by | Dec 2, 2022 | Isabella Maldonado, The Writer's Life | 8 comments

By Isabella Maldonado

When you see a puzzle, a hidden message, or a secret code, do you have an urge to solve it? Let’s face it, cracking a code is a dopamine hit mixed with an adrenaline rush. From ancient times, humans have been forced to extrapolate from clues in their environment and solve problems to survive. Those who had no ability to think creatively or interpret hidden dangers in their environment did not live to pass on their genes.

For that reason, humans are predisposed to solve puzzles. There is an overwhelming impulse to fill in the blanks when presented with incomplete information. This penchant is lifelong, from small children learning to fit shapes into the proper openings on a toy to seniors working the daily crossword.

two great code cracking

This is one of the reasons Dame Agatha Christie’s famous locked room mysteries and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes tales are so enduring. Their fans are forced to use a combination of ingenuity, logic, and deductive reasoning to bypass red herrings and ferret out the hidden motive behind the crime to arrive at the culprit. Many who read The Da Vinci Code (myself included) put the book down briefly to try to solve the various riddles and ciphers in the text before reading on to find the answers.

There are different types of brain-teasing puzzles that can be inserted into a manuscript. One of the most popular dates back centuries. Known as a substitution cipher, the simplest form of this code exchanges numbers for letters of the alphabet in order:

20/8/9/19, 9/19, 6/21/14 = THIS IS FUN

To make this more challenging, introducing a mathematical equation to the formula adds an extra layer of difficulty, and also conceals the fact that it’s an alphabetical substitution cipher. For this example, I doubled each number and subtracted five:

35/11/13/33, 13/33, 7/37/23 = THIS IS FUN

Players have to be cracking codes

On a recent trip to New York City, I noticed several locations with competitive games for adults. Some involved solving a puzzle to “beat the bomb,” which consisted of brightly colored paint exploding over everyone. Others consisted of “escape rooms” where people were forced to work in teams to unlock the exit to get out first. These games can also be played online in virtual forums using avatars.

My upcoming release, A Killer’s Game, combines the classic elements of a locked room, riddles, and codes, while updating them with an escape room setting and a virtual reality component. The clues get progressively more difficult, upping the challenge for both the fictional participants and readers following their progress through a deadly labyrinth. There is even a point where captives must “beat the bomb” before it literally blows up in their faces.

Cracking this code is a challenge

Designing the venue and creating the puzzles was a lot of fun—although very challenging—to write, which gives me an appreciation for those who encode messages and generate them for the rest of us to enjoy. Two of these organizations are the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency, who have invited the public to match wits against their best cryptographers. Famously, CIA headquarters in Langley has a sculpture called Kryptos erected in front that contains four encoded panels. Installed in 1991, three of the four have been solved, but the fourth remains a mystery to this day.

For its part, the NSA, nicknamed “No Such Agency,” has created a puzzle on its website designed to challenge all comers to decrypt the hidden message in the black box. For those who dare try it, I’ve included the image below, along with the instructions and a link to the NSA website where you can find it.

Can you solve this puzzle?


FT. MEADE, Md.  –  

In the spirit of National Cybersecurity Awareness Month, NSA challenges you to solve this puzzle. The good news is that you don’t need to wait to receive a decoder ring in the mail! Everything you need for the solution has been provided.

Our puzzle does not require a large cryptography or computer science background to solve. For those interested in the history of ciphers, check out the Cryptologic Museum.

We’ll be interested in hearing from you about how you went about solving it. And don’t worry, unlike Ralphie’s secret message, our encoded message will not remind you to drink your Ovaltine!

How are you at cracking code?

How about it, readers? Going to give it a try?

Don’t Miss a Thing!



  1. Karna Small Bodman

    Solve that NSA puzzle? You’ve got to be kidding. At first glance, I wondered how many words I’m supposed to find, whether I’m looking for a whole sentence or whatever? In any event, you are so right, Isabella, about how puzzles really do challenge all of us in so many ways. Now, I can’t wait to read A KILLER’S GAME — sure to be a bestseller. Thanks for an intriguing post!!! (Let us know if YOU have solved that NSA puzzle).

    • Isabella Maldonado

      Wish I could say I cracked the NSA code already, Karna, but I haven’t yet. Still working on it!

  2. Jenny Milchman

    Omigosh I am sooo bad at puzzles, math, and codes, and so glad people like you are not! The only puzzles I can solve are human ones.

    I always said that if I were in an escape room, I’d sit down and eat a few doughnuts.

    Love the detail about the sculpture!

    • Isabella Maldonado

      I do like a good puzzle, but I find that I’m better at some kinds than others. Logic puzzles, word hunts, and mathematical progressions come more easily to me than word jumbles or Rubik’s cubes, for example. I think the way a person’s brain is wired makes the difference. Some are left vs. right-brained, some are more visual thinkers. It’s hard to say how it happens. The excellent way you write characters makes it obvious that you truly do enjoy the human puzzle!

  3. Tracy Clark

    I love this piece. I also love trying to solve puzzles in books, though, I must admit I’ve never been able to outwit Dame Christie. What a devious mind. I’ve seen those escape room experiences, but don’t dare. I’d be there wandering around the room until Christmas, or until I figured out a way to bust the door down. Love the game. Hate the pressure. Can’t wait to read “A Killer’s Game” to see what type of puzzle Isabella has laid out for us.

    • Isabella Maldonado

      Ah, yes, the pressure! That ticking clock is what makes the challenge so much harder. Psychological studies and PET scans have shown that increased stimulation of the amygdala from stress actually decreases blood flow and synaptic firing in the frontal cortex, where the higher level mental processing takes place. In other words, stress makes it harder to think and easier to react.

      As far as the escape room goes, I have yet to try one in real life too, but I plan to next time I have the chance.

  4. Mary Monnin

    What a fun topic! I’ll check out A Killer’s Game, and I’m going to try the NSA puzzle, for whatever that’s worth.

    • Isabella Maldonado

      Ooooh! Let me know if you crack the NSA code. Can’t wait to hear how it goes for you…
      And thanks for checking out A KILLER’S GAME.