Science” Vol. IV (Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries), Lynn Thorndike [20 pages in, but everything else has to go on hold while I read it]

Over the years I’ve spent looking at the Voynich Manuscript, I’ve become progressively more accustomed to its ways, to the point that it is no longer an enciphered grimoire to me, but simply a book we cannot as yet read. When learning to juggle, the primary force which keeps the ball in the hand is not gravity but fear: all the while people see the VMs as a dark, Necronomicon-like repository of ancient evil (basically, confusing unreadable with unspeakable), their fears prevent them from grasping what it actually is.

Yet there’s still something odd about how the Voynich Manuscript is rooted, upon what it stands: specifically, it seems to my eyes to have one foot in early modern European (specifically Northern Italian, I would say) culture and the other in late medieval Byzantine culture. Though I’m still unable to satisfactorily express how this works, what I can say is that many of its herbal drawings have a structural quality that is neither medieval European (slavishly copied, overstylised, unrealistic) nor Renaissance European (emblematic rather than symbolic, abstract). The closest match I’ve found is in Byzantine herbals, many of which are drawn from life, but which have a kind of secret inner numericality: not Kabbalah, but topology / geometry.

I’m therefore always on the lookout for good stuff relating to Byzantium, but its 1000-year history is fascinating for many other reasons: the rich seam of inspiration the Romantic poets found in the marvellous decay of Venice was perhaps but a shadow of the irony and wonder to be discovered in Byzantium’s own history.

And so a book I’m looking forward to is “Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire” by Judith Herrin (Princeton, 2007), which seems to have exactly the kind of overall historical narrative all the fragments of Byzantine history I’ve ever read lacked. There’s a helpful review here: the hardback’s £25 RRP is a little hard to swallow, for sure, but what can you do? (Errrm, wait for the paperback?)

I’m just collecting my thoughts after an exhilarating lecture by William Kiesel (the publisher and editor of Ouroboros Press) on magic circles at Treadwell’s in Covent Garden (Christina’s post-lecture blog entry is here). William presented a long series of images of magic circles (manuscripts diagrams, woodcuts, paintings, etc) from the Middle Ages right through to the 19th century, including many of John Dee’s strange diagrams.

Voynich Manuscript, page f57v (the ‘magic circle’ page)

The reason I’ve been trying to find out about magic circles for years is because, as you can see above, page f57v in the Voynich Manuscript apparently contains one. Or (more precisely), whatever f57v actually contains, it seems on the surface to follow the constructional rules and layout of genuine magic circles. However, this is hard to research because the topic of magic circles has attracted relatively little academic interest over the years, Richard Kieckhefer’s (1997) Forbidden Rites (an in-depth study of a 15th century necromancer’s manual) being one of the few honourable exceptions. Which is why I was so excited about the lecture.

Having said that, there are many things about f57v that cast doubts on its ‘magic circle-itude’. For example, I could find no other magic circle with the directional spirits given faces rather than simply named: depictions in every other magic circle I had seen were instead abstract diagrammatic renderings (swords, pentacles, rings, sigils, etc), and names of the directions (to help orient the circle, the first thing any proper necromancer would want to do). But even more brutally: when magic circles are all about the power of names, why ever would someone want to replace them with images?

And so… after the lecture, I asked William for his thoughts on f57v (which, delightfully, he had looked at before). As far as the directional faces go, he agreed that this was pretty much a unique feature: though a tiny number of magic circles he had seen do have sigils shaped to broadly resemble faces, that would seem to be a completely different strand of development to that which we see in the VMs. Overall, even though he did note that it was intriguing that the postures of the four “people” on f57v were all different, the main impression the page left him with was that each of the four faces faced in a different direction (though he didn’t know what that meant).

On the train home, I sat there wondering what this might have caused this, letting all the various aspects swirl around me (though, no, I didn’t have any of Treadwell’s wine that night). And then all the bits clunked into place, with that sound very familiar to any Simpsons fan: “d’oh!

I should explain. Perhaps the biggest trap Voynichologists fall into is that of overthinking issues: when many complex explanations for a given phenomenon exist, sometimes simple ones gets overlooked, or (worse) rejected for appearing too simple. And the simplest explanation here is that, because almost every magic circle has the directions of the compass written on it, that would be both the first thing you would want to keep and the first thing you would want to hide. And so it seems highly likely to me that the four faces on f57v code for N/E/S/W. In short, I think that (like the VMs’ “Naked Lady Code” I described in my book) the four faces employ a misleadingly elaborate way of enciphering something very simple – the compass directions. But which is which – and how – and why?

  • The left figure is facing forward-left
  • The top figure is facing backward-right
  • The right figure is facing forward-right (and holding a ring / egg)
  • The bottom figure is facing backward-left

But how do these four map onto N/S/E/W? The first thing to notice is that magic circles are very often written in Latin, with the four points written Oriens [E], Meridies [S], Occidens [W], Septentrio [N]: and so an encipherer would only need to hide one in order to hide them all.

While I don’t know for sure… I do predict that the nose and eyebrow of the left figure’s face was elaborated around an “S” to denote “Septentrio” [i.e. North]: and that the only useful information is that a ring (as rings are far more common than eggs in magic circles, The Black Pullet notwithstanding) should be placed opposite it [i.e. South]. The flower-like shape at the centre is probably an elaborated shape around the central o-shapes, which probably denote locus magistri, the place where the exorcist / conjuror / master of the magic circle should stand. Finally: might the heavily-drawn straight line on the shoulder of the ring-carrying person denote a sword? Very possibly.


