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Nupur Tustin: Haydn and the Secret Code

Some months back I was at the Hollywood conference organized by Sisters in Crime in conjunction with its Hollywood chapter. At the end of a long first day in which I learned how to pitch a series to Hollywood, I found myself in front of independent producer Rona Edwards pitching my Joseph Haydn series.

It was all going well until Ms. Edwards asked me this question: “How does Haydn use his musical skills to solve mysteries?”

nt-headshotI can remember my eyes opening wide, and my face feeling flushed as though caught in the intense glare of a spotlight. My mind turned to the Enigma machine and ciphers, and I remembered the code I’d meant to develop for A Minor Deception, but completely forgotten to create.

A musical cipher would have fit the plot quite well.

And the idea for it was really quite brilliant. Music as a language makes very efficient use of only seven letters of the alphabet to denote not only the twelve different pitches in an octave, but the different registers in which they occur. Musical notation is brilliant enough that it can distinguish between the 88 different pitches available on a piano.

So, a musician reading a score can decipher both the pitch and the precise register. Whether the notes come from the lower end of the register, the ones that sound like a deep-throated growl. Or the higher end, the ones that have the high-pitched fluty chirping of an excited sparrow.

This means there’s plenty of material to incorporate all the letters of the alphabet and numbers into a clever musical cipher. A curved line called a slur drawn over a set of notes could indicate words.

The perfect code. Every communiqué the villains of A Minor Deception sent would be encoded in the form of a musical score. If waylaid, the person intercepting the message would see merely a work of music.

But codes are as hard to develop as they are to crack. I put the task off, then forgot about it, and the book got written without ever needing a musical code.

But that’s not to say Haydn doesn’t use his musical skills to solve mysteries. Quite the contrary.

Composers must have a finely developed ear, and Haydn was no exception. He had a naturally good ear that enabled him to keep time when his father sang to the accompaniment of a harp. Like his contemporaries, Haydn could, as a matter of course, hear a piece of music, and then notate it.

When Haydn as a much older man traveled to London, he heard, on one of his walks, the beautiful singing of a church choir. He immediately took out his pen and his journal, and wrote down the music as he heard it.

So, it’s no surprise then that in A Minor Deception, Haydn’s ability to follow a melody, even that of speech, enables him to apprehend one of the key villains in the story.  

Not every eighteenth-century musician could sight read very well, but a well-educated performer was expected to have the ability. In fact, basso continuo was often written in a cryptic fashion called figured bass, with the performer having to figure out both the chord, and the sequence in which the chord notes were to be played. Organists were frequently tested on this skill before being hired.

So, Haydn’s eyes serve him well, too. A note and some letters furnish him with important clues, and he’s able to decipher their inner significance. He notices discrepancies in behavior, hears the telltale signs of emotion that color the voice, and interprets the subtle actions that speak louder than any words people utter.

The ability to hear, see, and interpret—key skills for a musician—are the very skills that enable Haydn to be a good detective. And it helps that he’s had plenty of practice in putting together what his wife says to him even though he doesn’t always attend very closely to her remarks.

So, while there’s no fancy musical cipher to crack in A Minor Deception, Haydn does use his musical skills to solve the mystery.


Bio: A former journalist, Nupur Tustin relies upon a Ph.D. in Communication and an M.A. in English to orchestrate fictional mayhem. Childhood piano lessons and a 1903 Weber Upright share equal blame for her musical works. 

Connect with Nupur online:

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/8616151.Nupur_Tustin * Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/nupur.tustin

Website: http://ntustin.com  & Blog: http://ntustin.com/blog


A Minor Deception: A Joseph Haydn Mystery


When his newly hired violinist disappears just weeks before the Empress’s visit, Haydn is forced to confront a disturbing truth. . .

Kapellmeister Joseph Haydn would like nothing better than to show his principal violinist, Bartó Daboczi, the door. But with the Empress Maria Theresa’s visit scheduled in three weeks, Haydn can ill-afford to lose his surly virtuoso.

But when Bartó disappears—along with all the music composed for the imperial visit—the Kapellmeister is forced to don the role of Kapell-detective, or risk losing his job.

Before long Haydn’s search uncovers pieces of a disturbing puzzle. Bartó, it appears, is more than just a petty thief—and more dangerous. And what seemed like a minor musical mishap could modulate into a major political catastrophe unless Haydn can find his missing virtuoso.

Advance Praise:

“A Minor Deception is a wonderful tour de force that pulls the reader into the intricate world of 18th century music, mystery and politics!  Elegantly written and plotted, the reader will be hooked from page one.”New York Times Bestselling Author Emily Brightwell

“A wonderful read for any music lover!  Vivid historical descriptions, intricate details, and a fascinating central character kept me turning the pages.  Bravo!”Amanda Carmack, award-winning author of The Elizabethan Mystery Series

“. . . will enthrall music lovers and mystery lovers alike. With complex characters and vivid descriptions, the reader will be transported back to the eighteenth century to enjoy a fascinating tale of intrigue. . .”Kate Kingsbury, Author of the Pennyfoot Hotel & Merry Ghost Inn Mysteries

“Tustin occupies a unique niche in the historical mystery world with her debut novel, one which she clearly masters. Her knowledge of the classical music world is obvious, but her talents as a writer are no less apparent in the puzzle and music of this story.”

Edith Maxwell, Agatha-nominated author of Delivering the Truth

Well-written and exquisitely developed,  A Minor Deception is a standout in the genre of historical mysteries. An encore is requested!”  D. Donovan, Senior Reviewer, Midwest Book Review

Goodreads Giveaway (Enter to win a signed copy of A Minor Deception) Giveaway ends at midnight: 

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5 thoughts on “Nupur Tustin: Haydn and the Secret Code

  1. I had the privilege of reading an advance copy of “A Minor Deception” and enjoyed it immensely. It immerses you in a different time and you learn a lot about Haydn and other real people of that time. A thoroughly good read.

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