Sunday, July 24, 2011

Idea Garage Sale: Cipher

Getting up this morning with no clear idea for a garage sale, I opened up the link to the Fortean Times breaking news page and looked at the stories posted on Friday. Here I found a story about a man in Massachusetts who claims to have deciphered a 340-character message from the Zodiac Killer which has defied all previous attempts to read it.

You don't have to know anything about the Zodiac Killer, or to have read very many examples of Fortean code poking, such as the search for ciphers in the Bible or the works of Shakespeare, to realize that the guy is, um, overly optimistic. He's started from one bit of coincidental data (340 characters, 340 is the area code of the Virgin Islands - but only since 1997; the message was received in 1969), used addition and subtraction to get another number, used this number as the basis to decide on a particular established code with which to work; made a huge assumption about how the letter ought to start; then pushed, pulled, and prodded the bits of the message that don't work within his framework and under his untested assumptions until they more or less almost do and he gets a message that kinda sorta makes sense and even fingers a definite person.

And then he is surprised and offended that the relevant police departments aren't interested.

The interesting thing, the relatable thing, here is the way the case interested this person to the point of obsession, of forgetting to eat; of spending hours working on an internal construct that would offer him some sort of resolution he can project onto the outside world.

Because we all do this. Writers do it and produce books and poems; painters do it and make paintings; the Fen do it and produce fanart, fanfic, costuming, and props; programmers do it with programs; gamers do it with games. Sometimes the result is a fun, harmless hobby; sometimes it's a great work of art; once in awhile someone actually solves a crime this way; sometimes it's a mental train wreck that eats up a life, or a virus that spreads to innocent other people and mutates in unpredictable ways.

The difference between a healthy and an unhealthy preoccupation seems to be the capacity to keep perspective. Fan artists, novelists, master chess players - they know where the boundary lies between their absorbing mental preoccupation and the exterior world. They don't use their preoccupation to filter the real world into someplace it's comfortable for them to live, then try to persuade other people to accept this filtered version of reality as reality. Which is what crackpots are generally trying to do, and the point at which they become pathetic, tedious, and potentially dangerous to themselves or others, because walking through hallucinatory terrain is inherently dangerous.

So what we need for a story is two people embodying these different ways of dealing with the same preoccupation, illustrating the advantages and the dangers of the interior life - without, of course, being didactic, because the audience can tell when you're doing that and it makes the story suck. That's always the danger when starting with a theme rather than a character or situation; so let's proceed to those ASAP.

Since this train of thought began with Zodiac's code, let's start with a similar, but fictional, situation. Forty years ago, Drama City was terrorized by a killer who taunted the police in coded letters. Although the case is now only a cold and bitter memory, it has never officially been closed, and the knowledge that Cipher is still out there is like a taint in the town's water. Shadows of suspicion still lie on several people. The daughter of one of these people - still suspected in the public eye, though officially and definitively cleared - is a cop, and she can't stay out of the case files, continually going over and over evidence and trying out various dodges to solve the unsolved ciphers. Or are they codes? Because those aren't the same things. She isn't making headway. No one ever does. But trying to understand Cipher has had the side benefit of improving her job skills.

A newcomer in town moves into a building associated with the Cipher killings in some way. Perhaps he lives in the apartment of a victim, or a suspect; perhaps a body was dumped in the alley behind his office. He's a bit of an encryption buff, probably a programmer, and he becomes fascinated by the case and the messages. So he starts working on them as a hobby. Maybe there's even a local group that offers a prize for solving one. He has one of those jolts of inspiration that feel like revelation, so clear and so compelling that he assumes it must be true. Using this as his guide, he "solves" the ciphers and takes them to the local police, meeting Detective Daughter. Possibly his solution points back to her family, so that when she tries to show him the fundamental errors that arise when his assumptions are tested against reality, it's easy to claim that she's protecting the guilty. It needn't be her father that's implicated; he could easily have a brother hitherto never considered, or something.

This begins a raging political division in town, with Mr. Solution heading up a faction determined to expose police corruption and incompetence at a time when the police department is already struggling for funds and personnel. Detective Daughter, who has worked hard to get the respect of her peers and rise above the shadow of Cipher, finds herself thrust into a false position, her mere presence a danger to the reputation of the force. Even if she solved Cipher, would anyone, in light of the conspiracy theories suddenly running amok in Drama City, accept her evidence and chain of reasoning?

This being a story, we must have a definitive resolution - Cipher must be caught, and he must be someone significant, but he cannot be the person indicated in Mr. Solution's version of the code. He can, however, be someone Detective Daughter kept coming back to; someone who feels threatened? No; police taunters are arrogant SOBs who feel superior to the police. The kind of people who, seeing this kerfluffle arise after years of dormancy (and you'd need a convincing cause for this dormancy), would be unable to resist getting into the middle of it. Guiding it. Using it for some end of his own.

Mr. Solution would be easily manipulated by such a person. Could easily turn into his puppet.

And if Detective Daughter's father was suspected because Cipher always wanted him to be suspected - if he has some sort of grudge against her family - and now she also represents the police whom he has always longed to humiliate -

Well, that's a thriller plot, isn't it? The key thing to get right would be the character and motivation of Cipher. Do that, and everything falls into place around it.

I'm not about to live in such a person's head long enough to write so far out of my comfort range. What if his voice took over like Len's did? Ugh.

I might read the book, though, if somebody else wrote it.

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