Though I enjoy reading, I don't typically make a point of keeping up with the latest releases in fiction. That's why I only just got around to reading Joe Meno's 2006 novel The Boy Detective Fails, a grown-up take on the “child sleuth” subgenre of detective fiction. I grew up reading the Encyclopedia Brown books, so I am rather familiar with the genre and appreciate the spin Meno gives it. The Boy Detective Fails is a good read, and it has something to say. I liked it and recommend it.
Meno does one thing in the novel that is especially interesting: several times throughout the story, protagonist Billy Argo receives notes containing mysterious coded messages, which the reader is invited to “help Billy solve” using the “Boy Detective Decoder Ring” included on the inside flap of the book's back cover. It's a fun, novel idea, and it can help draw the reader into the world of the Boy Detective. However, it can also be an annoyance to have to go through the hassle of decoding parts of the book letter-by-letter when one just wants to get on with the story, so I simply searched online for the solutions to these messages. I was surprised to discover that, even after the book's been available for four years, it appears that no enterprising reader has shared its secrets. The closest thing I was able to find is a page of hints from Fuzzy Gerdes. So, late though it may be, I'm happy to provide the solutions for anyone who is reading the book, and wants the contents of the messages but not the tedium of decoding them.
The three notes that Billy receives are on pages 113, 202, and 265 (at least in the edition that I have). The messages on those pages decrypt to:
- “Billy, why have you forgotten me?”
- “Billy, please, I need your help.”
- “Billy, Abracadabra!”
There's also a series of diary entries that Billy reads; on pages 306-307 he discovers a hidden message in one by reading the first letter of every other line. Messages are hidden the same way in the previous diary entries on pages 19, 59, and 185. The four messages are:
- “Hi, Billy”
- “I found Daisy”
- “Miller's Cave”
Another coded message appears throughout the book, each word printed at the bottom of a page. This message uses a simple ROT-13 cipher, and it decodes to:
Derek's secret adventureThrough the cloudy ends of his binoculars, Midshipman Derek Argo, on watch, caught sight of a shape amidst the unchanging spectacle of the high sea. A ghost ship! With its grinning Jolly Roger and its main sail flapping like a howl, Derek quickly signaled the call to alarm. But in a flash, the glowing vessel had already drawn aft and inhuman hands were upon him quick. Before Derek could warn his shipmates, he was bound to the invisible main mast of the dastardly vessel, kidnapped! The ghouls gathered around, ready to plunder the unsuspecting ship, their sabers and gold teeth looking fearsome. Derek, brave and true, closed his eyes and began to whistle a daring melody, which broke the curse of each of their ghostly imprisoned hearts. The pirates, now like doves, fell to their knees, and together, with Derek happy at the helm, the ship disappeared into the charming fog of the sea. And thus ends our hidden adventure—astute reader, if you have made it this far, please send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org for a secret surprise!
Sadly, the e-mail address listed no longer exists; I received a “delivery failed” message when I tried sending a message to it. In fact, it looks like the Punk Planet Books website no longer exists at the punkplanetbooks.com domain, which appears to have been taken over by a cybersquatter.
Fortunately, Gerdes was able to furnish the response he got when he tried the address back in 2006:
To ensure secrecy, I have encoded the following message. It may aide you to remember where my brother is living.
Sekx, Bvjnkp Akdyhpyscyp!
Akjlpsrtfsrnkjq kj qkfunjl ix mtzzfy. Gkp xktp espd vkpc, n vktfd fncy rk qyjd xkt s qisff lngr—s rkcyj kg ix fsqrnjl smmpyansrnkj gkp xktp yggkprq. Nj kpdyp rk dk qk, n jyyd xktp sddpyqq! Mfysqy gtpjnqe nr mkqr-esqry, qk n asj esuy s cnjd mkqrsf yimfkxyy hpnjl ix lngr rk xkt.
Qyy xkt kj rey qysq,
As you can see, the reply contains another coded message, this one encrypted with a substitution cipher (not the simple Caesar cipher of the other messages). I've worked out the solution, and (after correcting a typo) the message is:
Ahoy, Junior Codebreaker!
Congratulations on solving my puzzle. For your hard work, I would like to send you a small gift—a token of my lasting appreciation for your efforts. In order to do so, I need your address! Please furnish it post-haste, so I can have a kind postal employee bring my gift to you.
See you on the seas,
Gerdes reports that he supplied his mailing address, and received “a couple of Punk Planet Books stickers and an owl button” (in the novel, Billy wears an owl tie).
Finally, The Boy Detective Fails ends with a series of puzzles and games, such as a connect-the-dots activity, and a word-search puzzle. The word-search puzzle has one final secret message in it, which the unused letters spell out after all the words have been found. The message is, “believe in mystery.”