The Plot Thickens

James Noel Smith

Coded crosswords, a taped message in Chinese, and a phone tip from Martin Scorsese were just a few of the clues in a European treasure hunt plotted by Richard Cohen.

The instructions I gave the kids were simple: pack light and bring your passports. They didn’t know where they were going, where they would end up, or if they would meet one another along the way. They knew only that they would need to solve a series of clues to complete a journey of eight days—with mishaps, even more.

It was my 60th birthday and rather than the customary party I decided to send my three children (young adults, more accurately), each with a friend, on a treasure hunt through eight countries by different routes. With every riddle solved, they received an envelope containing the next clue, a set of instructions, and a fragment of a photograph, to be assembled like a puzzle as they went along. The photo showed their destination: a house on the Greek island of Patmos, where my wife and I were waiting to spend a weeklong vacation with them. A good friend had recently left me a small bequest, and as she had been Britain’s foremost editor of mystery fiction (Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh), this adventure seemed a fitting tribute.

A treasure hunt? Hardly Treasure Island’s, though each duo had a map of sorts, and Patmos wasn’t a bad prize. Nor did it entail quite the clue-solving acumen of, say, Lord Peter Wimsey, the detective character of Dorothy Sayers’ who actually finds himself on a treasure hunt in her 1934 book The Nine Tailors. But I went to great lengths—with the help of some well-placed and mischievous collaborators—to leave clues that would provide a few thrills and keep the “operatives” off balance. As Elsa Maxwell, the American society hostess who popularized the treasure hunt as a parlor game in the thirties, once said, “In the course of the night’s escapades anything could happen.”

The Three Teams

My oldest son, Toby, 23, is studying screenwriting in London while working as a journalist and substitute teacher. He invited along his old university flatmate, Pavel, an Uzbek pursuing a business degree at the London School of Economics.

Mary, 20, is in her third year of medicine at Cambridge while training as a fencer for the 2012 Olympics. She picked her fellow student Elsa, a serious rock-climbing Parisian.

Having just finished high school, Guy, 18, is taking a year off before studying physics and philosophy at Bristol University. For his companion he chose Tommy, a rugby and guitar player who speaks fluent French.

Each duo received a treasure hunt kit: a notebook and pen, a throwaway camera, a roll of Scotch tape, about $400 in euros, and a list of friendly contacts—only to be used, with some shame, in emergencies.

Five Lauras, Madeleine Albright, and 1,001 Nights

Guy and Tommy’s trail began at Harrods. Their instructions were to find Laura, a young saleswoman in the perfume department, who would have their first envelope. Complicating matters was the fact that there were three Lauras, and when the boys pressed the wrong one for the secret package, chaos ensued. Eventually the right Laura emerged with a parcel containing train tickets to Paris, an address, and a photo fragment (hence the Scotch tape) showing only a bit of rooftop and a bright blue sky.

Once in Paris, Guy and Tommy found themselves at the home of a friend of a friend, Frédérique, whom they’d never met. She passed them a phone number and instructions to “contact a U.S. secretary of state.” Condoleezza Rice? Henry Kissinger? Not the easiest call to make. It turned out to be Madeleine Albright (in the interest of full disclosure, I edit her books), and she briefed them: “You must find 1,001 Nights. Be there by 7 p.m. tomorrow.”

Their first call, to a club called Les Mille et Une Nuits on the other side of the city, was answered by an evasive chap who sounded like he might be sidestepping a police sting. Not promising. But a Google search turned up a nearby Algerian bistro, where the grinning manager greeted them with “What kept you?”

He then handed them a parcel with rail passes for the overnight train to Venice and a homemade Sudoku puzzle, the top line of which, once completed, revealed the phone number of their next clue-giver. They had only so much time to solve it since the contact was my cello teacher, Laura (of course), who that day was taking part in a concert in Denver; if they didn’t ring her prestissimo they would miss their connection. They made it and spent an eventful two days in Venice, with a beautiful dance instructor named—yes, seriously—Laura.

Martin Scorsese, the Street of Butter, and the House of Sugar

Back in London, Toby and Pavel had just unwrapped their travel kit when a besuited chauffeur appeared and drove them off to the Imperial War Museum. He explained that a special D-day exhibition was on and they were to find a “spy” there who would brief them. They accosted several bemused museumgoers before recognizing one of Toby’s friends, dressed in Humphrey Bogart Casablanca mode, who slipped them train tickets to Brussels and a scribbled address.

Their host in Belgium, a friend of mine from school days, handed over instructions to ring “someone who likes to call himself Martin Scorsese.” Scorsese—a client of my literary agent wife, Kathy Robbins—is Toby’s idol, and he quickly dismissed this as “one of Daddy’s jokes,” before warily making the call. A woman’s voice answered. “Toby? Mr. Scorsese has been expecting you. He’s about to go into a screening. Wait a moment, please.” A few seconds later Martin Scorsese, in his unmistakable voice, was telling a mesmerized Toby to find “the house of sugar in the street of butter.”

