Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

The American author James Frey has launched a search that could net someone $3m. But secret codes in works of art aren't all they're cracked up to be, says Nicholas Tucker

Would-be cryptographers alert; literary treasure hunts are back in the news. The American author James Frey is offering $500,000 (£300,000) to anyone decoding the message hidden in The Calling, the first volume of his Endgame adventure trilogy published over here by HarperCollins on 7 October. Even better, there will be a reward of $1m attached to the second book and $1.5m for the third. With his trilogy having been bought by publishers in 27 different countries, this is already a global event, with film rights coming along nicely, too. At this rate, the author's initial outlay could come to seem comparatively modest when measured against the growing publicity he has secured for years to come.

Dangling the possibility of a handsome reward to sharp-eyed readers is nothing new. In 1979, Kit Williams's stylish picture book Masquerade offered a gold model of a hare encrusted with jewels to anyone able to dicepher the clues for its whereabouts from a visual story describing the journey taken by a hare from the moon to the sun. The treasure itself was eventually located in a Bedfordshire park in circumstances so controversial that they are still argued about today. Not everyone was pleased for other reasons. Williams was forced to pay for a sign erected at Haresfield Beacon in Gloucestershire begging treasure-seekers not to dig there any more despite its alluring name. Derbyshire's Sudbury Hall also suffered from those convinced that they had got it right. All this was before the days of Twitter. Heaven help any site mistakenly targeted on the net by any of Frey's future readers.

Riddles have always fascinated, combining the thrill of solving clues with the satisfaction of getting a final, apparently unambiguous response. But incorporating such riddles into a text seems to ignite a peculiar type of frenzy in some readers. Many of those involved in the Masquerade hunt insisted on prolonging their search long after the announcement that the golden hare had been found. And it's not just deliberately teasing texts that can produce this type of response. There have always been those convinced that potentially explosive secrets can be unearthed from all sorts of literature but particularly in the Bible and Shakespeare. The Reading Rooms in the British Library has for years been a happy hunting ground for some of the weirder believers of this sort.

Writers themselves have sometimes been happy to feed into this appetite, with A.S. Byatt's fine novel Possession slowly revealing a previously overlooked paper trail documenting a passionate love affair between two 19th-century writers. Frey has said that his clues to readers will variously be transmitted through words, maths and images as well as via connections to the main story. This will describe a world like ours suffering from a meteor strike, the dire effects of which can only be countered by the existence of 12 bloodlines previously designed in preparation for such a disaster.

Frey's previous publishing history has had its problems. In 2006, he was forced to concede that his autobiographical study A Million Little Pieces contained falsehoods and exaggerations. His publishers duly apologised and more than 1,000 readers were paid a refund on demand. He has since still gone from literary strength to strength, with this latest venture promising to be his most successful yet. Even so, the circumstances in which his offers of buried treasure are found and the fairness, or otherwise, of the clues leading up to their discovery are bound to attract more than a usual amount of scrutiny.

Buried treasure does not always bring out the best of any of us. In Chaucer's Pardoner's Tale, the three young rakes who come across their horde of gold end up killing each other in their greed. Captain Flint's hidden chest of goodies in Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island also causes nothing but trouble. So even cracking all the clues in any hunt for buried bounty may still end in disaster.

Much better to read Frey's trilogy only if it is any good or else quickly discard it if it is not. A good story is a good story. Hunting for clues in competition with thousands of others is almost certainly going to be a waste of time and effort.

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