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Cryptographic Crimes

The Use of Cryptography in Real and Fictional Crimes

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Marcel Danesi

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.
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2. Cryptography in Crime Fiction

Extract

← 28 | 29 →

Chapter Two

 

Cryptography in Crime Fiction

Human ingenuity cannot concoct a cipher which human ingenuity cannot resolve.

Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849)

Prologue

The 2004 adventure-heist-mystery film, National Treasure, was a highly successful one at the box office. One of the reasons was, arguably, that it featured cryptography throughout the movie. The plot reaches its denouement after an encrypted map to a lost treasure is finally decoded by protagonist Benjamin Franklin Gates, a historian and amateur cryptanalyst. His name is an obvious allusion to Benjamin Franklin, an expert cryptographer himself. The narrative also includes secret societies, such as the Freemasons and the Knights Templar, adding to its atmosphere of conspiracy and intrigue. The map is found initially on the back of the Declaration of Independence. It is quickly determined that it will lead to the greatest treasure in American history, recalling previous stories of treasure-hunting guided by cryptography, such as Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Gold Bug” (1843). ← 29 | 30 →

The method used in encrypting the map is an Ottendorf cipher, written in invisible ink on the back of the Declaration. The key is found within the map itself. The hidden message is linked to the “Silence Dogwood” letters—letters written by Benjamin Franklin under this pen name. This is the pivotal insight for cracking the cipher, leading the investigators to the bell tower of Independence Hall where they find a pair of...

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