Fictional Crossword Constructors: The Good, The Bad, and The In-Between

For months now, I’ve been assembling lists of the best puzzle solvers from fiction, be it horror films, television shows, Young Adult novels, or literature in general.

So it’s only fair that I turn the tables and take a look at fictional constructors as well.

There are plenty of crossword constructors that test the skills of puzzlers all across fiction, and today, I’m going to rank some of the most famous, most obscure, and most interesting among them into three categories: The Across (aka the Good), The Down (aka the Not-So-Good), and The Fill (aka those who fall in between).

How am I ranking them, you ask? Excellent question, fellow puzzler.

I’ll be taking the following questions into consideration:

  • How much do we know about them and their puzzles?
  • How do puzzlers in their fictional universe regard them and their puzzles?
  • How do puzzlers in our world regard them and their puzzles?
  • What are their extracurriculars like? (For instance, are they also solving crimes or are they committing them?)

So, without further ado, let’s look at the array of fictional cruciverbalist talent we’ve assembled for you today.


The Across

Daedalus-puzzle-008

[Image courtesy of The Guardian.]

Daedalus, Inspector Morse series
(novels by Colin Dexter)

Our first constructor (or setter, in this case) comes from Julian Mitchell’s adaptation of Dexter’s famous character for ITV in “The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn.”

Taking the name of the famous maze-builder of legend, Daedalus is cited by Morse as “a right sod” for his devious puzzles. Morse confesses, “I once spent a whole day on one of your five downs.” 5 Down, in Morse’s universe, is apparently much like Puzzle 5 at ACPT. And Morse is hardly a stranger to puzzles, either in crossword or crime form, so this is high praise indeed.

Although the production makes a mistake — showing Daedalus pointing to a 13x grid when 15x grids are standard in Morse’s world — as far as we can tell, Daedalus is a top-notch setter worthy of his reputation.

discworld2

[Image courtesy of The Daily Star.]

Puzzler, various DiscWorld novels (Terry Pratchett)

Another setter, Puzzler serves as the puzzlemaster for The Ankh-Morpork Times. Celebrated as a skilled constructor by no less than Lord Vetinari himself (ruler of the city of Ankh-Morpork), Puzzler is known for employing fiendish and obscure vocabulary, once flummoxing Vetinari with the entry “snarkenfaugister.” (Just imagine what that cryptic clue looked like.)

In real life, Puzzler is later revealed by Vetinari’s dogged investigation to be pet-food shop owner and trivia hound Grace Speaker, who accidentally hinted toward her puzzly alter ego by answering a trivia question “only five people in the city could answer.”

[Image courtesy of Amazon.]

Stanley and Vera, Two Across (Jeff Bartsch)

We never actually see one of Stanley or Vera’s puzzles, but based on what we hear in this romantic journey, they must be pretty impressive constructors. In one instance, Stanley creates a New York-themed puzzle where the boroughs are located geographically in the grid. (To be fair, there is a reference to having the 8-letter word RIFFRAFF as a center entry, which makes me wary.)

In the later sections of the book, it’s Vera’s puzzles that drive the narrative. Her puzzles are crisp, interesting, and Stanley is so desperate not to miss them that he solves puzzles obsessively to ensure he sees her next creation.

The characters are drawn as honest, flawed people who both find joy in puzzles. They’re an easy shoe-in for the Across rank.

Lawrence Brooks, Bones

In one episode of the TV crime procedural Bones, the team tries to explain the death of Lawrence Brooks, a reclusive syndicated crossword constructor. Lawrence is considered by some to be a master in his field, one whose reputation is bolstered by the attention of an ambitious assistant, but also dogged by accusations of stealing puzzles by former colleagues.

Although the twists and turns do cast doubt on his assistant Alexis, it turns out that much of the trouble uncovered throughout the episode is due to ongoing issues with Alzheimer’s. (For instance, it’s believed that he mistakenly published the work of others, confusing them with his own work, while his wife tried to cover for him by publishing puzzles he’d previously rejected for falling below his standards.)

By episode’s end, Lawrence’s reputation is restored, and this fictional Will Shortzian figure remains a benchmark for puzzly skill.


The Fill

the-crossword-mysteries-holiday-collection

[Image courtesy of Kobo.]