The next morning the boys discovered the Bourse/Beurs in the city center. Sure this was the right place, they walked up and down the street to no avail until a local told them that a Rue au Beurre, full of confectionary shops, was ten minutes away. Finally, at the fifth one, a pair of shopgirls shouted out “We’ve been waiting for you!” and presented an envelope: Inside were tickets for the night train to Vienna and an address.

John Leake, the author of a recent book about Vienna’s most sensational serial killer, chose appropriate digs for the boys. There they found a verse puzzle—“My first is in Damen but nowhere in Mench / My second’s in German but also in French”—spelling out Demel’s, the famous cake-and-coffeehouse. The shop had agreed to hold a package with suggestions of places to visit: the Anita Loos American bar, a jazz café, a tour of locations where The Third Man was filmed. It also contained another photo fragment and couchette tickets to Verona in two nights’ time. What Toby did next was promptly lose his passport. Fortunately he recovered it hours later from a nearby police station, where it had been turned in minutes earlier. The treasure hunt gods were clearly looking after him.

The Dueler, the Jeweler, and the Weeping Tiger

Back home, Mary was late to start, as she was taking part in the British Senior National Fencing Championships. By the time the competition began, she knew how her brothers had gotten their first clues and was busy conjuring up ways hers might arrive. But first she had to contend with some 80 women épéeists. Round by round she won until she found herself in the final, before an audience of 400. As she warmed up, the head of British fencing made various announcements. Then suddenly: “This concerns you, Mary. Here’s the first envelope for your treasure hunt. Come and get it.” She broke off her practice, ran out, and collected her package, then proceeded to dispatch her opponent, 15–7, becoming one of the country’s youngest titleholders.

The next day she was on a train to Paris, where Elsa met her at the Gare du Nord, and together they followed instructions to Frédérique’s house, without a clue that Guy and Tommy had left just hours before. The awaiting envelope told Mary to call a fencing friend in Sardinia, who directed her to find an emporium belonging to Joel Rosenthal, the celebrated jeweler who goes by the initials JAR. Only this wasn’t his jewelry shop but a boutique devoted to his perfumes. Tucked away on a street near the Place de la Concorde, it is recognizable by the oval perfume bottle floating in the window.

“It looked like a cross between the mystic parlor of a tarot card reader and the offices of a Turkish prince, with a chandelier and purple velvet walls,” Mary recorded in her journal. She and Elsa were led into a room with seven glass jars on a table and told to sniff them, eyes shut, and describe what they smelled. While Mary whiffed Christmas, licorice, and Austria, Elsa experienced jasmine, flowers, and childhood. Their elegant, slightly mysterious host then revealed the names of all the scents but one. “Its name is represented above you!” he told them. Looking up they saw a ceiling painted as a stormy sky, an electric bolt cutting across it. “Lightning!” they exclaimed. He nodded, pleased, and handed over an envelope.

A third photo fragment came with instructions to find the restaurant in the Hôtel Costes, a few steps from Place Vendôme. Waiting was Christopher Dickey, Newsweek’s Paris bureau chief and an espionage enthusiast. The lunch menu to die for included a dish known as the Weeping Tiger and was rounded off with macaroons and fraises du bois. Afterward Chris took them to the magazine’s offices (“He’s very dashing,” the girls agreed), where they learned of their next assignment: an overnight journey to Verona.

Intermission in Verona

From the outset I had decided everyone would meet up partway through the hunt at the Trattoria Giovanni Rana, opposite Verona’s huge Roman amphitheater, where I’d booked seats to La Bohème. Kathy and I checked in to the Due Torri Hotel Baglioni—just far enough from where the operatives would stay—and made our way early to the restaurant so we could watch them arrive. Best of all was Mary and Elsa. Instructions at the hotel had been “to dress up a bit,” and these two had done so to a T. They were sauntering across the piazza when they saw us. I’ve never seen someone’s jaw drop as obviously as Mary’s.

The restaurant proved a major success, while La Bohème was judged “just like Rent.” Afterward one of the boys asked wistfully, “Is that it?” Far from it. The next day Toby and Pavel were sent to Venice, Guy and Tommy to Milan, with both duos flying on to Istanbul by separate routes. Mary and Elsa, meanwhile, went by train to Rome.

