May 27th, 2005


The Sign of Four

The trains stops at Finsbury Park, but I make the mistake of thinking I'm on the Piccadilly line and thus end up at Seven Sisters and I pay £1.30 for the pleasure of walking back home and I'm glad of it. It's the first day of the year I'm not shivering at some point or another. Instead I'm slightly sweating and it's a feeling I like. Outside the station, people are relaxing at the Colombian cafes for the weather speaks of summer with more than a whisper. I walk up the road and pass two hatted gentlemen with inventive facial hair and tasteful suits. It is a pleasant evening. Eventually I reach the junction at St Ann's Road and decide to go into a shop I've never been into although I've passed it many times.

Recently I'd suggested to the Professor and Landlady that it just might be somewhere they could buy tempeh locally since it's apparently an Oriental supermarket. I thought I might be able to get some Vitasoy so I entered. My first sensory experience is the smell of bleach. The shelves are filled with product, but it's almost all dried goods such as rice noodles, peanut butter crackers, more crackers and some Spanish goods. There's quite a few jars of pickled baby aubergines. Extended shelflife. It dawns on me that it's most probably a Philippine shop. No tofu on offer, but there is a nice sort of icon corner behind the counter with the Virgin Mary. Dusty chinoiserie and a pair of mounted plastic antlers by the look of it. For sale, perhaps. I manage to spend £1.26. I was hoping for Korean instant noodles.

When I get home, I crack open the bottle of Colombiana, a fairly palatable "kola flavor soda" which isn't too sweet. I've nothing too positive to say about Jack 'n Jill Chiz Curls. I settle down to read The Rule of Four, a book I've bought earlier with the thought that this one looks like a book that reads itself, which is what I feel like sometimes. Curiously, while in the bookshop, my friend receives a call and when she mentions our location is requested to obtain a copy of Alain de Boton's Status Anxiety forthwith. Calm down, dear, it's only a...

My book does prove to read itself, more or less, but what's missing for me is a decent process of solution. The Rule of Four is marketed as a higher-brow alternative to The Da Vinci Code. Whereas the latter book rehashes the now very tired Holy Blood myth-history, this one is based on the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (HP). The writing here is better, but it wouldn't take much to improve on Dan Brown. I've still a hundred and fifty pages to go, but I'm not convinced I can be bothered to give up an hour or so to read them. The problem is in the solution.

The premise of the book is that the HP is encoded with secret information. Given the peculiarity of the text, this isn't exactly news. What this information precisely concerns has still yet to be revealed, but it doesn't matter. If the solution was good enough, it could be a jar of peanut butter for all I care [and the Oriental Supermarket does sell extra large jars of Skippy at a better price than Waitrose. As I discovered two days ago, Sarah Cox shops there on the Holloway Road and, in a Heat-style gastronomic aside, I can tell you that she bought Poilane. Just like as I did. Although I must also recommend the more readily affordable Waitrose brand German rye bread. Anyway...] . Here, a series of riddles are found that can only be solved through the application of Renaissance scholarship thus, the book suggests, protecting the secret from the ignorant or medievally minded. Once these riddles are solved, the one word answer provides a cryptographic key to decode other sections of the text. So, if it's a seven letter word then you know to skip between every seventh letter to reveal what's hidden within.

Well, aside from the preposterous tedium of having to write one text around another and the way in which this devalues the curious beauty of the actual work, my problem is this. It's apparently 1999. The protagonists are students and academics at Princeton. If I became conviced that the text was a code, I'd put it into a computer. If these codes are just "pick every seventh/fourth/etc letter" then you have no need to to solve any riddles at all. You just need to number crunch the text with Renaissance cryptography in mind and see what comes up that's intelligible. It's suggested that computers aren't used because the student can't afford one. Surely there are one or two available at Princeton somewhere? Furthermore, am I to believe that a supposed Renaissance man would not be able to envisage such a future as possibility? This code is just too darn easy to crack provided you've got the manpower. It would be better to rely on riddles alone and skip the Cryptography 101. Or at least write a book in which the original author uses a previously unknown form of code that was a bit more advanced than letter-skipping and relied much more on an interweaving of different systems based upon geometry, architecture, natural science and so on. Get the author to have discovered calculus, translated Etruscan or something equivalent. It is fiction, after all.

So the book is dressed up with learning but Borges, nevermind the Borgias, it ain't. I always find myself returning to Holmes as the model of problem solving and at this point I should announce, following another enjoyable dinner engagement, a further story in the apparently ongoing series of Upon Dining With Jermyn Savile in which our hero uses the entirety of his mental faculties against (!) that most noted of detectives. Serialisation of The Missing Piano Leg will begin from tomorrow. Those wishing to reacquaint themselves with the previous story may download it in pdf format here.

What? You say. Surely that story ended with Sarmoung living out his days in some distant Russian monastery? Yes, it did. But just as Holmes can rise from the Reichenbach Falls, so also may Sarmoung reappear in London society as Pseudo-Watson without the arching of too many eyebrows. It is fiction, after all.