5 Questions for Crossword Constructor Erica Wojcik!

Welcome to 5 Questions, our recurring interview series where we reach out to puzzle constructors, game designers, writers, filmmakers, musicians, artists, and puzzle enthusiasts from all walks of life!

This feature is all about exploring the vast and intriguing puzzle community by talking to those who make puzzles and those who enjoy them.

And this marks the second edition of a new series of interviews where we turn our eyes to the future of crosswords. Instead of interviewing established talents in the field, I’ve been reaching out to new and up-and-coming constructors and asking them to share their experiences as a nascent cruciverbalist.

And we’re excited to welcome Erica Wojcik as our latest 5 Questions interviewee!

Erica has only started constructing crosswords over the last year, but she’s already making waves. Most notably, she has spearheaded the Expanded Crossword Name Database, a resource for constructors where the crossword community at large can submit the names of women, non-binary individuals, trans individuals, or people of color that you’d like to see in crosswords.

She currently has a puzzle up on Matthew Stock’s Happy Little Puzzles, and we’ll start seeing her creations in outlets like The Inkubator in the coming months. I have no doubt her byline will be appearing elsewhere soon!

Erica was gracious enough to take some time out to talk to us, so without further ado, let’s get to the interview!


5 Questions for Erica Wojcik

1. How did you get started with puzzles?

I used to do morning crosswords with friends in college, but only sporadically. In 2015, my husband got me hooked on the NYT crossword and ever since, our daily routine involves solving the Times puzzle together and reading Rex Parker’s blog. I study language development as a professor of psychology, and crosswords perfectly combine my interests in language and problem solving.

I’d been curious about constructing for a while, but finally decided to try it out in February 2020. I tweeted something about wanting to construct and tagged Anna Shechtman and Erik Agard on a whim, and they both gave super advice and other constructors chimed in as well. I was so shocked and delighted by how nice and helpful everyone was!

But, it was February 2020 and before I could actually dive in, the pandemic struck and I was stuck juggling a job, a toddler, and a newborn. I got my head above water in November, downloaded Across Lite, read Patrick Berry’s Handbook, got hooked up with a mentor via the Crossword Puzzle Collaboration Directory and very quickly became obsessed.

2. You have a puzzle in the pipeline with The Inkubator and you’re awaiting feedback on submissions to several of the major outlets. As you start to interact with the puzzle community at large, what have you learned along the way? What has been the most surprising part of the process for you?

Oh man, I’ve learned so, so many things from so, so many people! The most surprising part of constructing has been discovering the fun, welcoming online crossword community. I had no idea! It’s been such a delight to chat and joke and learn from so many folks. The most important (and most cliche) thing I’ve learned is to ask for help when you have a question. So many folks are willing to collaborate or share tips.

What, in your estimation, makes for a great puzzle? What do you most enjoy — or try hardest to avoid — when constructing your own?

I love puzzles that have personality and teach me something new, which usually means crosswords that have colloquial/contemporary phrases and avoid common crosswordese. Of course, I’ve learned that this is SO HARD to do. I end up ripping up entire grids because I have AMTOO and OSHA gnawing at me. But it’s worth it when you fill a grid that is just so clean and fresh throughout.

3. Do you have any favorite crossword themes or clues, either your own or those crafted by others? Who inspires you as a constructor?

There are WAY too many constructors that I admire to list here! But in recent memory…. I absolutely loved Nam Jin Yoon’s Saturday NYT puzzle at the end of January. So many good phrases. Such clever cluing on the shorter fill. I’m also a huge fan of Malaika Handa’s 7×7 blog. Those make me laugh out loud all the time.

4. What’s next for Erica Wojcik?

I’ve gotten so much positive feedback for the Expanded Crossword Name Database, and one thing that several people have asked about is whether I can create a similar database for cultural things (teams, places, organizations etc.) So I’ll be getting that up soon!

I’m such a n00b at constructing, so I’m still just constantly playing around with themes and grids and trying to really find my voice. I love love love collaborating so I hope to do more of that, too!

5. What’s one piece of advice you would offer fellow solvers, aspiring constructors/setters, and puzzle enthusiasts?

Read Patrick Berry’s Handbook and join Crossword Twitter 🙂


A huge thank you to Erica for her time. You can follow her on Twitter for all of her crossword endeavors, and be sure to contribute your ideas to the Expanded Crossword Name Database! I’m genuinely looking forward to seeing what she creates next.

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Does the History of Cryptography Begin in Ancient Egypt?

Puzzles in various forms have been with us for thousands of years.

We can look back at examples like riddles from ancient Greece and Sumeria, the Smyrna word square from 79 AD, or inscriptions from New Kingdom-era Egypt between the 16th and 11th centuries BC, which can be read both across the rows and down the columns. (These are informally referred to as “Egyptian crossword puzzles.”)

As it turns out, if we turn our attention to ancient Egypt, we may just find the earliest known example of an encrypted message as well.

