Cryptographic Crimes

The Use of Cryptography in Real and Fictional Crimes

by Marcel Danesi (Author)
©2017 Monographs X, 132 Pages


This book examines the use of cryptography in both real and fictional crimes—a topic that is rarely broached. It discusses famous crimes, such as that of the Zodiac Killer, that revolve around cryptic messages and current uses of encryption that make solving cases harder and harder. It then draws parallels with the use of cryptography and secret writing in crime fiction, starting with Edgar Allan Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle, claiming that there is an implicit principle in all such writing—namely, that if the cryptogram is deciphered then the crime itself reveals its structure. The general conclusion drawn is that solving crimes is akin to solving cryptograms, as the crime fiction writers suggested. Cases of cryptographic crime, from unsolved cold cases to the Mafia crimes, are discussed and mapped against this basic theoretical assumption. The book concludes by suggesting that by studying cryptographic crimes the key to understanding crime may be revealed.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of Illustrations
  • Preface
  • 1. The Origins and Uses of Cryptography
  • Prologue
  • Cryptography
  • The Science of Codes
  • Uses
  • Cryptography and Crime
  • Epilogue
  • 2. Cryptography in Crime Fiction
  • Prologue
  • Edgar Allan Poe: The Starting Point
  • Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
  • The Shadow
  • Cryptofiction
  • Epilogue
  • 3. Cryptography in Real Crimes
  • Prologue
  • The Case of the Zodiac
  • The Ciphers
  • Forensic Cryptography
  • Two Frustrating Cases
  • Epilogue
  • 4. Crime, Computers, and the Internet
  • Prologue
  • Computer Forensics
  • Web Crimes
  • Internet Homicide
  • Extended Cryptography
  • Epilogue
  • 5. Secret Communications in Organized Crime
  • Prologue
  • Secret Codes
  • Cryptolects
  • Decoding Gang Culture
  • Epilogue
  • 6. Cryptography and Crime
  • Prologue
  • Theories of Crime
  • Crime as Cryptography
  • Sherlock Holmes Again
  • Epilogue
  • Index
  • Series Index

← vi | vii →


← viii | ix →


This book deals directly with a topic that has rarely, perhaps never, been treated separately in either the study of crime fiction or criminology—namely, the use of cryptography in both fictional and real crimes and the possible connection between the two. It was Edgar Allan Poe who first used cryptography as a central element in a mystery story—“The Gold Bug,” which is discussed in detail in this book. Protagonist William Legrand is bitten by a gold-colored bug. His servant fears Legrand may, as a consequence, be losing his mind. On the throes of insanity, Legrand organizes a team to find a buried treasure whose location he discovered after deciphering a cryptogram. The story became highly popular mainly because of its incorporation of a cipher as the crux for unraveling a mystery. Cryptography and mystery became entangled narratively at that point, generating a new genre called cryptofiction.

Ciphers and codes are now found throughout crime fiction literature, greatly enhancing its appeal. Either by imitation or twisted ingenuity, real criminals started using cryptography for their nefarious purposes at the same time as the appearance of cryptofiction. The most infamous example is the case of the “Zodiac Killer,” a serial killer ← ix | x → operating in Northern California in the late 1960s and early 1970s, whose identity remains unknown to this day. The killer sent cryptograms to the local area press, of which only one has ever been decoded. It is believed that once the others are decoded, the identity of the killer would be revealed and the mystery finally solved.

This book focuses on the role of cryptography in real and fictional crime, connecting dots between the two via a comparison of the role of mystery in fiction and crime. Does crime imitate art? The study of “cryptographic crimes,” as they can be called, reads itself like the plot in a Poe story. Criminals such as the Zodiac Killer may in fact be avid readers and aficionados of cryptofiction. The aim here is to show that crime, our innate sense of the mysterious, and secret codes are all intertwined in some “undeciphered” way. We seem to harbor the belief that, while we cannot possibly solve the overall mystery of crime in the human species, at the very least we can start by solving the puzzles that criminals leave us. It could well be that the cryptic messages that criminals like the Zodiac leave behind, once decoded, may provide the “key” into the workings of the criminal mind.

← x | 1 →

Chapter One


The Origins and Uses of Cryptography

What affected me most profoundly was the realization that the sciences of cryptography and mathematics are very elegant, pure sciences. I found that the ends for which these pure sciences are used are less elegant.

James Sanborn (b. 1945)


X, 132
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2017 (November)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2017. X, 132 pp., 13 b/w ill., 1 table

Biographical notes

Marcel Danesi (Author)

Marcel Danesi (Ph.D., University of Toronto) has published extensively in semiotics and linguistics, including Signs of Crime (2015), The Dexter Syndrome (2016), and (with M. Arntfield) Murder in Plain English (2017). He is currently full professor of anthropology at the University of Toronto and editor of Semiotica, the major journal in the field of semiotics.


Title: Cryptographic Crimes
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143 pages