Novel with model train set as computer
September 30, 2022 8:21 AM   Subscribe

Twenty-plus years ago I read a novel -- a mystery or spy thriller -- where the resolution hinged on the protagonists figuring out that a massive model train set in a missing person's house was actually a sort of computer, with the cars serving as words or digits. Turning it on and running a pre-set arrangement of switches moved the cars into positions that produced a solution of some sort.

Super-obscure, I know, but my coder son was watching videos about model trains today and this memory took vague shape. I told him and he was fascinated. Anyone have an idea?
posted by martin q blank to Writing & Language (15 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
 
Response by poster: umm, I realized I did not exactly ask the question: Does anyone know the title and/or author?
posted by martin q blank at 8:32 AM on September 30, 2022


Ellery Queen's "The Adventure of the Eccentric Engineer" ? Not really encoding, though.
posted by BobTheScientist at 10:30 AM on September 30, 2022 [1 favorite]


Response by poster: the setup sounds right, but yeah, the conclusion is very different. it was all about the trains running and generating some sort of result based on (iirc) the arrangement of the colors and types of the train cars. thanks, though!
posted by martin q blank at 11:01 AM on September 30, 2022


Murder to Scale?

The Proof is in the Poison? (Exhibition of model railroad stuff, not in someone's house.)

Railroaded 4 Murder? (Seems very unlikely but the dog on the cover is cute.)
posted by minsies at 11:05 AM on September 30, 2022


Ellery Queen's "The Adventure of the Eccentric Engineer" ? Not really encoding, though.
posted by BobTheScientist


I was thinking of the same thing! IIRC, the train set logic was secretly designed to be used for missile launch systems.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 11:40 AM on September 30, 2022


Response by poster: thanks, minsies, but nope.... for anyone else trying this - it wasn't a trains-themed mystery, but a more full-fledged spy novel (I think, this was around the time I plowed through the Robert Ludlum books, forgive me) where the trains were more a background aspect that turned into the solution.
posted by martin q blank at 11:45 AM on September 30, 2022


Best answer: The Enemy by Desmond Bagley.

Congratulations! I've been lurking on here since '99 and this post finally got me to create an account to pay back a tiny bit for all of the knowledge I've gained from MetaFilter over the years.
posted by Mercantides at 7:20 PM on September 30, 2022 [39 favorites]


Welcome Mercantides!
posted by pjenks at 9:21 PM on September 30, 2022 [2 favorites]


Someone uploaded the 2001 Luke Perry movie adaptation to youtube from a VHS tape.
posted by pjenks at 9:32 PM on September 30, 2022 [1 favorite]


I knew I'd read it. Desmond Bagley.
posted by b33j at 1:22 AM on October 1, 2022 [1 favorite]


Response by poster: HOLY CRAP THAT'S IT! It's all coming back to me now!

Well done, Mercantides, and I'm so glad that I asked such a bizarre question that it drew you in. (New Ruling Cabal, do I get a cut of the action)?

Now all I gotta do is track down a copy.

(sorry for the delay, I'm in SW Florida and was on the run from the hurricane. Back at home, and all's well; the storm took a last-minute turn and missed us by 45 miles. Just a ton of downed branches and some pool-cage damage.)
posted by martin q blank at 8:04 AM on October 3, 2022 [1 favorite]


Apparently it's in print, Amazon has it in stock. I might throw an Audible credit at it, the train CPU puzzle thing intrigued me.
posted by snuffleupagus at 11:43 AM on October 3, 2022 [1 favorite]


Neal Stephenson touches on a similar idea at least twice, too, if your coder kid can handle the handful of bizarro-awkward sex scenes that almost-always get snuck into his work...

. Cryptonomicon has Lawrence Waterhouse fighting Nazis by solving the Riemann zeta function using... pipe organ parts? On a ship at sea, IIRC? And another plot point features a text encryption algorithm that you can run on a physical deck of cards.
. Diamond Age has Nell (or a fictionalized version of her) discovering the isomorphism between different kinds of Turing machines (chains with movable switchs, or water gates, or ... something else, maybe money movements in a market of some sort?).
posted by adekllny at 2:17 PM on October 3, 2022 [1 favorite]


Response by poster: adekllny, that sounds extremely cool. maybe I'll check it out first. :) been a long time since I've read Stephenson, so it's probably time.
posted by martin q blank at 3:16 PM on October 3, 2022


And another plot point features a text encryption algorithm that you can run on a physical deck of cards.

Which, I believe was written by Bruce Schneier. No slouch in the cryptography world.
posted by a non mouse, a cow herd at 10:39 AM on October 6, 2022 [2 favorites]


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