Belle Graham, Crossword Mystery series (Nero Blanc)

Belle is a crossword constructor who helps her husband, a private investigator, unravel mysteries that often intrude on the couple’s vacations. Solving crosswords inevitably proves helpful to cracking the myriad cases that cross Belle’s path.

Belle spends much more time solving than constructing, so despite appearing in more than a dozen books, we don’t know a lot about her constructing. We do know it’s compelling enough to inspire a TV crime series she constructs puzzles for; we also know there was a fierce rivalry between her and another constructor, Thompson C. Briephs, a flamboyant playboy (as many constructors are).

But given the clues and references to constructing that pepper the books, I think The Fill is a fair place to rank Belle.

Olivers-Travels-008

[Image courtesy of The Guardian.]

Aristotle, Oliver’s Travels

Mixing elements of a road trip, a midlife crisis, and a romance, Oliver’s Travels is all about an enthusiastic puzzler seeking out his favorite constructor/setter, only to stumble upon a mystery.

We’re told over and over again that Aristotle is “the best in the business,” publishing in the Times, the Guardian, and the Listener, keeping Oliver both entertained and inspired through his inventive wordplay.

As viewers, we don’t spend a huge amount of time with Aristotle, but by the time we do meet him, we’re nearly as excited as Oliver. He remains something of a mystery, so I think The Fill is a fine rank for him.

abracadaver7

[Image courtesy of Hallmark.]

Tess Harper, Crossword Mysteries (TV movies)

Tess is a famous constructor with her own puzzle appearing in The Sentinel, one of New York’s biggest newspapers. But, like many constructors, she also spends an inordinate amount of time trying to solve murders. This cannot help but cut into your editing time. (In fact, it was a plot point in the first film that Tess was ignoring her duties as organizer of a crossword tournament to play crime-solver.)

As for Tess’s puzzles, we’ve only seen a few of her works in action, and when she’s not trying to fit an 8-letter word into a mostly-filled grid (literally, it’s the only word left to fill), she’s making wedding proposal puzzles where the theme word placement makes no sense whatsoever.

We know she has some cluing skills, and a penchant for applying puzzle knowledge to the real world, but she also doesn’t seem to take the job seriously. (I mean, she supposedly takes weeks of magic classes as “research” for a puzzle. Is she a con artist?)

I can’t place her in the Down, but I can’t place her in the Across either.


The Down

puzzle lady

[Image courtesy of Parnell Hall.]

Cora Felton, The Puzzle Lady mysteries (Parnell Hall)

This one is an odd one, because Cora Felton is a syndicated crossword constructor and known as The Puzzle Lady, but is actually conning people. She has no crossword chops, and her niece Sherry is actually the puzzly brain in the operation.

Cora, however, does have a knack for solving crimes, and her nosy nature ensures there’s no shortage of those to solve. Unfortunately, given her reputation, those crimes often have some sort of puzzle element, which causes no end of shenanigans.

No matter her crime-solving skills, though, I can’t help but place her here, because she’s the Puzzle Lady in name only. (Sherry, meanwhile, clearly belongs higher up on the list.)

'All About Steve'

[Image courtesy of The Grand Forks Herald.]

Mary Horowitz, All About Steve

This was actually the hardest entry to place, if you can believe it. Sandra Bullock’s Mary is a word-obsessed quirky person who makes her living as a crossword constructor. If she was at the ACPT, she wouldn’t stick out a bit.

But since this is a Hollywood movie, it means she’s a borderline disaster who is a burden on everyone around her and must be set up on blind dates to free her parents from her very presence.

But what about her crossword skills?

This was actually the hardest entry to place, because Mary’s apparently competent enough at crosswords that she can afford her own place on a cruciverbalist’s salary, which is impressive. But apparently she’s not competent enough to know that dedicating an entire puzzle to a man she went on one date with would get her canned from said cushy crossword gig.

So, she must be good at crosswords, but she’s also demonstrably bad at them.

But for giving constructors everywhere a bad name — and earning a Razzie award while doing so — she ends up in The Down.


Did I miss any fictional constructors that are favorites of yours, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers? Let me know in the comments section below. I’d love to hear from you!

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The Best Puzzle Solvers on Television

[Image courtesy of Spoiler TV.]

A few weeks ago, we celebrated Halloween by compiling a list of the best puzzlers in horror movies. The goal was to highlight characters who stood out, the ones you’d want on your side, because they’re clever, decisive, and immensely capable.