If you go hunting on the Internet for the earliest examples of cryptography or encryption, you pretty much get one of three results:

  • The ancient Greek scytale
  • The Caesar cipher
  • The Tomb of Khnumhotep II

Naturally, as someone who fancies himself a puzzle historian, I’ve heard of the first two entries on that list.

The scytale is an encryption method where a piece of leather, hide, or parchment (let’s say leather for this example) is wound around a wooden cylinder of a certain width and length. A message is then written on the wound piece of leather. When removed from the cylinder, the message disappears, leaving only a strip of leather with what looks like a jumble of letters on it. Only someone with an identical cylinder can wrap the piece of leather around it and read the intended message. Our earliest verifiable reference to the scytale is from the Greek poet Archilochus in the 7th century BC.

The Caesar cipher is the most famous example of a letter-shifting substitution code where numbers or other letters represent the letters in your message. For example, if B is K in your cipher, then C is L and D is M, as if the alphabet has shifted. See? Simple. Your average cryptogram puzzle is more complex because you’re not simply shifting your letter choices, you’re randomizing them. The Roman historian Suetonius references Caesar’s use of the cipher in his writings during the rule of Hadrian in the second century AD.

But what about this Egyptian tomb?

The tomb in question was built for Khnumhotep II, a nobleman who lived in the twentieth century BC. He carried many impressive titles, including Great Chief of the Oryx nome, hereditary prince and count, foremost of actions, royal sealer, and overseer of the Eastern Desert. (Seriously, with titles like this around, modern companies can clearly do better than manager, CEO, or senior editor. But I digress.)

The main chamber of his tomb features an inscription carved around 1900 BC. This inscription features some strange hieroglyphics. What makes them strange is that they’re in places where you would expect more common hieroglyphs, and it’s believed by some Egyptologists that these substitutions are no accident.

Some do pass it off as an intentional effort to describe the life of Khnumhotep II in more glowing or dignified terms, utilizing loftier verbiage that would be uncommon to any commonfolk readers, similar to how legalese is used today to impress others or intimidate readers.

But others believe it to be the earliest known example of a substitution cipher, utilizing hieroglyphs rather than letters or numbers. For what reason, you ask? To preserve the sacred nature of their religious rituals from the common people.

Unfortunately, this disagreement among scholars makes it hard to point definitively at the tomb of Khnumhotep II as the first written evidence of cryptography.

I guess this falls into the same black hole as the first bit of wordplay, the first anagram, the first pun, or the first riddle. We’ll never know, because the first examples of all of these would most likely be spoken, not written. It’s not until someone decides to record it — in pictograph form, in a carving, in a bit of ancient graffiti to be discovered centuries later — that it becomes evidence to be discovered centuries later.

And who’s to say that the linguists and cryptography believers aren’t both correct? A substitution cipher is, at heart, simply an agreed-upon way to say one thing represents or means another thing. A euphemism, an idiom, a common slang word… heck, a word you say in front of your kids instead of a swear. These are all very simple substitution ciphers.

The truth is probably somewhere in the middle.

What we do know is that there was some wordplay afoot in the tomb of Khnumhotep II, even if we can’t be sure if the history of ciphers and codes started there.


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A White and Snowy White Grid Instead of Black and White?

Problem-solving-crossword

You can get crosswords in many forms these days.

You get books full of them, or find them in the newspaper. Spiral-bound collections. Puzzle-a-day calendars.

You can download PDFs and Puz files, or solve them right on your screen. You can solve through puzzle apps like Daily POP Crosswords.

You can solve along with friends on Zoom or with The New York Times Wordplay crew in their livestreams.

Heck, there’s a coffee mug where you can fill out different crosswords that all fit the same empty, fillable grid on the outside of the mug. I have a crossword analog wall clock that’s solvable.

But this is definitely the first time I’ve seen a crossword made of snow.

This puzzle is the creation of pumpkin carver and ice rink artist Robert Greenfield, and he shared his icy enigma with solvers through his Twitter account.

You can solve it in more conventional form here.

I think the gripping nature of this artistic act of puzzly expression was best summed up by his brother on Twitter:

This is a REAL crossword puzzle with REAL questions and solutions (see the thread) constructed on a REAL ice rink done by my REAL brother who is REALLY impressive.

I’m curious if other frigid puzzle styles will follow suit. Will we see an ice rink word seek where he has to skate around the words to loop them? Perhaps a rime-crafted rebus to challenge observers with wordplay?

There are definitely possibilities here, with a natural timer built-in as well!

Forgive the unintentional pun, but this is pretty cool.


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Could Pigs Be Puzzle Solvers?

As a puzzler, I am on a quest to highlight and recognize the skills and accomplishments of fellow puzzlers. All too often, other outlets restrict this activity to humans and humans alone.

But PuzzleNation Blog has a fine long-standing tradition of celebrating the puzzly accomplishments of non-human puzzlers. In the past, we’ve discussed the puzzle skills evidenced by catsdogscrowscockatoos, octopuses, and bees.

And it’s possible that, soon, we might be adding another species to that marvelous list of puzzle-cracking creatures.

Pigs.

