Riddle Us This!

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: How many of you have howled with laughter (at about age six) at the answer to the riddle: “What did one wall say to the other wall?”

And how many of you have thought this was funny: “Have you ever seen a car turn into a garage?”

And that’s why we all love mysteries and suspense…they are all riddles! Riddles are what makes them wonderful.

The wonderful Barbara Nickless has a new book coming out November 15, DARK OF NIGHT. And Reds and readers,  it is not to be missed. My blurb said, in part: "Captivating, compelling, and completely intriguing! Sherlock Holmes meets The DaVinci Code in this brilliantly written and seamlessly researched adventure….”

Irresistible, right? And today she has an irresistible blog.

Words at Play: The Fun of Literary Riddles

By Barbara Nickless


Let me tell you a riddle:


The beginning of eternity, the end of time and space,

The beginning of every end, and the end of every place.


If you’ve already guessed the answer, congratulations! You’re either very good at “misdirection” riddles or you’re a fan of the poet Byron, who posed this conundrum. I’ll reveal the answer at the end.


When I set out to create a protagonist with more brains than brawn, I knew I’d want to craft clever ways for him to outwit his adversaries. Dr. Evan Wilding (like his creator) loves puzzles: crosswords, ciphers, puzzle boxes, and cryptics. Anagrams, rebuses, acrostics, and escape rooms. And, of course, the latest word-based puzzle to become all the rage: Wordle and its newer cousin, Quordle.

Evan consults for government agencies and the Chicago Police Department, and some of the puzzles that cross his desk—be they codes written in an ancient language, cleverly crafted ciphers, or outright riddles—require him to outwit a killer to solve a heinous crime.


Riddles (from the Old English raedan, which means “to give minor advice”) appear in cultures around the world, and they often take the form of a test. One ancient riddle is that posed by the sphinx in the Greek play, Oedipus Rex. Any person seeking to slip past the sphinx is required to answer her riddle. Failure means a grisly fate: the sphinx devours the unfortunate person on the spot.


Try your own riddle-answering skills if you aren’t already familiar with the sphinx’s question:


“What has four legs in the morning, two at noon, and three in the evening?” (The answer appears at the end.)


The sphinx was surely the inspiration for the Monty Python crew when they placed a riddle master in their spoof of Camelot, Monty Python and the Holy Grail. This cunning man guards the Bridge of Death, which spans a deep chasm. Anyone who wishes to reach the other side must correctly solve his riddles. After two knights fail to pass the test and are hurled into the abyss, their king turns the riddle back on the master.


Bridgekeeper: “What is the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow?”

King Arthur: “African or European?”

Bridgekeeper (surprised): “I … I don’t know that.”


The riddle master, failing to answer the question, is hurled into the crevasse.


Through the millennia, writers have included riddles as a test for their characters or as entertainment for their readers. The earliest riddles appeared in Sanskrit in the Rigveda, written around 1000 BC. They appear in the Bible, most notably in Psalms and Ecclesiastes. And they’re found in Old English poems, especially with the use of kennings, in which a metaphor becomes a riddle: What is a whale road? The sea. God’s beacon? The sun.


Shakespeare had wicked fun with riddles in such plays as Hamlet, Macbeth, and King Lear. (Why is it that riddles suit tragedies so well? That is a riddle for which I have no answer—perhaps they sometimes simply lighten the mood.)


Lewis Carroll included riddles in his most famous work: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. One such puzzle, voiced by the Mad Hatter, went unanswered in the original edition of Alice.


Mad Hatter: “Why is a raven like a writing desk?”

Mad Hatter (several pages along in the story): “Have you guessed the riddle yet?”

Alice: “No, I give it up. What’s the answer?”

Mad Hatter: “I haven’t the slightest idea.”

Alice (sighing wearily): “I think you might do something better with the time than wasting it in asking riddles that have no answers.”