But it’s not just horror movies that feature characters with these rare qualities. Television dramas and comedies both have their fair share of top-notch puzzlers, and today, we turn the spotlight on them.

True, I certainly could have listed more detectives/investigators/crime scene techs, but honestly, they’re often part of a big team of solvers. (The casts of CSI and Bones, for instance, are effective teams, but rarely does one particular puzzler shine brighter than the rest.)

These individuals (and the occasional duo), however, most definitely perform puzzly feats under pressure.


bestpuzbatman

Batman, Batman: The Animated Series

[Image courtesy of Polygon.]

Yeah, we’re getting an obvious one out of the way first. He’s not called the World’s Greatest Detective for nothing, after all. Although the ’60s Batman leapt wildly to conclusions that turned out to be right, we’d rather lean on the cunning cartoon version of the character from the ’90s FOX show.

This Batman outwitted the Riddler, foiled the Joker, and defeated Ra’s al Ghul, all while remaining age-appropriate for the kiddies. His comic-book counterpart might get to show off his puzzly detective skills more frequently, but when it comes to TV, it’s hard to ignore the Caped Crusader.

bestpuzsherlock

Sherlock Holmes / Mycroft Holmes / Jim Moriarty, Sherlock

[Image courtesy of Tumblr.]

Again, this trio is too obvious to ignore. It’s hard to pick the sharpest knife out of this particular drawer. Moriarty proves himself to be Holmes’s equal throughout the show, though Sherlock does defeat him in the end. Similarly, Mycroft is often regarded as Sherlock’s equal (or perhaps superior) when it comes to sussing out evidence.

But we always return to the often imitated but never duplicated Great Detective when we think of someone who can put together tiny details and suddenly realize the stunning whole of the case. Call it deduction or just great jigsaw skills, Sherlock has it in spades.

(Oh, and an honorable mention here goes out to Dr. Gregory House, who was based on Holmes.)

bestpuzgyver

Angus MacGyver, MacGyver

[Image courtesy of The Hollywood Reporter.]

When you think of this iconic character, it’s likely that one of two things comes to mind: either his trusty Swiss army knife or his incredible knack for getting out of jams with jury-rigged, home-built, improvised equipment.

The man cobbled together a cannon from cigarette butts and built a functioning glider out of bamboo and trash bags. Any brain teaser, no matter how specious or obtuse, would fall before the mighty outside-the-box thinking of Mr. MacGyver.

Leslie Knope / Ron Swanson, Parks and Recreation

My first instinct was to mention Ron Swanson here, given his love of riddles and his impressive efforts to solve the Valentine’s Day scavenger hunt created for Ben in a famous episode. But one cannot honor a master puzzle solver and not give a fair shake to the woman who designed the devious scavenger hunt being solved.

Leslie Knope’s 25-clue puzzle hunt involved riddles, anagrams, a cryptex, and more, and not only did she amaze viewers, but she got Ron to admit his love of riddles to the world. They both merit mentioning in today’s list.

bestpuzdoctor

The Doctor, Doctor Who

[Image courtesy of Vocal.]

When your life is spent traveling through time and space, experiencing events out of order, you’d have to be a pretty decent puzzler just to keep cause and effect straight, let alone to battle threats that endanger the whole of creation. And this alien with two hearts and a police box that travels through time is one heck of a puzzle solver.

He has outwitted Daleks, demigods, and the devil himself. He has defeated aliens that move every time you blink or look away, or that you forget about as soon as you lose sight of them. I assure you, no riddle or brain teaser stands a chance against someone who thinks in four dimensions.

bestpuzlisa

Lisa Simpson, The Simpsons

[Image courtesy of SketchOK.]

No, I haven’t mentioned too many actual puzzle solvers in this list — but just because people like puzzles, that doesn’t mean they’re the best solvers. Lisa, however, fits both sides of the equation.

We’ve seen her skills as a crossword whiz and her ability to crack a Da Vinci Code-esque mystery, all while navigating the perils of elementary school and a father whose choices often defy belief. Lisa is thoughtful, diligent, observant, and clever. She not only loves puzzles, but applies her puzzly mind to making the world around her a better place.

bestpuzwalt

Walter White / Gus Fring, Breaking Bad

[Image courtesy of Breaking Bad Wiki.]