According to a paper published on February 11th in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, pigs can learn to be gamers.

No, we haven’t seen them follow multiple steps like octopuses or cockatoos, but there is puzzly potential here, because they’ve proven they can accomplish abstract tasks and deal with unenviable circumstances.

The initial task was for the four pigs — Omelet and Hamlet (Yorkshire pigs) and Ebony and Ivory (Panepinto micro pigs) — to manipulate a joystick so that they would move the cursor on the screen into a particular area.

Sure, it sounds simple, but if you’re an animal that doesn’t look at screens at all or is unfamiliar with the concept that one action here can cause one effect there, this is monumental.

According to The Guardian, the Purdue study focused on “the last 50 rounds of the video game played by each pig on each of the three levels, with one, two and three walls. The round was successful if the pig moved the cursor to the bright blue target with the first cursor movement.”

Their difficulties were described in detail:

It was an uphill battle for the swine. The joysticks were outfitted for trials with primates, so the hoofed pigs had to use their snouts and mouths to get the job done. All four pigs were found to be farsighted, so the screens had to be placed at an optimal distance for the pigs to see the targets. There were additional limitations on the Yorkshire pigs. Bred to grow fast, the heavier pigs couldn’t stay on their feet for too long.

Still, the pigs showed what is known as “self-agency,” the realization that one’s actions make a difference. The pigs recognized that by manipulating the joystick, they moved the cursor. That connection — similar to a cockatoo pulling a lever and opening a door — is the sort of step-by-step cognition that leads to puzzle solving.

The pigs were able to adapt to the joysticks and complete their simple, yet abstract goal.

“What they were able to do is perform well above chance at hitting these targets,” said Candace Croney, director of Purdue University’s Center for Animal Welfare Science and lead author of the paper. “And well enough above chance that it’s very clear they had some conceptual understanding of what they were being asked to do.”

I think the next step should be designing an Angry Birds analog for them where they throw something at the birds and their structures, and see how they do.

We’ll be keeping our eyes open for any other pig-related puzzling. It’s entirely possible we’ll be adding them to the puzzle-solving menagerie sooner rather than later.

And now, despite the cliche, there is truly only one way I can end this post. Say it with me now…

That’ll do, pigs. That’ll do.


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PN Review: Crossword Mysteries: Terminal Descent

Almost two years ago, the first Crossword Mysteries movie debuted. A Puzzle to Die For introduced the puzzle world (and the mystery world) to crossword editor Tess Harper and NYPD detective Logan O’Connor, as the unlikely duo unraveled the murder of an art dealer with a crossword puzzle in his pocket.

During the final commercial break, three more Crossword Mysteries films were announced for the fall of 2019. The second Crossword Mysteries film — Proposing Murder — debuted on schedule on October 13th.

The third film — Abracadaver — was originally scheduled to air one week later, but was suddenly pushed to January of 2020 to make room for more Christmas movies. In October. At some point, any mention of the promised fourth film simply vanished.

Naturally, folks couldn’t help but wonder what happened. I even pitched ideas for a fourth movie! Fans waited the whole year to find out.

Finally, I heard from a fellow puzzler that the fourth film would be debuting on Valentine’s Day.

crossword mysteries td 0

Our first taste of Crossword Mysteries in over a year? Marvelous! Let’s get to it, shall we?

But first, a heads-up. I’ll recap the story below, and then give my thoughts on the whole endeavor. If you’d like to read my conclusions but skip the full recap, scroll down to the next solid black line.

Ready? Okay, let’s dig in!


FILM RECAP

The film opens on a Wednesday at 3:30 PM.

Businessman Morgan Daniels disconnects a hard drive from a laptop, then tucks it into his pocket as he leaves the conference room. He awkwardly bumps into a staffer, and by bumps into, I mean full-on chest-to-chest sumo-collides with her. Morgan apologizes and continues on, stopping to say goodbye to crossword editor Tess Harper and head for the elevator.

He speaks to the elevator, asking for the parking garage, and the elevator actually answers him. But instead of going down, it starts ascending. It suddenly stops, then plummets downward. In a panic, Daniels cries out to the interactive computer programming that runs the elevator, BB, as he falls.

Everyone, including Tess, hears the crash. Once again, Tess simply being in the vicinity has caused another death. We are approaching Jessica Fletcher levels of coincidence here.

Also, if we’re getting a murderous crossword-obsessed supercomputer villain in this Crossword Mysteries movie, I am totally on board.

crossword mysteries td 1

Cue a very brief intro with the Crossword Mysteries logo, but none of the usual main character introductions or trappings. We get right down to business.

The story starts six hours earlier.

Tess speed-solves a puzzle in 2 minutes, 13 seconds. She’s prepping for a showdown with BB, the XCAL Communications supercomputer. New crime desk reporter Frank, who shares a workspace with crossword editor Tess, comments on how the chess-playing supercomputer Deep Blue and the Jeopardy!-quizzed Watson both defeated humans. We know, Frank. We’ve tried to warn people about this.

