Man of mystery

Author C.J. West charts his own path

By Pamela H. Sacks
TELEGRAM & GAZETTE
2007

Mystery surrounds C.J. West.

He’s not even C.J. West. That’s a pen name. He prefers not to reveal his true moniker. This inclination most likely comes naturally to an author who embeds code in his mystery thrillers.

Two years ago, West published his first book, “Sin and Vengeance,” with two messages hidden in the text. He has scattered codes in the bio on his Web site, 22wb.com, and in the e-mails and newsletters he sends to his readers. He challenges them to break the codes, which contain clues to the ciphers in his book.

West says – mysteriously – that the messages are dedications to someone in his past.

As “Sin and Vengeance” has gained a following, West, 40, has acquired a list of 240 fans who receive his newsletters. Many of them work assiduously on the codes, often unlocking their secrets.

But even with such help, no one was able to work out either of the messages for two years. Then on Sept. 11, West got an e-mail from Stephen Welch, a computer scientist who lives in Hopedale. Welch, 39, was on a business trip to San Francisco. Alone in his hotel room, he was able to devote a good chunk of time to “Sin and Vengeance.”

“It’s a lot of trial and error,” Welch said by telephone from his office at Conservation Services Group in Westboro. “You’re putting in the sequence of numbers, you’re coming up with gibberish and all of sudden there’s something. It’s exciting when you realize that it makes sense.”

When Welch had what he thought was the message, he wrote to West, who told him there was more. He needed to keep going. “I kept thinking, `Where is this going to end?’” Welch recalled.

Welch e-mailed for a second time; West replied: “Bingo. Nice job.”

West is among a new breed of authors for whom the Internet has changed everything. These savvy writers either form their own publishing houses or turn to publishers that print on demand, ordering anywhere from one to hundreds of copies, as the market dictates. Space on the shelf of a bookstore is still desirable – but it is no longer a must. The books are sold on Amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com. The authors use their own Web sites to market themselves, posting bios, photos and reviews. They often blog and create direct relationships with their readers.

Having gained a following, West and authors like him become more appealing to local independent bookstores. Dave Bagdon, events coordinator for Tatnuck Bookseller in Westboro, said he hears from more and more authors from the area who are able to describe the size and type of their audiences.

Tatnuck has a responsibility to the community to present these writers, Bagdon said, adding that the store is on track to host more than 100 authors this year, the majority of whom self-publish. From an author’s viewpoint, meeting readers in person, chatting and signing copies of their books are the best ways to form a solid bond.

“If we can determine there will be enough demand for the book, we can carry it,” Bagdon said. “We will invite the author to do a signing. If there’s going to be 30 or 40 people showing up, it’s going to be worth the time of the author and the store to promote the event.”

West, who earlier this year published his second thriller, “Taking Stock,” has elevated author-as-publicist to another level, keeping his readers engaged in code-breaking while enthralled in the twists and turns of his plots. During an appearance at Tatnuck last month, West found that some fans turned out just to talk to him about his codes.

“I do keep in touch with a number of folks who are working with the puzzle,” West said. “A lot of people will speak up and say, `Hey, I’m stuck here.’ I try not to be too helpful because I don’t think that’s fair.”

West said that his goal is to gradually build his fan base through word of mouth. That’s how Welch learned about “Sin and Vengeance.” He is a fan of the mystery-thriller genre and bestselling writer James Patterson, in particular.

“I was speaking with someone about books and that person mentioned West’s book,” Welch recalled.

The combination of a good code and a good thriller was irresistible.

“I was more interested in solving the clues than reading the book,” Welch said. “I got sucked into the story and forgot what I was doing.”

He had to reread “Sin and Vengeance” in order to focus on the codes. Now, he’s conflicted.

“Do I devote attention to solving the second message or do I move on to the next book?” Welch mused.

West came up with the coding idea when “Sin and Vengeance” was about to go to press. He was inspired by “The Rule of Four,” a suspense novel about four Princeton roommates, two of whom have links to a mysterious 15th-century manuscript containing embedded codes revealing the whereabouts of buried Roman treasure. It took West four days to rewrite the text embedded with the messages.

Writing and breaking codes come naturally to West, a former computer programmer who once worked on crypto-quotes and other word puzzles with his father. Now, West and his 11-year-old daughter send codes to one another.

“It’s a good way to play with language,” the author noted.

West has found the codes in his first book so successful that he has put a group of numbers at the back of “Taking Stock” that connect with letters in the text.

“If someone figures out what the letters mean, it’s a date with me,” West said. “You go to a certain place at a certain time and day, I will be there and you will win a prize – a role in one of my upcoming books.”

The prize for deciphering both messages in “Sin and Vengeance” is $500. Welch, who has proved to be a wiz at figuring out West’s e-mail codes, is hot on the trail.

But there’s the matter of time. Welch has a wife and children, and these sorts of games require real dedication. It seems fair to ask how long he has spent thus far.

“The total number of hours? I probably wouldn’t want to add it up,” Welch said with a chuckle.