From schoolgirls to drug kingpins we go. It’s hard to pick who is the better strategist between the devious Walter White and the tactical Gustavo Fring. Granted, White does defeat Fring in the end, but not before Gus outmaneuvers old rivals and new, drives a wedge between Walt and Jesse, and builds an entire empire under the noses of the local authorities.

Walt, like a sinister MacGyver, often rigs up surprising solutions to problems, but Gus is probably the superior puzzler, someone who can plan his game three moves ahead and make the best use of his resources.

bestpuzpenny

Penny and Brain, Inspector Gadget

[Image courtesy of Sassy Mama in LA.]

With the bumbling, insufferable bionic detective by your side, you almost have to be twice as good a puzzler to get anything done. And yet, the insightful Penny and her loyal canine companion Brain usually manage to foil the plans of Dr. Klaw despite the doltish antics of the show’s title character.

Penny is an able researcher, able to assess a situation and find the missing pieces with ease. Brain, on the other hand, is the one who puts Penny’s plans into action and adapting on the fly when things (inevitably) go awry. As puzzling duos go, they’re among the best around.

bestpuzmonk

[Image courtesy of Monk Wiki.]

Adrian Monk, Monk

A knack for observation will always serve a puzzler well. Maybe you notice a pattern, or something missing from a room that everyone else missed. Maybe you can draw connections faster than others. All of these qualities apply to Adrian Monk, the fearful obsessive investigator from USA’s Monk.

Monk is the ultimate logic problem solver, drawing out the tables in his head and neatly placing information in each box, then finally drawing his conclusion once he has enough detail. And he’s never wrong. A master of observation and deduction, Monk is a world-class puzzler (even if he probably doesn’t solve the daily crossword often for fear that the newspaper will smear ink on his hands).


Did I miss any world-class puzzlers from television? Let me know in the comments section below! I’d love to hear from you!

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The Best Puzzle Solvers in Horror Movies

horrorpuzzler0

[Image courtesy of Hayden Scott.]

Seven Halloweens have come and gone since I started writing for PuzzleNation Blog, and with an eighth one only a few days away, I’m writing a post about horror movies for the very first time.

Why did I wait so long, given the appropriate seasonal subject and the fact that I’m a huge horror movie buff?

Honestly, it’s mostly a matter of tone.

Horror movies by their very nature confront some fairly dark subjects. Fears, uncomfortable situations, horrific monsters, terrible villains, and no small amount of violence are part and parcel of the genre. And although I have discussed movies or TV shows with death in the past, it’s usually in the context of solving a crime in a puzzly fashion, a la Bones, NCIS: New Orleans, or the Crossword Mysteries.

I always strive to make the general tone of the blog as positive as possible, and for the most part, I don’t feel like horror movies are a good fit, no matter how puzzly some of them are (like Cube, Escape Room, and others).

So, what’s changed?

Well, I think I found a fun way to discuss the subject without dwelling on some of the less pleasant aspects of the genre.

Today, we’re celebrating the best puzzle solvers in horror cinema. These are the characters you want on your side, because they’re clever, decisive, and immensely capable. After all, most horror movies are populated with idiots who are destined to perish before the film’s conclusion.

So instead, these are the characters who break the mold.


horrorpuzzler2

Nancy Thompson, A Nightmare on Elm Street

[Image courtesy of Horror Film Wiki.]

When you’re confronted with a monster who hunts people through their dreams, you have to be pretty clever to survive. After all, you have to sleep at some point. When it comes to the Elm Street franchise, they don’t come more clever than young Nancy Thompson.

Nancy discovers she has the ability to pull things from the dreamworld into the real world, and plans to use this ability to stop Freddy Krueger once and for all. She not only sets an alarm to ensure she wakes up before falling victim to Freddy in the dreamworld, but sets numerous booby traps in her house to ensnare and hurt Freddy.

Nancy is a top-notch puzzler for not only figuring out how to use her incredible ability to her advantage, but devising a plan (and a backup plan!) to save herself.

horrorpuzzler5

Kirsty Cotton, Hellraiser

[Image courtesy of Wicked Horror.]

The Lament Configuration is a Rubik’s Cube-like puzzle box that opens a portal to another dimension, where monstrous beings called Cenobites promise untold delights in exchange for your soul. Unfortunately, Kirsty is a clever enough puzzler to solve the Lament Configuration and open the portal.