Tess’s new assistant Sonia highlights that Tess is a woman and all the previous human vs. computer showdowns have featured men, which is an interesting point.

Tess asks Sonia to cook up a list of “computer and tech jargon” to do a series of tie-in puzzles for the week of the exhibition. (We later see Tess working on one of these puzzles, and the jargon includes TERABYTE. Which, if she is symmetrically placing themed answer words, is opposite either PRIME RIB or SPARE RIB for some reason.)

Tess then leaves to meet the competition.

We jump to the police station, where Detective Logan O’Connor is chatting with new detective Amrita Kapoor. He’s then called into the chief’s office where his father (the chief) is having tech trouble with the new filing system. We’re only a few minutes in, and we’re already getting John Kapelos, because Hallmark knows what the audience wants. The chief talks about possible retirement. NOOOO, don’t you dare, Hallmark.

We then jump to Tess and Aunt Candace, walking and talking. Tess mentions being slightly overwhelmed with her deadlines and her Crossword Club newsletter — I think Patti Varol and Penny Press might have something to say about that — and a singles charity event that she’s helping with that never gets brought up again.

At the XCAL building, Tess chats to old friend Viv Banks, who helped put together this woman vs. machine promotional showdown. Viv shows Tess how they can talk to BB to use the elevator, which is totally not faster than just pushing a button yourself. INNOVATION.

They meet the XCAL VP Paul Redford and talk about XCAL and the upcoming exhibition. 

crossword mysteries td 5

They introduce Tess to a giant interactive monolithic version of BB, and she’s invited to ask it a few puzzle clues to test it out. (BB is very loud. Is everyone in the building hearing this demonstration?)

BB answers two simple clues, and Tess immediately has doubts about her performance. She seems to be half-joking, although she mentions potentially getting replaced at The Sentinel by BB.

Tess has a meet-awkward with a maintenance worker over a nearby plant that Tess seems to know more about than him. Tess and the audience are immediately suspicious.

She meets CEO Morgan Daniels, and asks him why he decided to test BB’s programming with crosswords. He tells a charming story about his father’s contentment sitting at home solving crosswords. In pen, of course. This pleasant moment is immediately ruined when plot intervenes in the form of Jesse Alexander, a woman who warns Morgan against taking a government contract, fearing the obvious Big Brother implications.

Morgan goes off with Jesse, and Tess shrugs this off, continuing to chat with VP Paul, who mentions that her voice is in the system. This means BB will respond to her elevator commands, and would even set off the alarm if she chose. This will definitely not come into play later in the movie. This is absolutely not foreshadowing.

crossword mysteries td 3

At this point, time has caught up to the opening scene where Morgan enters the elevator. It’s only a brief distraction by Viv that prevents Tess from entering the same elevator as Morgan and plummeting to certain doom.

Also, Tess mentions to Viv that tomorrow’s crossword waits for no one. SHE HASN’T FINISHED THE PUZZLE FOR TOMORROW YET?!

There’s a brief jump in time, and we’re looking through the broken elevator doors at Logan and Amrita, who have arrived at the behest of the Mayor, who is demanding action. It turns out the elevator’s safety protocols were overridden. The NYPD’s Computer Crimes department are investigating how this could have happened.

Tess and Logan meet up, asking why each other are there. I would think Logan’s reason for being there is obvious, Tess.

She mentions the maintenance man, and then tries to shrug it off as irrelevant. (We know it’s not.) Logan awkwardly compliments her hair. What a charmer.

Amrita starts interviewing nearby staff members, and Logan talks to VP Paul. VP Paul claims that Morgan is the only one who could have disabled the safeties. And in fact, Morgan is the only person who can modify BB and her impressive data-mining and searching abilities. WHAT?!

crossword mysteries td 6

They do bring up the possibility of hacking, and VP Paul mentions that someone would have to be in the office to make any system changes to BB. They claim Morgan’s firewall is impenetrable, so the tampering could only be internal.

Tess finally connects the very large dots regarding the maintenance man, and confirms with building security that he was an impostor. There’s only one plant guy for this entire building. That must be one busy dude. She tells Logan when they bump into each other again, and they check the plant.

Logan unearths something metallic from the soil, which Tess immediately recognizes as a listening device. (How? Has this come up previously at her shared crime/crossword desk at work?)

Logan receives confirmation from Computer Crimes that the elevator was, in fact, tampered with. This was a murder.

COMMERCIAL BREAK!

Logan meets with VP Paul and Viv, and asks about potential threats made and enemies accumulated by the company. A rival company, Eisner Industries, immediately comes up, as they’ve been behind corporate espionage, hiring ex-employees, the works.

crossword mysteries td 4

Amrita shows up with a picture of the fake maintenance guy, which from the angle and resolution, appears to have been taken from the cameras filming this movie.

While waiting in line near a food cart, Tess chats with Frank, mentions the woman vs. machine exhibition has been cancelled, and then immediately starts sharing crucial information about the case and the maintenance man in public. She remembers a tattoo the man had on his forearm. Frank says he might be ex-military, and runs a few potential images past her, but no luck.

