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SHERLOCK HOLMES—CRYPTOLOGIST

WHAT WITH international intrigue being leaked right, left and center these days, I am au courant in discussing Sherlock Holmes’ involvement in such matters, as detailed by chronicler Dr. John H. Watson in “The Adventure of the Dancing Men.” It has all the right stuff for Deep State sculduggery: foreign nationals (in this case, Americans with mysterious backgrounds), threats of blown covers, murder—and a code to be hacked.

“Holmes held up the paper.” Illustration by Sidney Paget, Strand Magazine, 1903. This and other images from The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, Volume 2: The Return of Sherlock Holmes, His Last Bow, & the Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes (The Annotated Books) edited with notes by Leslie S. Klinger, Norton, 2005.

It’s no surprise that Holmes eventually figures out the meaning of the messages that follow. But there’s still a good tale to tell. Those of us entertained by cryptogram puzzles would decipher these in good time. One tool is analyzing how often various characters appear. Another is recognizing repeated characters and other English language patterns.

Note No. 1.

Even from the first short note, for example, Holmes identified the letter E. “As you are aware,” he says, “E is the most common letter in the English alphabet and it predominates to so marked an extent that even in a short sentence one would expect to find it most often.” He also deduces that the flag-bearing figures likely break the sentence into words.

Note No. 2.

Note No. 3

In the fourth message, Holmes identifies the pattern _E_E_, and concludes “It might be ‘sever,’ or ‘lever,’ or ‘never.’ However, Sherlockian scholars are more imaginative: In The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, Colin Prestige comes up with 30 others, among them “seven,” “renew” and “jewel.”

That “never” is the correct choice shouldn’t deter true scholarship. (And there’s yet another word with this pattern!)

Note No. 4.

Observes Sherlockian scholar, Ed. S. Woodhead: “The fact that a code of such transparent simplicity baffled the Master for such a time has long been a matter of wonder.”

Above, note No. 5; below, a work in progress.


Woodhead explains this adroitly as an action of chronicler Watson to protect society: Evidently the real cipher was much more complex, but why offer it to the baddies of this world? Instead, as described by Leslie S. Klinger in The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, Watson replaces the real code “with one that was just difficult enough to stump the reader, but not too difficult to explain.”

What a great math teacher Watson would have made!

Note No. 6.

Fletcher Pratt, another Sherlockian scholar, analyzed the dancing men and the potential cryptologic orientations of their legs and arms. He derived 784 distinct possibilities of meaning in a straightforward substitution code. What’s more, by variously inverting the dancing men, this doubles the total to 1568 characters.

Crib sheet devised by Sherlockian scholar Michael J. Sare. Below, the messages..


Pratt continues, “By stunning coincidence,” seventeenth century cryptographers in the service of Louis XIV devised a Great Cipher, a “homophonic substitution” code using syllables, not letters. Observes Klinger, “When all the permutations of the Great Cipher’s characters were added up, according to Pratt, the total was precisely 1568.”

As you might surmise, this slick-dressing American is the adventure’s baddie. Illustration by Frederick Don Steele, Colliers, 1903.

Deep state coincidence, or what? ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2017

One comment on “SHERLOCK HOLMES—CRYPTOLOGIST

  1. simanaitissays
    March 13, 2017

    Hello all,
    A long time ago, I confessed to the editor’s temptation of last-minute corrections, changes, updates, etc. Typically, by 6:30 a.m. U.S. Pacific time, it’s a done deal. Today, I didn’t even upload this item until 7 a.m. and only then began exercising my editorial prerogative. I apologize to those of you who encountered early version(s).

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