A Way with Words

As instructed, the first thing the girls did upon arriving in Rome was find the London Daily Telegraph. Inside, one of three crosswords would provide clues to their next contact (conveniently, a friend’s wife runs the paper’s puzzle pages). Specifically, they were after the solutions to 19 Across and 18 Down. They got a copy easily enough, but the answers, “docile” and “proscribe,” offered little help. Elsa suggested desperately that the wolf that suckled Romulus and Remus must have been a little docile, so perhaps they should go to its statue, or maybe to Via della Lupa.…

That week it was 110 degrees, and for the next two hours the girls sweated and slogged their way around the city. Mary’s journal again: “We reread the clue. Daddy said it would ‘spell’ where we needed to go and was easy. Proscribe and docile? Something was amiss.” They rushed to a kiosk and, sure enough, found a Daily Telegraph with a different front page; they had bought the wrong day’s edition. In a few minutes they solved it: “A resting place for travelers” and “The first garden,” which gave them “Hotel Eden”—blessedly only 100 yards away.

Waiting there was another friend, Tracy Wilkinson, the Los Angeles Times bureau chief in Rome, with whom they spent a blissful two days. Their adventures ranged from a Vatican visit to a nighttime club crawl, in the process of which Elsa, dancing next to an overexuberant local, was hit by a flying arm and woke up sporting an impressive black eye. “It didn’t hurt…at least I don’t remember it hurting,” she later recounted. The following day was her 21st birthday, and their next envelope, courtesy of Tracy, held plane tickets to Athens and the address of a hotel near the Acropolis.

The hotel manager made sure a cake and candles were waiting—along with a cassette tape. Here I borrowed an idea from our Patmos host, Nicholas Negroponte, of One Laptop per Child fame. As a teenager at boarding school in Switzerland, he and three friends on a treasure hunt found themselves in a deserted field at 3 a.m. when a helicopter suddenly appeared and dropped a package. Inside was a scrunched-up tape; once they’d smoothed it out and tracked down a recorder, they discovered a message—in Urdu. I wasn’t quite that cruel. Mary and Elsa’s tape was in Mandarin, which foxed them at first, but they found a Chinese tourist, got the right ferry, and set off on a 12-hour sea trip.

Lost in Translation

Across the Aegean, in Istanbul, Guy and Tommy made contact with one Sibel Sözüer (the 20-year-old sister of a friend of a stepson of a client of my wife’s; we really did cast a wide net). Her clue directed them to the Maiden’s Tower, where the James Bond film The World Is Not Enough has its climax. An attendant at the tower handed over tickets to Bodrum, an hour’s flight south. There the next day, they too got a cassette.

For three hours Guy and Tommy trudged around Bodrum looking for a shop with a tape recorder. Each time the answer was the same: “Only digital.” At last they conceded defeat. They would ring their local contact for help. About 300 yards from the hotel, they spotted a dilapidated electrical shop set back from the road. “I have very good digital,” the man behind the counter told them, adding, “but recorder also.” Saved. In went the cassette and out came an unintelligible language. “I think it’s Russian,” offered Tommy. Their Turkish helper beamed. “I speak Russian,” he said. They were to catch a boat to the island of Kos, then a ferry to Patmos.

Turkish Delight

Sibel’s role wasn’t over, as she told Toby and Pavel they had to find the hotel “where not long ago you checked in but weren’t allowed to check out.” That proved to be the Four Seasons Hotel, a prison until 1969. There they received their penultimate clue, leading to the best baklava shop in the city, Güllüoglu’s, where they found their final envelope, with plane tickets to Izmir and a cassette in German. They set about finding a tape recorder, then a German speaker, but by this time Toby and Pavel felt anything was within their power. Soon they were headed south, first by plane to Kusadasi, next by ferry to Samos, and finally by boat to Patmos.

In blazing heat they journeyed to Hora, one of the island’s small towns, stopping at the monastery where it is believed St. John wrote the book of Revelation. Did anyone recognize the building in the photo they’d Scotch-taped together? Four bearded monks in black habits assured them that no such place existed nearby. Toby and Pavel decided to go their own way and sure enough found the house just 400 yards from the monastery. Cloistered lives indeed.

Treasure Claimed

Each team, against the odds, arrived within hours of one another. It was an unforgettable holiday. The second week had a totally different rhythm from the first, capped on the last night by the children putting on a pantomime of their most trying moments. Toby and Pavel contributed a rap poem with the lines “We looked complete nutters / Searching for streets of butter / And could blame only Martin Scorsese.”

Before the holiday began, I had worried about everything that could go wrong: phoning Albright and Scorsese, getting clues into a national paper’s crossword. But everything went right. And the treasure? The six carried it around with them—that charged-up feeling of not knowing where they were heading next but trusting that it would bring some kind of reward and savoring the anticipation and suspense.

A new edition of Richard Cohen’s By the Sword is being released in July by Modern Library. He is currently writing a cultural and scientific history of the sun, Chasing the Sun, to be published by Penguin Press in 2009.