Thankfully, Kirsty is also clever enough to outmaneuver the Cenobites, buying herself time by realizing someone has escaped their clutches and working to save herself by finding the fugitive.

So Kirsty not only figures out the rules of monsters from another dimension and how to use them, but solves a difficult puzzle box (first opening it, then solving it in reverse to close it) in order to save herself. A pretty sharp cookie, to be sure.

horrorpuzzler7

Clarice Starling, The Silence of the Lambs

[Image courtesy of SBS.]

A young FBI trainee who finds herself tangling with two serial killers — one on the loose, another in custody — Clarice Starling has to not only save a young woman kidnapped by Buffalo Bill, but do so while unraveling the word games and riddles of the devious and brilliant Dr. Hannibal Lecter.

Clarice is perhaps the most overtly puzzly of our heroes, solving anagrams and figuring out the double meaning behind many of Dr. Lecter’s riddles and clues in order to get closer to stopping Buffalo Bill. Along the way, she uncovers information missed by more seasoned investigators, even managing to survive an attack by Buffalo Bill (in the dark!) and saving the kidnapped girl in the process.

If you’re ever in danger, hope that Clarice Starling is on the trail.

horrorpuzzler4

Bret, Lights Out

[Image courtesy of Where’s the Jump?]

Imagine that you’re being hunted by a monster that lurks in the dark. It seems like an obvious solution to simply stay in the light, but when that monster is both intelligent and cunning, that’s a taller order than you think. Bret, along with his girlfriend Rebecca and Rebecca’s family, are being pursued by Diana, a creature who can only appear when it’s dark.

When Diana cuts power to the entire neighborhood, everyone must scramble for safety. Thankfully, the resourceful Bret is on their side, and he thwarts Diana’s attacks several times. When she knocks the flashlight from his hands and charges him, he banishes her momentarily with the brightness of his smartphone screen. As he runs for a car outside, she ambushes him from a shadow, but he escapes again by using the key fob in his pocket to activate the car’s headlights.

Effective puzzlers always make the most of the tools at their disposal, and Bret is a most effective puzzler.

horrorpuzzler3

Joan Leaven, Cube

[Image courtesy of Movie Morgue Wiki.]

Sometimes, a good puzzler is plunked down in an unfamiliar situation and has to make sense of it all. (This is the premise of many an escape room or a video game, as well as the truth regarding many coded puzzles or puzzles with symbols.) The situation in Cube is like that times a thousand.

Leaven is one of six people trapped in a maze of interconnected cubical rooms, many of them booby-trapped in various ways. As a young mathematics student, Leaven is immediately intrigued by the numbers inscribed in the small passages that connect the various rooms. The group soon realizes that the rooms are shifting periodically, making the maze harder to solve.

After several theories don’t pan out, Leaven manages to unravel the pattern of the trapped rooms — realizing those rooms are related to prime numbers (specifically powers of prime numbers) — and navigates the group through the ever-shifting maze toward an exit.

The stakes may not always be as high as they were for Leaven, but she never gave up and always approached the puzzle from a fresh angle when thwarted. That’s a sign of a true puzzler.

horrorpuzzler6

Michelle, 10 Cloverfield Lane

[Image courtesy of Yahoo.]

After being run off the road in an accident, Michelle wakes up in a well-stocked underground bunker. She’s been taken there by Howard, the bunker’s owner, who tells her the surface is uninhabitable and the air outside is poisoned. Michelle quickly realizes that Howard is unstable, but must bide her time before attempting to escape.

Michelle is another remarkably resourceful individual, mapping out the ventilation system in the bunker (while doing repairs), fashioning a hazmat suit out of found items, and outwitting Howard long enough to escape. (Once free, she even manages to whip up a Molotov cocktail and dispatch an unexpected threat.)

Some of the most devious puzzles are the ones where you have to figure out how to use what’s in front of you in creative ways to complete a task. Michelle has this skill in spades.

horrorpuzzler1

Erin, You’re Next

[Image courtesy of The Dissolve.]

Erin joins her boyfriend at a family gathering, only for things to turn sour as masked invaders target the party’s guests. But they get more than they bargained for, as Erin quickly reveals herself as one of the most capable horror movie protagonists in the history of the genre.

