Hi. I write nonfiction stories and books.

My latest book, The Woman Who Smashed Codes, is about Elizebeth Smith Friedman, a forgotten American hero. The hardcover was released in 2017 and the paperback in 2018. You can order the paperback at any of the following locations. Click a button to open the book's order page:

Elizebeth solved the secret messages of gangsters in the Jazz Age and Nazi spies in WWII. This is her:

George C. Marshall Foundation Research Library

George C. Marshall Foundation Research Library


Elizebeth's journey

She wasn't a mathematician. She wasn't from a rich or influential family. Born to Indiana Quaker parents in 1892, the last of nine children, Elizebeth Smith studied poetry in college and paid her tuition by working as a seamstress. She was daring and brilliant but saw no jobs for ambitious women. She worried her life would never be "anything at all uncommon."

Then, one day when she was 23, a chance meeting with an eccentric multi-millionaire changed everything. The rich man, a Chicago textile tycoon, believed that the plays of William Shakespeare contained secret messages. He asked Elizebeth to help him find the messages—and whisked her away to a mysterious laboratory on the prairie.

It was the start of an adventure. Thanks to the urgencies of the First World War, the mission for which Elizebeth was hired—find secret messages in Shakespeare—soon turned into a life-or-death hunt for actual enemy secrets. At the tycoon's laboratory, Elizebeth met a young man from Pittsburgh who had a knack for solving puzzles, like her.

The two youngsters soon transformed themselves into champion codebreakers: people who solve secret messages without knowing the key. During the war they worked as a team, revealing the thoughts and plans of the enemy. Then, after the war, Elizebeth launched a spectacular career of her own. During Prohibition she used her abilities to catch liquor and drug smugglers, appearing in court with a flower pinned to her hat and testifying against the likes of Al Capone's lieutenants. For a brief time she became famous, a front-page celebrity—before the U.S. government recruited her for one of the most closely guarded missions of the Second World War, whose secrets can now be revealed...


“If I may capture a goodly number of your messages, even though I have never seen your code book, I may still read your thoughts.”

— elizebeth smith friedman, codebreaker

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Finlay MacKay / Huffington Post Highline

Finlay MacKay / Huffington Post Highline


Magazine & newspaper work

I’m an investigative reporter at the San Francisco Chronicle, focusing on long-term projects and narratives. Previously I reported and wrote feature stories for a number of magazines and sites, particularly the Huffington Post Highline, where I was a contributing editor. (The photo above, from a Highline piece about a trauma surgeon, shows the trauma area at Temple University Hospital in North Philadelphia.) In recent years I've also written for The New York Times Magazine, WiredGQ, GrantlandWashingtonian, and NewYorker.com.

See my magazine and newspaper stories ⟶

Edison2 Very Light Car render

Edison2 Very Light Car render


My earlier books

In 2004 I traveled around the country and the world interviewing competitive eaters and documenting the birth of a weird new sport. The result was HORSEMEN OF THE ESOPHAGUS (Crown, 2005). My next book, INGENIOUS (Crown, 2013), was about small inventors, startups, and garage heroes striving to design and build a radically new kind of car to revive the bankrupt auto industry and save the planet.


More about INGENIOUS ⟶