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[I love the subtle grid patterning on Tess’s clothes.
It’s one of my favorite stylistic touches in the series.]

Back at the office, Tess searches for the image and gets it on her very first click. It’s a motorcycle club. Tess goes to investigate.

Meanwhile, Logan and Amrita have turned up nothing on fingerprints and gotten no hits on facial recognition. Thankfully, Tess calls to inform him she’s putting herself in wildly stupid danger by heading to the motorcycle clubhouse herself.

She walks into the club, gets called “honey,” and drops some motorcycle knowledge, impressing the bartender. Then she immediately blows it by asking for details on a club member in the narc-iest manner possible. She looks around, sees a polaroid of the man from XCAL, and the bartender says his name is Eric. We get a swell of music to tell us a tense moment is approaching.

Logan arrives to find Tess charming the bikers with a story. Oh movie, you tricked us. She shares what she learned with Logan and he calls it in. Logan again warns Tess about putting herself in dangerous situations, then informs her that her new bartender friend is called Hammer because he committed felony assault with a hammer. Tess shrugs it off.

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The film cuts to Logan meeting Eric Ogden as he drives a van into an alley. He tries to bolt, but Amrita magically teleports into his path and stops him.

COMMERCIAL BREAK!

Logan is interrogating Eric. Eric stays silent until Logan accuses him of conspiracy to commit Morgan’s murder. Eric then confirms that Eisner Industries hired him, but claims he knows nothing about the murder. He has a hard drive in his apartment with all the audio he recorded from XCAL.

At The Sentinel, Frank thanks Tess for offering to introduce him to Viv, getting him a crucial in at XCAL. Frank offers some exposition on XCAL’s early days, including a partner named Gregory Sackett that Morgan booted from the company before they went public and became a cash cow.

At the police station, surveillance footage confirms Eric was never near a computer, so he couldn’t have been the one who reprogrammed BB and killed Morgan. He and Amrita talk suspects, and rule out Viv, but mention Jesse, who turns out to be lead programmer. They also mention the insane idea that Daniels was the only person who could make changes or maintain BB, and how that doesn’t make sense. Good call, movie. We were all thinking it.

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Logan sees the police commissioner is talking to the chief. I swear, movie, if you are writing out John Kapelos, I will fight you.

One visit to Jesse’s apartment yields no Jesse, but a neighbor confirms she left a few hours ago with a duffel bag.

crossword mysteries td 8

Meanwhile, Tess is finally crosswording, in the lobby of XCAL for some reason. She better have finished Tuesday’s puzzle by now. Logan bumps into her there. SHE MENTIONS HER PUZZLE IS DUE IN TWO HOURS. Tess, seriously?!

They banter back and forth about people skills. It’s pretty cute, honestly.

COMMERCIAL BREAK!

Logan crosses paths with reporter Frank and fires off a friendly “no comment” before talking to Viv. They observe VP Paul having a heated phone call with the board of directors. Eisner has put in a bid on XCAL, swooping in during the chaos. It turns out XCAL didn’t get the government contract because all the programming for it was on a personal hard drive Daniels was carrying, which Viv presumes was destroyed.

Yeah, it surely wasn’t nabbed from his pocket during the incredibly awkward bump-into earlier in the movie. I SEE YOU, MOVIE. I SEE YOU.

Frank and Tess are in the parking garage, and it turns out Tess’s vehicle knowledge also includes cars, as she correctly identifies the problem Viv is having with Morgan’s car. Viv is  trying to return it to his wife. Tess volunteers to drive it back with her.

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At the police station, the chief talks retirement with Logan after finding out from the commissioner that a colleague died at his desk. Amrita arrives to inform them that the audio files weren’t on the hard drive from Eric’s apartment. Someone erased them. The chief deduces that the killer is mopping up after their crime.

Eric confirms that Keith Eisner, the CEO of the rival company, was the one who hired him. Eric offers up that he overheard a heated argument Morgan had with someone named Patricia about a government contract and that “he’d sign the papers over his dead body.” Logan begins forming a theory connecting the missing Jesse with Patricia, and heads out to talk to the latter, who it turns out is Morgan’s wife.

But guess who is already on the way…

Tess and Viv chat en route. In Morgan’s messy car, she finds evidence that he was spending a lot of time at New York General Hospital. They talk about Jesse and Viv mentions how much Morgan trusted her input.

Logan has somehow beaten Tess and Viv to Patricia’s house, and it turns out the papers he wouldn’t sign were divorce papers. Patricia had fallen in love with someone else: Keith Eisner.

COMMERCIAL BREAK!

Tess and Viv arrive in Morgan’s car. She mentions the hospital to Logan, who is baffled by their increasingly unlikely meet-ups across New York. She cons a ride home with Logan. WAIT, HOW WAS SHE PLANNING TO GET BACK TO THE CITY? THAT CAB FARE WOULD BE OUTRAGEOUS.

[Tess adds “grand theft french fry” to her long list of previous crimes and indiscretions.]

