Salem’s Cipher by Jess Lourey

Midnight Ink

September 2016

Jess Lourey’s latest novel, SALEM’S CIPHER, has something to draw in most every reader: mind-bending ciphers that must to be solved, strong protagonists, and truly evil antagonists. I loved this book and I think everyone else will enjoy it just as much as I did, too. 

For centuries, the Hermitage Foundation has been working in political backrooms and business boardrooms to take over the world. The Foundation currently exists as a lobbying firm that has their hands in the pockets of very powerful American politicians, and it views women as the greatest threat to its power. The Underground, another centuries old organization, was founded to protect women and make sure the Foundation does not rise to power. Minneapolis cryptologist Salem Wiley and her best friend since childhood, Isabel Odegaard, get pulled into this generations-old battle after their mothers, Vida and Grace, are kidnapped by the Foundation. In order to save their mothers, Salem must solve cryptic puzzles that have been hidden across the country before the Foundation can take over the world. Some of the puzzles were created by novelist Emily Dickenson and have been unsolved for hundreds of years.

It’s evident that Lourey has done her research into cryptology, as well as the locations were the story takes place. She’s found the perfect balance of informing the reader of the history that influenced the book without overwhelming them with information.  Also, Lourey’s vivid descriptions of Salem and Isabel’s travels draw the reader deeper into the book. You feel like you’re standing in the First Church of Salem in Massachusetts or at the Dolores Mission in San Francisco with the pair. For example, when Salem and Isabel arrive at the Dolores Mission, this is how she describes the mission’s altar, “The interior was glorious Spanish baroque, with a multicolored chevron-design ceiling that reminded Salem of a pair of corduroy pants her mom used to wear. Behind the altar, a wall of bronze stations of the cross dominated the area, floor to ceiling.”

Fans of THE DA VINCI CODE are going to love this book. Much like the Dan Brown novel, the puzzles in SALEM’S CIPHER add an extra layer to the book. Lourey writes out each cipher, challenging the reader to solve it before the cryptologist. I found myself flipping back to some of the puzzles to try to find what I may have missed. (Hint: I missed a lot.)

As I’ve said before, I’ve been a fan of Jess Lourey’s writing since her 2006 debut novel, MAY DAY. Her writing has matured as her Murder by Month series of books progressed; however, SALEM’S CIPHER, shows that she has taken her writing to an entirely different level. There are several concurrent plot lines – Salem and Isabel tracking down their mothers, a female senator running for president, the Foundation plotting to stop her from becoming president, as well as flash backs to Salem’s childhood – that Lourey masterfully winds together. The fast paced thriller makes the reader want to continue turning the pages of the book to find out how everything intersects. The challenging puzzles, the fascinating history lessons, and the strong characters make SALEM’S CIPHER one of my favorite reads of 2016.

Kate Malmon