Voynich Manuscript, page f57v – four central figures

This doesn’t answer every question about f57v (how could it?): but it does give a good snapshot of my current thoughts on how (beneath all the deception) it is actually a magic circle (though perhaps not as complex a magic circle as you might initially think).

Part 2 will move on to the VMs’ other magic circles…

I’m a lousy fiction reviewer, probably for two main reasons: (1) creative writing classes taught me how to spot when writers are cheating (in order to make me a more honest writer myself); and (2) years of Voynich Manuscript-related research has made me constantly alert for infinitesimal details upon which the answer might just hinge.

Put these two together (a lie-detector and an adrenaline-fuelled eye for detail), and you have a completely unfair toolkit for reading novels, simply because novels are very rarely actually “novel” – they’re more often an assembly of ideas.

Take Scarlett Thomas’ “PopCo” (FourthEstate, 2004), for example. Superficially, it’s like a 500-page anagram of my life (BBC Micro / chess / maths / philosophy / Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem / videogames / business / marketing / cryptography / cryptology / secret history / Voynich Manuscript / etc), together with a load of other untaken doors (Bletchley Park / SOE / crosswords / vegetarianism / vegan / Go / low-level drug-use / homeopathy / etc), and it’s written quite well: so I really should be engaged by it, right?

Problem #1 is one of construction: the first tranche is basically Douglas Coupland (specifically Microserfs), the second tranche Iain Banks (his fiction rather than his science fiction), then a bit of Martin Gardner’s puzzle columns and Simon Singh’s The Code Book: there’s a kind of teenage girls’ magazine section along the way, and a rather clunky historical pirate romance, before it all flips out into Thomas’ fictional take on Naomi Klein’s No Logo… Yet to me, a book needs to be more than merely a collage of influences, a narrated scrapbook: but perhaps that makes me too old-fashioned for contemporary fiction. If you wanted to be kind, you might compare it with Kurt SchwittersMerz, carefully arranged collections of found objects (forged Merz pieces get placed on eBay all the time): but sorry, Thomas is no Schwitters.

Problem #2 is the lack of parents. The other day, while watching (the original TV series of) Batman on BBC4, my four-year-old son asked me where Batman came from. Well, I said, a man called the Joker killed both Bruce Wayne’s parents, and when a bat bit him in the caves beneath his mansion, he somehow gained a super crime-fighting ability. OK… so where did Spiderman come from? Well, I said, after both Peter Parker’s parents died, he was bitten by a radioactive spider, and gained amazing spider-like powers. My son paused, looking back at the screen. But what about Robin, he asked. No, don’t tell me, I know: both his parents were killed… Before he had a chance to say “(and he was bitten by a radioactive robin)”, I suggested we look Robin up on Wikipedia (though sadly he was basically correct). In PopCo, the main character Alice Butler is basically Crypto Girl, a sort of Elonka-lite: her mother dies and her dad runs away, and she gains her m4d cryptological and prime factorisation sk1llz from her grandad. Put it that way, and it all looks a bit comic-book thin, doesn’t it?

Problem #3 is that I’m wise to novelistic conceits. I know that in a cryptological novel, someone called A[lice] is going to communicate with someone called B[en], who will pass on what she says to someone called C[hloe]: and this kind of spoils it. Incidentally, Ron Rivest denies that he used “Alice” and “Bob” (in his 1978 paper introducing RSA public-key cryptography) in any kind of homage to the film “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice” (which is actually a bit of a shame). It would also have been cool if PopCo’s Alice had been born in 1978 and openly named in crypto homage to Ron Rivest’s paper, but I think she’s too old (is she 29? I can’t find the page, rats!).

Problem #4: cringeworthy logic/maths puzzles. To give texture to her story, Thomas brings together loads of lateral puzzles and mathematical ain’t-that-amazin’ fragments, the kind of thing that you sometimes hear being trotted out at student parties. For example:-Two men go into a restaurant and order the same dish from the menu. After tasting his food, one of the men goes outside and immediately shoots himself. Why? (p.109) The explanation given for this in PopCo is ludicrous (it involves an albatross and a dead child, don’t get me started): but why is one not simply a food-taster for the other? Fugu: mmm, delicious… hey, what’s that trainee doing in the kitchen… aaaarrgggh!

Problem #5 (probably the biggest of all for a Voynichologist) is that PopCo uses the Voynich Manuscript as a MacGuffin (or do I mean a “Philosopher’s Egg MacGuffin”?). Alice’s grandfather spends years on the VMs, and even gets her to count the words and letters on each page (and later to factorise large numbers): perhaps washing his car would have been a better way to earn pocket money. Alice says that she’s learnt so much from the journey, from the search for the heart of the VMs: but really the manuscript is no more than occasional wallpaper for the narrative. The Beale Papers also make a brief appearance: my guess is that Scarlett Thomas would have used them as the central hook, had there been more than a paltry $20million dollars’ worth of treasure linked to them: the alternative “Stevenson/Heath” pirate cipher mystery Thomas constructs is a bit thin when held up against real ones, regardless of the size of its haul.

…and so on. I feel in a bad place: I really wanted to like PopCo, but all I can do is whinge (and I haven’t even moaned about her merging Alberti’s and Vigenere’s cryptography, etc). Other reviewers (such as here and here) seem basically to like the book: and compared to Dan Brown’s Digital Fortress (where I wanted to kill all the main characters by the end of Chapter One, all the minor characters by the end of Chapter Two, and the publishers by the end of Chapter Three) it’s Shakespeare.

Cryp-lit like this requires a certain kind of technical devotion from the reader, and if you are a diehard crypto-geek PopCo is something you really ought to read. But only if you’ve read the good stuff (like Neal Stephenson’s excellent Cryptonomicon) first.