Over lunch, Logan and Tess talk about Patricia and Eisner possibly orchestrating Morgan’s demise. Logan conspires with Tess to have socialite extraordinaire Aunt Candace test the chief’s interest in actually retiring.

Amidst their chatting, Tess reveals she was once engaged, but called off the wedding. Logan is about to share something, but is interrupted by a call. Turns out there’s no link the police can find between Patricia and Jesse.

Tess and Logan visit the hospital. But the nurse, a true professional, won’t divulge who Morgan was visiting. Tess doesn’t get a chance to try out her biker-soothing charms, because Logan gets a call, and there’s no sign of a hard drive in the elevator wreckage. Audience suspicions of pickpocketing confirmed.

Tess herself confirms this when Logan asks if she remembers anything, and she mentions the pre-elevator bumping-into. They go looking for the bumpee at XCAL, and it turns out she was a temp, so she wouldn’t have been on the employee list Viv gave the police.

[The temp, right after bumping into Morgan.]

Amrita looks up the temp, Layla Barnes, and she’s got a record. Apparently Jesse recommended her for the job.

In a coffeeshop, Aunt Candace and Tess chat about Logan and the chief, and Candace agrees to help Logan find out his dad’s thoughts on retiring. Tess gets a call. Frank has located former XCAL founder Gregory Sackett. He offers to bring Tess with him to talk to Sackett.

Logan arrives at Layla’s apartment building and hears a scream. Behind the building, he finds Layla on the ground, checks her pulse, and gets struck from behind by an unknown black-clad assailant.

COMMERCIAL BREAK!

Lots of flashing lights as we return to the alley behind Layla’s apartment. Amrita and the chief are there to check on Logan. He has a headache and a serious bump on the noggin, but otherwise he’s alright.

Amrita reports that Layla was killed by a single gunshot. Her laptop is there, along with a bunch of burner cellphones, but there’s no sign of Morgan’s missing hard drive.

Meanwhile, Frank and Tess chat, theorizing that Morgan and Sackett patched things up, and Sackett was the person Morgan was visiting at the hospital. It turns out that Morgan found out about Sackett’s illness through BB’s search algorithm, and that’s what made him reach out and mend fences.

At Sackett’s home, the ailing man mentions there was a third founding member of XCAL, Guinevere Rice. Tess puzzles out that XCAL is a reference to the sword Excalibur from Arthurian legend, and Sackett confirms the company was named in her honor. He also mentions that Guinevere and Morgan had been dating, and split at some point around the same time Sackett got booted.

At the police station, a phone call between Aunt Candace and the chief wraps up just as Logan and Amrita arrive. One of the burner phones they found at Layla’s apartment had call listings to all the biggest tech companies. She was trying to sell Morgan’s hard drive. Most of the phone calls were a minute or less, indicating no luck. The only long phone call — eight minutes long — was with Eisner Industries.

As soon as Logan arrives at Eisner, all of the computers in the lobby — because employees work in the lobby for some reason? — are hacked and start displaying the word CONFESS with seven exclamation points.

Now, we all know that three exclamation marks or more are the sign of true insanity, so seven is incredibly dangerous territory.

Logan meets with Keith Eisner upstairs as the hacking chaos continues. Eisner claims that the bugs were the result of an overzealous employee and that he only listened to Layla’s call for eight minutes to get details to report to the police. He admits that he and Morgan were rivals, but claims that their rivalry pushed each other to greater heights.

I really liked this touch. So often, antagonists — either actual bad guys or just red herring suspects — are cartoonishly mean or evil. To have their rivalry painted as a positive is a nice take that adds much-needed depth to what could have been a bland boilerplate suspect.

COMMERCIAL BREAK!

At dinner, Aunt Candace and the chief chat about retirement and making changes when you’re older. He takes an interest in the cooking class she mentions.

At The Sentinel, Frank has no luck locating Guinevere Rice. Tess suggests reaching out to the alumni organization at the college Morgan, Guinevere, and Sackett all attended. Tess spins an obvious lie to the alumni office, but manages to find out Guinevere died in 1993 in a car accident. She is given contact information for Guinevere’s daughter. It leads to the voicemail of Jesse Alexander.

Jesse is Guinevere’s daughter. GASP.

At the police station, Logan confirms that Eisner filed a report with the NYPD, and the chief reveals that Layla and Jesse were in the same work-release program. Jesse used to be known as Stephanie Rice, and got in trouble after some major hacking she did back in the day.

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And in the saddest of the three revelations, the chief confirms that he’s retiring. YOU EVIL MOVIE. IF WE DON’T GET A CRIME-SOLVING RETIRED JOHN KAPELOS SPINOFF, I WILL RIOT.

We cut to a random sidewalk, where a black-clad individual is shadowing Tess. (We can see it’s Jesse, but Tess cannot.)

Tess, showing much greater awareness than in previous movies, notices she’s being followed and ducks into a store. Jesse stares through the front door, unsure of what to do next.