Erin gathers information, sets traps, outwits the bad guys at seemingly every turn, and generally dazzles with her intelligence, tactical skill, and resourcefulness.

You know that puzzle where you have to connect all the dots in the square with only three lines, but to do so, you have to draw outside the square? That puzzle wouldn’t fool Erin for an instant. She is constantly thinking outside the box — and the house — in order to accomplish the most with the fewest moves.

Horror movies haven’t seen a puzzler like Erin before, and I almost feel bad for any bad guys who get in her way.


Did I miss any world-class puzzlers from horror movies? Let me know in the comments section below! I’d love to hear from you!

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The New York Times Crossword, Accordion to Weird Al

 In February of 2017, The New York Times celebrated a landmark in the history of puzzles: the 75th anniversary of the NYT crossword.

And ever since, to commemorate that puzzly milestone, top constructors and Times favorites have been pairing up with celebrity fans and puzzle enthusiasts to co-construct puzzles for the Times!

This year, you might’ve encountered some of these collaborations, like news pundit Rachel Maddow’s March 2nd puzzle with constructor Joe DiPietro, or “How I Met Your Mother” star Josh Radner’s meditation-themed puzzler from January 31st with constructor Jeff Chen.

Over the last year, names as diverse as John Lithgow, Elayne Boosler, Joy Behar, Mike Selinker, Lisa Loeb, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Bill Clinton have contributed their puzzly efforts to this marvelous project.

And yesterday, another famous wordsmith and master of punnery made his New York Times debut.

[Image courtesy of Instagram.]

Yes, the immortal “Weird Al” Yankovic teamed up with Puzzle Your Kids mastermind and friend of the blog Eric Berlin for a cheese-themed Wednesday outing that delighted fans and solvers alike.

Al has certainly been keeping busy lately, launching his Ridiculously Self-Indulgent, Ill-Advised Vanity Tour — his words, not mine; I loved the show I attended! — and working with Lin-Manuel Miranda to create The Hamilton Polka, an ambitious and hilarious take on the wildly successful musical.

The puzzle was Eric’s 40th Times puzzle, and Al’s first. Not only did the puzzle feature those signature cinematic cheese puns — like A FEW GOUDA MEN and THE PELICAN BRIE — but there was plenty of nerd culture featured in the fill and cluing.

Tom Lehrer and John Cleese were both name-dropped, as well as Legolas, Wile E. Coyote, WALL-E, Mr. Clean, and Bones from the original Star Trek.

Eric offered some insight into the puzzle’s creation while discussing the puzzle with Wordplay’s Deb Amlen:

My very first attempt at the grid included one of my favorites from his list, QUESOBLANCA. I was under the misapprehension that queso is not just the Spanish word for cheese but also a specific kind of cheese. Whoops, not quite. (This was entirely on me, I should note — Al, not knowing during his brainstorming that the end result would be restricted to specific cheeses, had several cheese-adjacent puns in his list, including FONDUE THE RIGHT THING and CHEESY RIDER.)

And appropriately enough, Al had a bit of fun promoting the puzzle on his Instagram, claiming, “If you’re REALLY good, you don’t NEED the clues!”

For the record, I needed the clues.


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Puzzles in Pop Culture: Bones

In today’s edition of Puzzles in Pop Culture, we join the forensic team at the Jeffersonian Institute to uncover what happened to a prominent puzzler. It’s Bones, episode 8 of season 10, “The Puzzler in the Pit.”

The episode opens, appropriately enough, with Special Agent Seeley Booth solving a crossword. (Given the looser grid construction, it’s either a British-style crossword or a cryptic crossword. Either way, points to Agent Booth.)

Both he and forensic anthropologist Dr. Temperance Brennan (Bones, to some) are called into work after a body is found in a fracking pit. The harsh chemicals in the pit are causing the body to deteriorate faster than normal, but some clever chemistry saves the day. Although a blood sample the team collects is too degraded for a positive match, they manage to identify the body from a rare surgery performed a few years before.

The body belongs to Lawrence Brooks, reclusive syndicated crossword constructor, considered by some to be a master in his field. His wife quickly points the fickle finger of blame squarely at his ambitious assistant, Alexis Sherman. Apparently, Brooks promised to use Alexis’s puzzles and dangled the possibility of a promotion to co-editor, but delivered on neither.

