Unsolved! by Craig P Bauer

The History and Mystery of the World’s Greatest Ciphers from Ancient Egypt to Online Secret Societies

The clue is in the title…

🙂 🙂 🙂

The book’s subtitle summarises its contents: this is the tale of some of the unsolved ciphers that have baffled experts, sometimes for centuries, and the efforts that have been made to find solutions.

I’m going to start by saying that my relatively low rating is a reflection of the fact that the author’s chosen style drove me nuts, and is therefore entirely subjective. In fact, I think the book is very good – just not for me. Let me start by explaining why and then I can get onto the more positive aspects.

I admit – the clue is in the title, so I should have known the book would annoy me. I really don’t like unsolved mysteries and this book reminded me forcibly of that fact. Part of the ostensible reason for the book is to encourage a wider pool of people to try their hand at solving these ciphers, and I think that’s a fun and interesting idea. However, while I can make a stab at something like the dancing men cipher in Sherlock Holmes – a simple letter substitution – I fear that when higher maths, massive computer power, or knowledge of ancient Greek is required, then it’s well beyond my capacity and my interest flags. From the first chapters, I found I was reading the stories of the ciphers and then skipping most of the stuff about the methodologies of attempts to solve them. I suspect Bauer has explained all the mechanics of it very well for people who are interested and have enough mathematical aptitude to follow along, but sadly that’s not me. Even with the simpler stuff at the beginning, Bauer frequently sets a challenge – say, to solve a group of anagrams – and then doesn’t provide solutions. I found this intensely irritating.

(I’ve coded my feelings on not being given solutions. But I’m not giving you the solution…)

However, what annoyed me much more was Bauer’s decision not to include all the information in the book, but instead to refer the reader frequently to websites. If I wanted to look up unsolved ciphers on the internet, then I would simply google – but if I’m reading a book on the subject, then all relevant information should be on the page. I’m not even an enthusiast for being referred to the notes at the back of books much less being sent off to fire up the laptop. One example was where he tells a story, tells us that the cipher in this case has been solved, doesn’t give the solution but instead gives a web address a zillion characters long. Having carefully keyed it all in, I was taken to a website… in German! OK, so Google translate… nope, still no solution in the body of the post. Presumably it was hidden somewhere in the vast stream of comments on the post, but frankly I had lost the will to live by then. It felt like Bauer was playing games with his readers – fine if you like that sort of thing. I don’t.

The Voynich Manuscript – people have puzzled over this book written entirely in cipher (or possibly gibberish) for hundreds of years, to no avail.

On the plus side, a lot of the stories Bauer tells are interesting in their own right even when the ciphers remain unsolved. From ancient Greece to modern murders, ciphers have appeared in the oddest of circumstances – medieval manuscripts, tombstones, personal letters, even taped to the stomach of a murder victim. Sometimes there is doubt whether a piece of gibberish is actually a cipher or simply a piece of gibberish, and Bauer details how experts go about the task of trying to decide.

Spy stories feature, of course, but there are other circumstances when ciphers have been used that I found just as interesting. There are a couple of hidden treasure stories, where the ciphers remain unsolved and the treasure unfound so you might want to grab a spade and start digging. Many people have used ciphers as a means to test whether it’s possible to communicate from beyond the grave, by leaving behind a code that requires a keyword to solve, intending to see if they can then transmit this keyword from the great beyond (so far with no success). Bauer also tells of the way ciphers have been used to send messages out into space as a means of alerting passing aliens to the existence of intelligent life on earth. One has to hope the aliens are better at solving codes than I am… or perhaps we should hope they’re worse since, as Bauer points out, they might have bigger guns and worse attitudes than we do.

The Arecibo message sent into space in 1974. Good luck with solving that, aliens!
I think it says mankind all have extremely long horns and wear very tall top hats, and live in their local McDonald’s. What do you think?

