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Listener 4747: [Choristers Pinpoint A] Transposition Cipher by Serpent

Posted by vaganslistener on 10 Feb 2023

The Hon. Editors have obviously decided to give us a stiff start to the Listener New Year; so Serpent (as we discovered) gave us what was indeed quite a serpentine challenge, with the innocent-sounding “transposition cipher” being in fact one of the tricker of that ilk (and beyond me if it were not for the wonders of the web – but more of that in a moment).

How to start? Well, cold solving, and lots of it, and with some pretty hard clues too, but I did manage to deduce the shape of the ciphertext panel from the requirement to jumble sixteen symmetrically placed answers (which logically had to be those intersecting with the panel). That at least made life a bit easier by allowing the other entries to be entered unjumbled from the word go.

After that I resorted to Suduko-solving style little letters of all the available options in each of the jumbled entries, trying hard to keep track of where crossing requirements and known letters narrowed down the choice. As the preamble stated, there were a few unresolved squares, but I struck lucky with my initial guesses – and luckier still when, once I had obtained ANAGRAM MYSZKOWSKI as the extra-letter message, I Googled Myszkowski and landed immediately on a page explaining his transposition cipher and offering a tool to automatically decode it, once the keyword was entered. Well, it had to be ANAGRAM didn’t it, despite the cunning attempt to use it as a red herring, and there indeed appeared in plain text “Transposition Cipher by Serpent”. I hope I have got the jumbling right: I find checking and verifying that sort of thing goes against the way my rather intuitive brain is wired, but the plausible plain text and real words left give me hope.

I will add my applause to Shirley’s (I imagine) for the cheerily boozy 15a “Huge gin and tonic without much ice could be bracing (10)” for TOUGHENING (in fact I think I may go and pour one now). The simple 22a “Plant’s unknown element? (7)” bamboozled me for a bit as I wanted to make it SIMPLEX, but crossing letters soon steered me towards FACTORY – a very different sort of plant. Similarly I became fixated on HARSH for 25d “Austere leader of Iran brings in Revolutionary Guards (5)” with “shah” in mind, when STERN was required. The perils of that intuitive mind that can jump to conclusions quickly but erroneously. One last favourite, as a pile of proofs are about to arrive, was 2d “Copying author’s proof wearying head of Granta (5)” which gave APING once the “y” of “wearying” was removed. Crafty Serpent of course made sure that we could also go for deletions in “cop[y]ing” “author’[s]” “[p]roof” and “Grant[a]” but APING had to be the answer and once I remembered that AP = “author’s proof” it all made sense.

So thanks to the setter sometimes known as Serpent for a good workout that all did manage to make sense at the end, and h/t to without whom I wouldn’t have made it, or not at last without a lot more gin.


2 Responses to “Listener 4747: [Choristers Pinpoint A] Transposition Cipher by Serpent”

  1. gillwinchcombe said

    I was led down the garden path with Shah too

  2. Alan B said

    I’ll latch on to this blog, if I may, just to say what an outstanding puzzle this was. The general feeling seems to be that it was tough, and I would say the same, but I find at least half of all the Listeners I attempt (and I don’t try them all) are just as tough! What stood out for me was its quality, and especially the quality of its clues and the entire thematic design, from the cipher itself to the two types of clue/answer. I got temporarily stuck only on FACTORY and PROPERTY – two excellent clues among many others.

    The message ANAGRAM MYSZKOWSKI was the essential information needed for the endgame in its briefest form. At least it was not hard to learn how to use this cipher (I found the relevant Wikipedia article of most use), and looking at it now I could surmise that it would sometimes be possible to decipher text in this way just by solving the anagram, because the same letters are used. (I liked the ‘[Choristers pinpoint a]’ anagram above, which incidentally I think has the ‘]’ in the wrong place.)

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