Tess then somehow emerges from the subway stairwell behind her pursuer, reveals herself, and is stunned to discover that Jesse was the person following her.

While this is going on, Amrita and Logan are searching Jesse’s apartment, and Amrita finds a hard drive. They assume it’s Morgan’s. Logan gets a call from computer crimes that confirms Morgan gave access to XCAL’s systems to Jesse a week ago. The net around Jesse tightens.

Meanwhile, Jesse and Tess talk in the park. Jesse reveals that Morgan was her father but he didn’t know that when he hired her. She disappeared because she’s been trying to find his killer through less-than-legal means. But before he died, Morgan found out her true identity when he searched her name in the increasingly unsettling and hyper-efficient BB search program.

Logan finds out Jesse has been spotted in the park talking to an unidentified woman. It’s surprising the entire police force doesn’t know Tess by now. She’s the famous crossword lady who interferes in all the best and puzzliest investigations!

He shows up and arrests Jesse for the murder of Layla Barnes. He also quite testily shuts down Tess’s attempts to explain, reminding her how dangerous it is to interfere in a police investigation, and leaves with Jesse in tow.

COMMERCIAL BREAK!

In interrogation, Jesse claims she didn’t know Layla took the hard drive from Morgan and she’s shocked that it was found at her apartment. She believes she’s being framed. When Logan asks about her hacking Eisner Industries and posting the Confess!!!!!!! message, she lawyers up.

Tess shows up at the station to explain, and the chief gives her a kinder version of the dressing down Logan offered earlier. He mentions that if anything happened to Tess, Logan would never forgive himself. He alludes to Logan being attacked at Layla’s apartment — to highlight how dangerous this case is — and Tess is concerned, only just now hearing about the attack. Still, she presses on, making a case for Jesse’s innocence to Logan and the chief.

The trio soon joins Amrita at her desk. Computer Crimes can’t get into Layla’s laptop, but has determined there’s a seven-digit password. Tess suggests “1234567” because it is insanely common. She also casually mentions that there are 33,000 possible seven-letter words that could also be the password.

The chief suggests Layla might’ve kept a list of passwords nearby (because he does), and Logan finds some 7-digit numbers in a notepad she kept on her desk. One of the numbers works, and they’re in. Logan tries to use this success to convince his father not to retire.

The detective offers to give Tess a ride home en route to returning the hard drive to XCAL. Tess rightly points out it’s evidence, but apparently Viv made a call to the Mayor’s office. This is very sus, as the kids would say.

Our dynamic duo arrives at XCAL, and plot intervenes to separate them in the form of a phone call from Tess’s editor. SHE HAS NOT SUBMITTED TOMORROW’S PUZZLE YET. COME ON TESS, WHAT THE HELL?!

Logan turns over the hard drive to VP Paul, who asks about Jesse, confirming that she’s been apprehended. Logan gets a call from Amrita, who finds copies of Eric’s audio files on Layla’s computer. She listened to some of them, and it turns out that Morgan and VP Paul disagreed about the government contract in the days leading up to Morgan’s death. Morgan sided with Jesse.

(This seems out of the blue, given Jesse publicly chiding Morgan for the contract right before he died, but it’s possible when he pulled her aside, it was to appease her before breaking the bad news to everyone. Jesse clearly didn’t know in interrogation, so he couldn’t have told her then. Anyway, I digress.)

Logan, now realizing that VP Paul has been playing him this whole time, baits Paul with references to Layla and the hard drive. We see Paul has a gun concealed behind him, and he draws on Logan when Logan confirms that Paul murdered Layla.

FINAL COMMERCIAL BREAK!

Tess finishes her call, and considers going to look for Logan, but then mumbles to herself, “Stay out of it, Tess,” and sits back down. Oh movie, look at you, making us disregard otherwise prudent advice for the sake of drama. I see you, movie.

Paul gets Logan to put down his gun, then starts monologuing about selling the hard drive on the black market and leaving for a country without an extradition treaty. Classic villain stuff.

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Then the elevator opens and Tess emerges, ignoring the prudent advice. She sees Logan being held at gunpoint.

Remembering the alarm thing from her earlier visit to XCAL, she yells, “BB, activate the alarm!” and Logan manages to put some distance between himself and VP Paul after a shameful scuffle where he fails to disarm the bad guy.

VP Paul orders BB to shut down the alarm, but this gives Tess time to slide Logan his gun. Paul fires toward Tess, and Logan puts a bullet in Paul’s shoulder.

Later, we see Tess, Logan, and the Chief for the loose-ends wrap-up.

Morgan’s hard drive was empty. Presumably Morgan erased it before he died. And apparently Paul saw Morgan enter his password one time and that’s how he gained access to the system. (So the impenetrable system only Morgan could operate was foiled by something someone could memorize after seeing it once. Huh.)

Logan and the chief thank Tess for saving Logan’s life. She is humble about the whole thing. Is that the end?

No! We cut to the police station, where Logan needs to grab his wallet before taking his dad out to dinner. The chief deduces that Logan has lured him here for a retirement party, but Logan claims that’s wrong.

