Puzzles, Secret Codes and Treasure Hunts

September 11, 2023 | Denise

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I enjoy a good mystery, but I don't typically read mystery novels. While I like piecing together the clues, I'd rather not read about murder and other forms of violence. I especially don't need the gory details or the insight into a serial killer's thoughts and motivations. 

I'm always on the lookout for books that involve a mystery but not a crime — books in which the characters (and the reader) must complete a quest, solve a puzzle or crack a code using clues, making them a scavenger hunt for grownups. Here's a list of some of the ones I've recently read:

Cover image of Mr. Penumbra's 24-hour bookstore

Mr. Penumbra's 24-hour bookstore by Robin Sloan

After losing his job as a San Francisco web-design drone, Clay Jannon begins working the night shift at Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore. He quickly realizes that this is not your average store. There are only a few customers, and they come in repeatedly. They never actually buy anything; rather, they "check out" impossibly obscure books. Clay decides that the store must be a front for something larger and begins a complex analysis of the customers' behaviour. When he brings his findings to Mr. Penumbra, he discovers the secrets extend far beyond the walls of the bookstore. If you enjoy this one, check out Sourdough and then The Suitcase Clone, which connect the other two into one big Penumbra-verse.


Cover image of Ready player one

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

In the year 2045, reality is an ugly place. The only time Wade Watts really feels alive is when he's jacked into the OASIS, a vast virtual world where most people spend their days. When the eccentric creator of the OASIS dies, he leaves behind a series of fiendish puzzles, based on his obsession with the pop culture of decades past. Whoever is first to solve them will inherit his vast fortune — and control of the OASIS itself. When Wade cracks the first clue, he's suddenly beset by rivals who'll kill to take this prize. The race is on, and the only way to survive is to win. If you enjoy this one, try the sequel Ready Player Two.


Cover image of Tuesday Mooney talks to ghosts

Tuesday Mooney talks to ghosts by Kate Racculia

Tuesday Mooney keeps to herself, begrudgingly socializes and spends much of her time watching old Twin Peaks DVDs. Her life changes in a big way when eccentric billionaire Vincent Pryce dies. He leaves behind an epic treasure hunt through Boston, with clues inspired by his hero Edgar Allan Poe. Puzzle-loving Tuesday searches for clue after clue, joined by a ragtag crew: a wisecracking friend, an adoring teen neighbor and a handsome, cagey young heir. And with other teams from around the city also vying for the promised prize — a share of Pryce's immense wealth — they must move quickly. 


Cover image of The cartographers

The cartographers by Peng Shepherd

Nell Young's whole life is cartography. Her father Dr. Daniel Young is a legend in the field, but she hasn't spoken to him since he destroyed her reputation after an argument over an old gas station highway map. But when Dr. Young is found dead in his office at the New York Public Library, with the very same map hidden in his desk, Nell can't resist investigating. She soon discovers that the map is incredibly valuable and exceedingly rare. In fact, she may now have the only copy left in existence — because a mysterious collector has been destroying every copy, along with anyone who gets in the way. But why? To answer that question, Nell embarks on a dangerous journey to reveal a dark family secret and discovers the true power that lies in maps.


Cover image of The last equation of Isaac Severy : a novel in clues

The last equation of Isaac Severy : a novel in clues by Nova Jacobs

Just days after mathematician and family patriarch Isaac Severy dies of an apparent suicide, his adopted granddaughter Hazel receives a letter from him by mail. In it, Isaac alludes to a secretive organization that is after his final bombshell equation. He tasks Hazel with safely delivering it to a trusted colleague. But first, she must find where the equation is hidden. Hazel soon realizes she's not the only one searching, and that the equation has potentially disastrous consequences for the dysfunctional Severy family. She must unravel a series of maddening clues hidden by Isaac inside one of her favorite novels, drawing her ever closer to his mathematical treasure. But when her efforts fall short, she is forced to enlist the help of those with questionable motives

Have you read any other books with puzzles and secret codes? Share your recommendations in the comments below.