Being the creator of the dancing men cipher, the topic of ciphers and codes in the stories is near and dear to my heart. Of the sixty stories in the Sherlock Holmes saga ‘The Musgrave Ritual,’ ‘The Adventure of the Dancing Men,’ ‘The Adventure of the Red Circle,’ and ‘The Valley of Fear’ all use codes or ciphers.
In ‘The Musgrave Ritual,’ we find a centuries-old riddle intended to confound the family, but the butler and Sherlock Holmes were able to solve the puzzle with some knowledge of history and trigonometry.
In ‘The Adventure of the Dancing Men,’ the cipher was intended to pass messages between members of a gang while keeping the general public unaware of their intent. The solution was a simple replacement cryptogram.
In ‘The Adventure of the Red Circle’ a simple code was used by Gennaro to signal the mysterious lodger of Bloomsbury. The code went in this way: one pass of the candle in the window stands for the letter ‘A,’ two passes of the candle stands for ‘B’ and so on. A problem arises when one considers that the messages were in Italian yet the alphabet could not have been. One may recall that the messages were the single words: ‘attenta’ and ‘pericolo,’ which mean ‘beware’ and ‘danger’ in English. If one considers that the Italian alphabet contains no J or K (nor W, X, or Y for that matter), the code must have been simplified by Watson to make the story flow smoothly; otherwise, Watson and Holmes could not count past nine. The latter option seems preposterous to me.
In ‘The Valley of Fear,’ the disguised member of the Moriarty gang who called himself Fred Porlock sent Holmes a cipher message perhaps to ease his own conscience, but he was unable to send the cipher because Moriarty knew his secret. The cipher, however, was explained by Holmes with the discovery of the unnamed book containing the code.
NEXT WEEK: The Renown of the Baskervilles