The chief reveals he’s not ready to retire yet. The people rejoice!

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As it turns out, Logan has organized an UNretirement party for the chief, because he knew the chief wasn’t ready yet. Good job, Logan.

During the festivities, Logan and Tess share a quiet moment, and Logan reveals that he was married before and it ended because of his job. (This was what he wanted to tell her during their lunch.)

He thanks Tess for helping him realize that he shouldn’t keep people at arms length. They clink glasses. And the camera drifts away from the couple.

The End.

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[SORRY, ROMANCE LOVERS. YOU’LL HAVE TO WAIT AT LEAST ONE MORE CROSSWORD MYSTERIES FILM FOR THE GOOD STUFF.]


CONCLUSION

I confess, I’m torn on Terminal Descent. The mystery is interesting and well-constructed, and the twin reveals of a third founding member and her secret daughter actually worked quite nicely. (It does tend dangerously close to “secret twin” territory, but overall, I enjoyed the twist and how the characters played off each other.)

But then again, these are the Crossword Mysteries, and this was the least puzzly entry in the series yet! The first had an actual crossword at the center of the story, the second a cipher, and the third had a riddle and all sorts of twisty magic happenings that encouraged some brain teaser-like deduction.

But this one had no puzzle element at all. We lose the woman vs. machine bit about ten minutes into the movie; it would’ve been nice to close with that, just to give Tess a chance to prove her puzzly mettle.

Yes, I obviously had some fun joking about the plot elements in my review, but any criticisms were made with tongue placed firmly in cheek. I quite liked the cast of potential suspects — Eisner in particular was a nice reinvention of a tired trope — and would have enjoyed spending more time with these characters.

Tess and Logan remain immensely likable, and I enjoyed that moments of tension between them moved from the “Tess, you’re interfering AGAIN?!” gimmick of the earlier movies to Logan’s genuine concern that Tess not be harmed and sincere appreciation for what she brings to the investigation. It feels like movement forward, which is always welcome in any relationship. Sure, it was borderline ridiculous how many times they bumped into each other during the movie, but at this point, it’s practically a trope of the series.

And, of course, John Kapelos shined as the police chief and father figure of the film, funny and distracting in equal measure. He is just the best.

In sort, the movie is light, frothy, slightly murdery fun. You can’t go wrong with that.

Fair warning, though: the film did lack a Will Shortz cameo as far as I could tell, but given that it was filmed in late 2020, it’s totally understandable while filming under COVID-safe conditions. Still, we potentially missed out on Biker Will Shortz, which would have been fantastic.


Crossword Mysteries Terminal Descent Final Image Assets

Plus, there’s more to come!

There is at least one more Crossword Mysteries movie scheduled for 2021. The fifth entry in the series is entitled Riddle Me Dead and has a scheduled release date of April 11th, 2021.

So do not fret, puzzle fans. There’s more of Tess and Logan to come!


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Eyes Open #15

CHSBLMJune82020-28

Welcome to the latest puzzle in my ongoing series, Eyes Open, inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement and other civil rights protests.

In previous Eyes Open puzzles, I’ve put a spotlight on important figures, both well-known and obscure, who have affected history in crucial ways. These influential individuals, and their efforts, deserve to be celebrated and remembered.

But one thing I try never to forget is that, just outside that spotlight, however bright or flickering, there are so many nameless, faceless people that also contributed to the cause.

How many Black Panther Party members can we name who helped feed their communities? How many grassroots organizers that went door to door? How many supporters offering water bottles to people marching? How many nurses and carers tending to them after violent responses? How many drivers that helped shuttle people to the polls? How many signatures on vital petitions? How many people carrying those clipboards and pens?

Volunteers that number in the thousands, protesters that number in the tens and hundreds of thousands, voters that number in the millions.

We don’t know those their names. We wouldn’t recognize their faces. But they have all helped change the world.

The subject of today’s puzzle will probably never be known on a national or global stage. I didn’t know his name before reading this article a friend shared with me. You probably don’t know his name yet.

But to the people he stood up for, to the people he represented, to the people he helped, to the people he championed, he was everything. He made a small part of the world a better place for everyone. His legacy is one of bravery, kindness, and selflessness. That’s something we can all aspire to.

I hope this puzzle serves to both engage you as a solver and encourage you to learn more, not just about this “unapologetic fighter for truth, transparency and justice,” but the many people like him in your own community and elsewhere.

[Click this link to download a PDF of this puzzle.]

If you have suggestions for more topics for me to cover in future puzzles, please let me know. If you’re a person of color and you’d like to share a puzzle of your own, or to collaborate with me on a puzzle, please let me know.

If you’re a member of the LGBTQ community, and you have ideas, please let me know. If you’re a trans person, or a non-binary individual, and you feel underrepresented in puzzles, please let me know.

I would like this to become something bigger, but hopefully, this is at the very least a start.

Thank you for reading. Thank you for standing up, speaking up, and fighting the good fight.

Support LGBTQIA+ people.
Believe women.
Black lives matter.