SECRET MESSAGES by William S. Butler


Concealment, Codes, and Other Types of Ingenious Communication
Email this review


An exploration of the methodologies and social roles surrounding codes and privileged communications, from the grandiose to the minute, in peace and war.

Longtime collaborators Butler and Keeney (Day of Destiny, not reviewed, etc.) take a broad view, encapsulating in brief, easy-to-digest chapters a veritable world history of secret communication, from ancient Sparta to the Internet. Many of these topical discussions have a historical flair, incorporating the ingenuity of both obscure figures, such as 19th-century journalist and master of espionage Henri de Blowitz, and more notorious folks like Napoleon and Benedict Arnold. The authors also take their explorations into a larger cultural arena, discussing as “codes” such seemingly banal rituals as the cup-and-saucer signals utilized by the Harvey Girls (waitresses in Fred Harvey’s famed Western restaurants) or such pop crazes as the controversy surrounding the Kingsmen’s garbled rendition of “Louie, Louie.” In keeping with their previous publications on military matters, the authors also provide a brief overview of the central role of code-breaking and covert communications in recent wars. WWII gets particularly strong coverage, including a fascinating account of the Army’s recruitment of Navajo men (famed for their indecipherable language) and the story of Churchill’s pursuit, based on seemingly nonsensical transmissions, of the Nazis’ “bent-leg beam” guidance system. The substantial treatment of Vietnam is notable for a grim recounting of American POWs blinking out the message “T-O-R-T-U-R-E” in Morse code during televised interviews from the Hanoi Hilton. Finally, Butler and Keeney provide a guide to help readers develop their own simple written codes. The authors’ tone is rather bland, but their discussion is broad and informative, if at times frustratingly truncated (the section on casino scams, for example, only examines one).

Not terribly scintillating, but many of the general readers for whom it’s intended will find this a useful and interesting primer.

Pub Date: Jan. 2nd, 2001
ISBN: 0-684-86998-5
Page count: 192pp
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15th, 2000