SOLVING THE PUZZLE

I’ve been watching Endeavour on Masterpiece this summer. For those who haven’t ever tuned in to the series, which is now in its fourth season, the title character is Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse, depicted in the early years of his career, in the 1960s. Sadly, the mystery world lost Colin Dexter this year; he passed away on March 17. As anyone who has read his Inspector Morse novels (or seen any of the TV series based on them) knows, Colin Dexter was a crossword-puzzle aficionado. Both Morse, and, in the Endeavour TV series, his younger self, are found working crosswords in the course of solving cases, and often the crosswords’ clues trigger reasoning that leads to the solution of the murder investigation. Dexter was a well-known constructor of crossword-puzzle clues even before he began to write the Morse novels. In his piece for The Guardian in memory of the beloved writer, Alan Connor said: “The Morse novels are a celebration of thinking like a crossword solver: it’s a hobby that makes you more sceptical, more nimble, and—at least in the case of Morse—one that saves lives.”

Despite all the whodunit or “puzzle” mysteries I’ve enjoyed and edited over the years, I had never, until a few years ago, been a crossword solver. It all really started for me when my mother, an ardent solver, began losing her vision and could only work her puzzles if someone read her the clues. That someone was usually me, and over the course of time I became a partner in working the puzzles rather than just a reader, gaining a hobby that had never really appealed to me before. Now that I’ve entered that world (even in my very amateurish capacity), it’s a wonder to me that my long-established interest in mysteries didn’t spill over to crosswords earlier.

The crosswords I work are strictly of the straightforward American variety, in which the clues are generally derived from definitions, synonyms, or descriptions, and are sometimes simply fill-in-the-blanks. The British-style crosswords that Morse works are “cryptic,” involving word play—anagrams, rebuses, and so forth—and solving the meaning of the clue is a big part of the challenge. Perhaps solving such puzzles has closer parallels to solving a mystery-fiction puzzle than the American crossword does. Certainly many well-known mystery writers before and after Colin Dexter have incorporated clues in their mysteries that turn on deciphering a name that’s an anagram, or a dying message whose words have a cryptic meaning. But even American crosswords frequently incorporate clues that are not intended to be taken straightforwardly (they’re usually flagged with a question mark) and they sometimes have overall themes that can be tricky to identify too. It seems to me, therefore, that it’s impossible to work crosswords of any sort without learning to think laterally.

Edward D. Hoch, probably the greatest writer ever of the classical puzzle mystery at short-story length, often employed cryptic dying messages in his stories, but in all the years I knew him, Ed never once mentioned an interest in crosswords. That now puzzles me a bit. The Dell mystery magazines are part of a company that specializes in crossword puzzles, so the question whether readers of classical mysteries are also, in significant numbers, crossword-puzzle solvers comes up periodically in discussions of opportunities for cross-promotion. Mysteriously, the few cross-promotions we’ve done don’t appear to reveal much synchronicity of interest. I have no idea why.

One of the surprising things I discovered when I started working crosswords was that the puzzles started to go faster the more familiar I was with a particular constructor. In fact, if I’m tired, I’ll never choose a puzzle by a constructor new to me. There’s a parallel there, for me, with reading a “fair-play” mystery by an author whose work I know well—a fair-play mystery being one in which the author provides clues that allow a sharp reader to solve the crime before the author does it for him. I edited nearly 200 of Edward D. Hoch’s clever mysteries over the years we worked together and over time I got better and better at seeing where he was going—at beating him at his game, so to speak. I’m not able to say, in either the case of a mystery writer or a puzzle constructor, precisely why familiarity makes it easier. Maybe it’s just a matter of sensing what kinds of associations a particular constructor or author is likely to make—getting onto their wavelength, so to speak. That sort of thing is obviously greatly aided by long familiarity, something a good writer of classical puzzle mysteries needs to take into account, always finding new ways to keep longstanding readers from reading his or her mind.

I’m told that many crosswords today are constructed by computers. The ones I work are not, and I think I’d miss the element of authorial personality that comes through in a crossword just as it does in a story. John Dickson Carr called writing the classical puzzle mystery “the grandest game in the world,” one in which the author’s intellect is pitted against that of intelligent readers. I have that same sense of playing a game with the puzzle constructors whose puzzles I enjoy. Where would be the fun in playing that game with a computer?

A final parallel I’ve discovered between puzzle mysteries and the classical whodunit is the sense of satisfaction one gets at the end when, in the case of the mystery, all the questions are answered or, in the case of the crossword, the last empty box is filled.

I know of one mystery writer besides Colin Dexter who has a series sleuth who’s inextricably linked to crossword puzzles, and that’s Parnell Hall, creator of the Puzzle Lady mysteries. If you know of others, please let me know.—Janet Hutchings

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6 Responses to SOLVING THE PUZZLE

  1. Josh Pachter says:

    As a puzzle lover myself, Janet, I found this a particularly interesting post. I absolutely recommend that you try the American version of the British cryptic crosswords — they are so much fun, once you get the hang of them! There’s one at the back of Harper’s every month, and I buy Harper’s about 80% for the cryptic and 20% for the rest of the magazine. There are also a lot of excellent compilations of them available from Amazon, and the Puzzlr app allows you to do a sample puzzle from each of a dozen or so books. (Cautionary Note: You should read one of the many guides to solving cryptics available on line for free, so that you have a clear sense of how the various different types of clues — anagram, double definition, and so on — work. And let me know if you need help!)

  2. Thanks so much, Josh! I will definitely look into that!

  3. Leigh says:

    As you know, Janet, I became hooked on the the math puzzles while sitting in your lobby and you were kind enough to give me a copy. Then I was really hooked.

    The most evil crossword clue I associate with commuting on the Staten Island Ferry, so it was probably a New York Times puzzle. The clue: city in the middle of Czechoslovakia, four letters. I solved the rest of the puzzle, but the answer kept coming up Oslo. I called the library… no such city in that country. Had I found an error in the great NY Times puzzle? Then… head-slap.

    I came across an amazing crossword puzzle popular in South Africa. I’m not certain of its name– the various newspapers used different names, I think. Each box of the crossword had a tiny number in the corner, 1 up to 26. Creators would seed the common puzzles with three letters together. If the starter clue was ‘ART’ and the numbers in the corners read 2, 4, 6, you’d fill in all other boxes of 2, 4, and 6 with A, R, and T. The hardest puzzles might have only one starting letter. That’s all you were given. From those clues alone and knowledge of English words, letter combinations and letter frequencies, you’d grow the puzzle until you solved it. The best solvers could knock one out in 20-30 minutes, but one or two would take me half a Sunday morning.

    Readers will know the answer to the infamous crossword puzzle clue above: czechOSLOvakia

  4. Hi Leigh,

    The “city in the middle of Czechoslovakia” clue would have confused me too, I think. Though it’s a good one! I think I’d be lost in the type of puzzle you found in South Africa. Would take a lot of time to get the hang of them, anyway!

  5. Josh Pachter says:

    PS: Correction on the app that allows you to work cryptics (and many other types of puzzle) for free. It’s called Puzzazz, not Puzzlr.

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