Carroll finally caved to his unhappy readers and provided an answer to the riddle in a preface to the 1896 edition. But readers weren’t happy with what he offered. Today, different solutions are still being suggested by Carroll’s many fans.


More recently, we have such riddle-loving authors as James Joyce, Stephen King, and J.K. Rowling with her intriguing character, Tom Riddle. One of my favorite literary riddle solvers is Tolkien’s Bilbo Baggins. Bilbo, much like my character Evan, cannot depend on sword play or strength of arms to win his battles. In The Hobbit, Bilbo uses his wits against Gollum to keep from being eaten (we’re back to the sphinx) and attain a magic ring. The story of the fate of that ring unspools across Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.


Literary riddles generally lead down one of two paths: failing to solve the riddle means death—either literal or metaphorical; solving it means saving your life and winning great riches, from true love to vast kingdoms.


My character, Evan, is a forensic semiotician, which means that solving riddles provides the bread-and-butter of his work. A semiotician studies how we use signs and symbols within and across cultures. A forensic semiotician focuses on how these signs and symbols are used in crimes. For Evan, a killer is a riddle to be solved. The semiotic clues left at a crime scene chart a path that Evan uses to imagine himself into the killer’s mind. By examining the clues—letters, diagrams, esoteric symbols—he seeks the answer to the most difficult riddle of all: why would one human kill another? Fortunately for the side of justice, Evan can out-riddle just about everyone.


I’ll leave you with this final challenge from Batman Forever (written by Will Shortz, the New York Times puzzle master):


Tear one off and scratch my head, what once was red is black instead.


What are some of your favorite riddles? I’d love to hear them!




Byron’s Riddle: The letter “E.”

The Riddle of the Sphinx: Man, who crawls on all fours as a baby, then walks on two legs, and finally needs a cane in old age.

The riddle from the Riddler in the Batman franchise: A match

HANK: Oh, how about you, Reds and readers? My very favorite riddle book is Jane Langton’s life-changing The Diamond in the Window, where the intrepid kids have to answer harder and harder riddles to solve the mystery and save their family. SO great! 

As Barbara says: what are some of your favorite riddles?

And oh,  Barbara says she is riding a camel on the other side of the world right now and will respond as quickly as she can this afternoon!

Whoo. There's a riddle, too!  Where do you think she is?




A recent murder is ancient history in a breathtaking novel about a sacred lost treasure and poisonous retribution by the Amazon Charts and Wall Street Journal bestselling author of At First Light.

What an exotic way to die in Chicago.

When esteemed historian Elizabeth Lawrence is found in her car, killed by a cobra’s bite, only a brilliant professor of semiotics, Dr. Evan Wilding, can see the signs around her strange death. As he helps homicide detective Addie Bisset decipher the scene, the puzzles left behind offer Evan chilling passage into the mind of a killer.

Evan’s investigation merges with that of an Israeli agent, who claims Elizabeth was close to acquiring an invaluable artifact. She was also drawing the attention of unsavory treasure hunters, forgers, and thieves. Was someone desperate to expose the truth of Elizabeth’s astonishing discovery?

The deeper Evan and Addie delve into the case, the darker it gets. A murderer’s archaic crimes are just the beginning. In a race where there can be only one winner, the final victim might be Evan. Available on November 15th online and at your favorite bookstore. 



Barbara Nickless is the Wall Street Journal and Amazon Charts bestselling author of the multi-award-winning Sydney Parnell crime novels. Her new series features forensic semiotician Dr. Evan Wilding—a man whose gift for interpreting the words and symbols left behind by killers has led him to consult on some of the world’s grisliest cases. “Dr. Evan Wilding is absolutely my new favorite fictional human.” (Danielle Girard, USA Today & Amazon #1 Bestselling Author of The Ex.) Barbara lives in Colorado at the foot of the Rocky Mountains where she loves to hike, cave, snowshoe, and drink single malt Scotch. Connect with her at www.barbaranickless.com.