So there’s plenty of good stuff in here, and I’m certain it would work very well for someone who is more interested in the maths side of it and less annoyed by being sent off to websites than I. But for me, there were too many aspects that irritated me to make it an altogether successful read despite finding some of the stories interesting.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Princeton University Press.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

37 thoughts on “Unsolved! by Craig P Bauer

  1. Asking the reader to fish out a website sounds ridiculous, Fiction Fan. It is okay for further reading, but what is in this book seems intrusive and unhelpful. Sigh! 🙂

  2. This one sounds like a really mixed bag, FictionFan. An interesting topic, and Bauer sounds well-informed. But I’m with you; if I’m reading a book, I don’t want to be referred to websites. That would annoy me quite a lot. I’m not sure I like the idea of those unsolved codes, either. I do’t mind an intellectual challenge, and sometimes it’s good to really ponder. But this is a different sort of thing. Not sure it’s for me, either.

    • In retrospect, I should have suspected the book wouldn’t be for me from the blurb, but I really wasn’t expecting to be set challenges with no solutions or be sent off to websites for answers. Oh well, I’m sure it will be enjoyed more by people who like that sort of thing, and I suspect cipher fanatics probably do enjoy having to search for answers…

  3. I’m happy to flip through a book like this to read about the mystery, then skip the boring bits! Haven’t solved your dancing man line yet – a work in progress…Suspect it might be rude!

  4. Oh, you are hilarious! For about a half a second I considered getting this book for my son for Christmas. But then I thought that he’d keep asking me to look at websites and help him solve all of the ciphers. Ahhhhhhhhhhh! Runs screaming from room. Will have to find a better candidate to pique his interest…..

    • I feel a bit mean since I think there’s a lot of good stuff in it, but I couldn’t wholeheartedly recommend it as a gift for a young’un – unless he’s a prodigy, I’d think the maths may be way over his head. My Russian obsession means I haven’t read many books that would work as good gift material this year…

    • Haha – I must admit it was only the fact that it was a rather weighty tome that stopped me from hurling it at the wall a couple of times… I might have accidentally demolished the house… 😉

  5. It sounds like this book was published in the wrong medium. I earned my MFA working in a program that looks at fairly experimental works, which helped me see some stories that appear quite silly are often just in the wrong form and have something meaningful to say when published in as different way–not in between two covers. Had this book been sold as a website or hypertext novel that takes you in specific patterns, it might have been more cohesive.

    • I suspect it’s as much me as the book – maybe people who are really interested in how to solve codes won’t mind being sent off in different directions, but I just want to be told stories. I did think it might be better on Kindle though, since maybe there the various websites show up as hyperlinks rather than having to be keyed in…

  6. I think I agree with you. Glad you waded through this one so I don’t have to. I love mysteries, but not learning whether you’ve reached the right conclusion would be aggravating. Drat, another week ending on a mediocre note — ah, well, there’s always hot cocoa and pumpkin cookies!

    • Yes, and the ciphers were way too difficult for me to even attempt to solve… which should have been onvious to me from the title! Haha – I nearly always put the books I’m less enthusiastic about out on a Friday because the blog is less busy. Good books deserve the bigger audiences of the early part of the week… 🙂

  7. This would annoy me too – not providing the solutions to the solved ones is ridiculous, and I don’t want to be referred to websites when I’m reading. Also, I’m completely hopeless at maths. Somehow I don’t think I’m the target audience for this one!

  8. A brilliant review of what sounds like an interesting book but I fear I would just get annoyed that I couldn’t understand the maths and I am with you on not wanting to be sent to another medium to find the answer (especially if it’s in German as I spend enough of my working day on Google Translate to want more of the same in my leisure time!)

  9. It sounds utterly tedious and annoying to have to seek out solutions from elsewhere, but such challenges do have their appeal if you are in the right mood 🙂

    • I do like a challenge but these ones were so far beyond my capability they just annoyed me! Nothing like being made to feel inferior and incompetent… 😉 But I do think this book would be good fun for the right reader…

      • I was hoping my previous comment was the correct answer to your little man cipher, which challenged me to go away to another web site to be able to work it out LOL

        • HahahahahahaHAHA!!! Brilliant – and you’re quite correct! I was so sure no-one would even try, I wasn’t paying proper attention! Now we can write secret messages to each other that no-one else will understand… 😉

  10. Unsolved mysteries, the supernatural, and conspiracy theories have always interested me. Sounds like a great read! I just wrote about some unsolved mysteries too, I hope you’ll check it out!

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