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Cryptographic Crimes

The Use of Cryptography in Real and Fictional Crimes


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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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,...

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