An analysis of a cast Brooks had on when he died reveals crossword clues written on it, but in two different handwriting styles. Some of the clues are straight-forward and simple synonym-style clues, hardly the work of a master constructor like Brooks.

“Despise,” 4 letters. Hate
“Blood feud,” 8 letters. Vendetta.

Other key words on the cast include punish, attack, payback, and justice. The team suspects the other clues are a message from his killer.

When Booth and Special Agent James Aubrey interview Alexis, she plays a nasty phone message from an unidentified man, claiming that a stranger has been hanging around lately. Alexis agrees to help a forensic artist sketch the mystery man.

Sadly, this is the last appearance of a visible puzzle in the episode, leaving solvers with Brooks’s murder to solve instead of a crossword grid.

The team swiftly gathers several suspects:

  • Emory Stewart (the man who matched the forensic artist’s drawing) claims to be writing a book about Brooks, and denies having left the phone message. He suggests another suspect:
  • Donald McKeon, Brooks’s old college roommate and a fellow crossword constructor, who admits to leaving the angry phone message. When the team finds one of Brooks’s puzzles in McKeon’s possession, they accuse him of theft and murder, only for McKeon to claim Brooks had stolen the puzzle from him. (He says his copy of the puzzle is from a old publishing trick, mailing something to yourself to provide a verified date for the contents, like a poor man’s patent.)

[Not an image from the episode, just one of James Addison’s puzzly envelopes.]

Meanwhile, the team discovers that Brooks’s bones had been weakening for months before his death, implying illness or injury. As it turns out, Brooks might have been seeking treatment for early onset Alzheimer’s, triggered by a head injury in a boating accident years before.

The Alzheimer’s treatment explains the condition of his bones, and the illness itself explains both the different handwriting (a dementia symptom) and the conflict with McKeon. (Brooks may have stolen McKeon’s puzzle unknowingly.)

This points back to Mrs. Brooks. It turns out she was publishing puzzles Brooks had previously created but deemed unusable. She had accidentally published McKeon’s puzzle. She mentions being broke, and not knowing what happened to hundreds of thousands of dollars that should’ve been in their bank accounts.

[This is your brain. This is your brain on Internet gambling…]

It appears that Brooks gambled his money away in online gambling. But when Booth and Aubrey lure out the bookie who broke Brooks’s fingers, the bookie says that Brooks was bankrolling a woman: his assistant, Alexis.

The assistant confesses to stealing from Brooks, but claims she would’ve paid him back. She is booked for theft, since they can’t yet prove she committed the murder.

The team discovers Brooks’s neck was broken, and doubts that the assistant could’ve done it.

Oddly enough, the solution appears while the team rallies around a pregnant coworker, Daisy, who solves the case during her pre-delivery contractions. She supposes that the blood sample they found with Brooks wasn’t his. It has to be that of a blood relative.

Brooks had a son. Which brings us back to Emory Stewart, who turns out to be Brooks’s son from a previous relationship. Emory talked to Brooks, but when they met in person later that day, Brooks claimed to have no idea who he was. Angry, and unaware that Alzheimer’s was behind Brooks’s faulty memory, Emory shoved Brooks down a hill, unintentionally killing him.


This episode goes against the standard crossword mystery convention of having a puzzle at the center of the murder. There’s no puzzle left behind by the killer, no cryptic clue scribbled onto a grid by the victim, no need for a detective with a knack for crosswords to crack the case. There’s simply a murder mystery and a bit of fun clue-fueled wordplay.

Sadly, we never return to the curiously unpleasant list of clues and words on Brooks’s cast, which was one of the most interesting plot points to me. Oh well. (There’s also the whole “wife knows husband has Alzheimer’s, but doesn’t report him missing” plot hole. But, hey, puzzles, not plot holes, right?)

[Mr. Shortz, looking none too amused by the plot of this episode.]

This episode does raise an intriguing idea, though. Imagine a murder mystery dinner set at next year’s American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, where something dastardly had happened to Will Shortz. (Thankfully, we can lose the fracking pit and its acidic unpleasantness with this scenario.)

Who would YOU suspect had done the heinous deed? His equally ambitious and capable assistant? A wronged fellow constructor? Perhaps a jealous ping-pong rival? There’s a lot of possibility there.

Of course, considering how Puzzle #5 decimated the competition last year, perhaps Brendan Emmett Quigley would be a more likely target.

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