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Cracking the Puzzle Book Challenge: Conundrum by Brian Clegg

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Brian Clegg © 1 July 2019.
Posted in the Magazine ( · Interviews · Non-Fiction ).

Sometimes as a writer, the spur to start on a project is frustration in not being able to find the book you want. I enjoy cryptic and mind-bending puzzles, but I’d found most puzzle books on the shelves were either too trivial, or (for example, in the case of the bestselling GCHQ puzzle books), challenging but soon became dull. As a result, I’ve come up with a new kind of puzzle book, called Conundrum.

I have a background in science writing, with over 40 books published, which made it possible for me both to get exposure of my idea to a publisher, and to give my book something of a pedigree – but that of itself didn’t mean I knew what approach to take. For this, my starting point was work I used to do with a youth club.

Many years ago, I helped run a local club and liked to contribute mystery adventure evenings, where the participants had to follow cryptic clues. (I’ve self-published some of the mysteries in my book Organizing a Murder. What I tried to do was to mix puzzles and general knowledge. For Conundrum, I added in a pair of extra elements: ciphers – code breaking – and some real lateral thinking.

So, for example, rather than simply provide the reader with an encrypted message to break, I might present them with a row of books on a shelf, arranged in a way that – if you deduce the right rule – displays a message on the spines. Or I might provide what appears to be an innocent letter, but have a secret text concealed in some way. Even as simple a challenge as an anagram can be spiced up in a number of ways – so, for example, in the book I feature a cinema marquee which displays two of the hottest films of 1977, only a vandal has mixed up the letters to spell out a different message.

One of the best sources of inspiration was splitting the book into categories – twenty of them in all – from physics to music to food and drink. This made it a lot easier to come up with a set of challenges for each category, because the topic itself inspired an idea. It helps, of course, to have done a lot of reading around different subjects in researching my non-fiction books. So, for example, in one of the music-based challenges, I make use of a simplified version of what’s known as the Dorabella cipher, an encrypted piece of text written by the composer Edward Elgar that no one has successfully deciphered. In the end, each puzzle is a mini-story to unravel.

Although plenty of the challenges are text-based, I wanted to make some visual. A particular image can suggest a potential puzzle. For example, I had the image below in my photo library, taken on a visit to St Mark’s basilica in Venice. It immediately struck me that the decoration on the piece of stone could be used to carry a message. As it happens, this didn’t make it into the book, as it wasn’t possible to reproduce the image clearly enough to work effectively – but it shows how the inspiration might come.

Most puzzle books have solutions in the back. I didn’t want to do this, because the solution to the whole book comes together to form a single answer, allowing winners to submit the solution online for a video game style hall of fame. However, it would be frustrating if you couldn’t see where to go with a particular puzzle, so I provide clues at the back for the first sixteen sections that make the puzzles significantly easier to crack. After that, though, the reader is on their own.

To get a feel for the approach I took, I’ll walk through putting together a challenge that gives a good feel for how the approach works. In several of the puzzles that are in Conundrum I imagine a spy passing on a message in plain sight by leaving something visible through their window that appears innocent but actually holds a message. One rich seam for doing this is a game board. In the example below, I’ve got a board for the game Go, with an unlikely array of pieces in place. I also show a note from the spy.

The reader has to deduce how the spy has hidden a message on the board to work out what that message says. It’s common when working with ciphers that not every letter is available – in this case, the note tells us that the same item represents both C and K (and so on with the other equivalent letters), and that there is no Q or X in the alphabet.

From this, seven letters of the alphabet are missing – which leaves 19. That’s an interesting number, because the Go board has a 19 x 19 grid. It seems likely, then, that the position of the markers indicates the letters. We also discover that we read the white markers first on each row (or column – you would have to try each), and that black mirrors white. This indicates that we read off the values for black from the opposite side of the board to white.

The result is being able to read the message MEETMEINREGENTSTREETATFIVE (Meet me in Regent Street at five).

You can find out more about Conundrum or buy a copy from my website. It was challenging to write – I was greatly helped by producing a spreadsheet that automates some of the encryption and decryption processes, which I make available to readers at the book’s website – but it was far and above the most fun I’ve ever had in writing a book.

(c) Brian Clegg

Brian Clegg [www.brianclegg.net] has written over 40 popular science books, with topics ranging from infinity to time machines. He also writes for magazines and newspapers from Nature and The Wall Street Journal to Playboy. He gives regular talks and has contributed to radio and TV programmes. Brian edits the www.popularscience.co.uk book review site and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.

About Conundrum: Crack the Ultimate Cipher Challenge:

The ultimate trial of knowledge and cunning, Conundrum features 200 cryptic puzzles and ciphers. The solutions link throughout the book – so you need to solve them all to get to the final round.

With a focus on ciphers and codebreaking, Conundrum contains twenty sections, each built around a specific subject from music to literature, physics to politics. To take on Conundrum you need good general knowledge and the ability to think laterally. But if you need help, there are plenty of hints to point you in the right direction.

Whether you attempt to crack it alone or work in a team, Conundrum will challenge you to the extreme.

Can you take on Conundrum and win? There’s only one way to find out…

Order your copy online here.

Brian Clegg [www.brianclegg.net] has written over 40 popular science books, with topics ranging from infinity to time machines. He also writes for magazines and newspapers from Nature and The Wall Street Journal to Playboy. He gives regular talks and has contributed to radio and TV programmes. Brian edits the www.popularscience.co.uk book review site and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.