The Adventure of the Dancing Men
by A. Conan Doyle

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

a Sherlock Holmes mystery

Strand Magazine, December 1903

collected in —
The Return of Sherlock Holmes
The Complete Sherlock Holmes

The Annotated Sherlock Holmes June 2008


"The Adventure of the Dancing Men" is one of several Sherlock Holmes short stories in which A. Conan Doyle set a deciphering problem before his detective hero. The difficulty of the Dancing Men cipher to the uninitiated public of story-characters and readers is that its messages look like graffiti rather than information. Tiny scribbled stick-men. In other words, this secret writing uses both concealment of the message (as seeming graffiti) as well as encryption of its text (via the arbitrarily enciphered alphabet). The very existence of the messages' content thus is baffling or at least doubtful.

It is perhaps difficult now to come upon this story without conjecturing that we are at least looking at a sort of cipher or code in the Dancing Men stick-figures. World Wars I and II and the Cold War, and the personal-computer age, all have educated the public considerably about cryptography.

Even without that bit of mystery, "The Adventure of the Dancing Men" remains a good story. It was one of Doyle's own favorite Sherlock Holmes stories and its title ensures it is one of the more readily recalled.

Original magazine illustrations as well as useful and entertaining background material are included with the story in The Annotated Sherlock Holmes.

The film Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1943) tosses in the Dancing Men cipher, but otherwise has nothing to do with Doyle's story. The movie's plot involves a new secret bombsight. Virtues of the film include Basil Rathbone as Holmes, and some dark wartime atmosphere; but the lack of elementary foresight in heroes and villains make the plot unimpressive.

David Kahn provides a detailed discussion of the Dancing Men cipher in his great history, The Codebreakers; including, even

... the source of the cryptographic errors that appear in all printed accounts. ...

The Baker Street Irregulars [dedicated Sherlock Holmes fans] have expended a great deal of energy on this problem. ... Their efforts, however, have served only to show why they are the disciples and Holmes the master. ...

Holmes' own account ... proves that the errors did not exist in the original messages — and it is fortunate that they did not, for they occur at junctures crucial to the analysis and, coupled with the other difficulties [brevity of the texts; proper names in the texts, etc.], might have rendered the cryptograms almost impossible to read, even for Holmes. The errors must therefore have been made by Dr. Watson in transmitting the canon to the world. Later publications have compounded Watson's original errors, but these have passed through the hands of literary and journalistic types, notoriously frivolous and unreliable as to facts, and need not be considered.


© 2008 Robert Wilfred Franson


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