Puzzles in Pop Culture: Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Plus Will Shortz!)

[Image courtesy of FOX.com.]

In our Puzzles in Pop Culture series, we’ve featured shows as diverse as Gilmore Girls, NCIS: New Orleans, The West Wing, Hell’s Kitchen, and Parks and Recreation.

But oddly enough, the puzzliest show in the series has proven to be Brooklyn Nine-Nine, FOX’s hit sitcom about a New York precinct and its oddball collection of detectives. Not only did they pose a diabolical seesaw brain teaser in one episode, but crosswords were at the heart of another key moment in the show just last year.

And today’s post marks the show’s third appearance. Join us as we delve into “The Puzzle Master,” episode 15 of season 5.


The episode opens with detective Amy Santiago passing the sergeant’s exam and doing a dorky dance. Good start.

[Image courtesy of Spoiler TV.]

Her fiance, fellow detective Jake Peralta, has a doozy of a last case for he and Amy to solve as detectives. He presents her with a serial arson case that seem to be connected to the Saturday crossword puzzle. Amy, as a crossword fiend, is overjoyed.

Two different buildings have been set ablaze on two consecutive Saturdays, each with a puzzle left at the crime scene. The only other clue is a note sent to the puzzle’s “author” — not constructor, oddly — Melvin Stermley.

Amy immediately geeks out, mentioning that Stermley once created a puzzle where every word in the grid was the word “puzzle” in a different language. Jake then mentions that Stermley himself is coming in to help them with the case.

[Image courtesy of Brooklyn Nine-Nine Wiki.]

While Jake expects Melvin Stermley to be “a massive dork,” he turns out to be a handsome Hollywood tough guy type. Jake is instantly jealous. (For a nice bit of insider fun, Stermley is played by David Fumero, the husband of Melissa Fumero, who plays Amy Santiago.)

Amy has set up a display with both of Stermley’s puzzles connected to the fires, and the trio begin searching for leads. When Jake asks if he has the typical physique of a puzzler, he mentions that each puzzle only pays a couple hundred bucks, so he makes most of his money modeling. (No doubt a common response you’d get from any top constructor, right, folks?)

They read over the arsonist’s letter again: “Your clues I discombulate, to teach you to conjugate. The fool who fails to validate will watch as I conflagrate.”

Stermley suggests that they look at the answer grids of his puzzles for clues. Amy then jumps to anagramming some of the answer words. (The puzzler notes that Amy Santiago anagrams to “o, nasty amiga” and Jake Peralta to “eat a jerk, pal.”) Amy and Vin decide to split up the odd and even clues, leaving Jake out.

[Image courtesy of Spoiler TV.]

Getting nowhere with the anagrams, they wonder if “conjugate” in the arsonist’s letter means they should focus on the verbs, “the second best form of speech, after prepositions.” Jake suggests a different path, starting with possible suspects who don’t like Stermley, and the puzzler mentions the crossword night he’s hosting at a local bar. “It’s a total puz-hang,” according to Amy, and a good place to start looking.

While waiting in line outside the bar, Jake is disappointed no one is dressed like The Riddler. Amy points out someone wearing crossword-patterned pants. (Again, a common sight at the ACPT.) They chat with one of the other people in line, a woman who jokingly refers to Stermley as her future husband.

[Image courtesy of Spoiler TV.]

Before anyone can enter, they have to solve one of Stermley’s puzzles. Amy is tasked with anagramming the phrase “MEET A BRAINIER STUD, A” into the name of a place in the world. (Jake’s jealousy is piqued by the anagrammed message, of course.)

She quickly solves it — UNITED ARAB EMIRATES — and heads inside. But when Jake tries to follow, he discovers he has to solve a puzzle of his own to get in. The phrase “SAD ANUS LOSER, I GO IN” must be anagrammed into a film based on a classic book. Cut to Jake sneaking into the bathroom, because he couldn’t solve the anagram.

(It was DANGEROUS LIAISONS, by the way.)

While Jake waits in the bathroom for his pants to dry — he stepped into the toilet while climbing down from the window — two puzzle fans come in, discussing Stermley’s mad puzzle skills and how “Sam” must be pissed, as Stermley replaced him doing the Saturday crossword, bumping him down to work in Parade Magazine.

They mention Sam’s toughest clue, “a 5-letter word for a game popular in nursing homes,” to which Jake replies “BINGO.”

[Image courtesy of AV Club.]

Jake mentions it to Stermley, who says Sam Jepson is one of his best friends and has been out of town for weeks. Jake still thinks Jepson is a solid lead.

Amy and Stermley, meanwhile, have realized that both targeted buildings were at the intersection of numbered streets, and those numbered intersections also point to letters in Stermley’s puzzles: M and A. They plan to build a trap into Stermley’s next puzzle to catch the arsonist.

When given a choice between Jake’s approach and Stermley’s, Amy opts to go with the puzzle trap.

Back at the precinct, Amy has determined that the most common letters in people’s names that follow MA are L, X, R, and T — Malcolm, Max, Mark, and Matthew, for example — so Stermley constructs a puzzle using only one of each of those letters. (A pretty daunting challenge, but definitely doable — especially if the cryptic-style crossword grid on the board behind Amy is the puzzle in question. It would have fewer intersections.)

Amy plans to stake out the intersections for each of those four letters, assigning one of them to Jake. (Jake, meanwhile, makes a secret plan to have Charles stake out Sam Jepson’s apartment.)

[Image courtesy of Spoiler TV.]

Charles spots Sam on the move — played by crossword guru Will Shortz, no less! — and Jake leaves his assignment to intercept. He and Charles follow Sam, who sits at a corner and eats soup, then calls his Mom. It turns out he has been out of town, only having returned tonight — and his marriage proposal was rejected. Bummer.

Jake returns to his assigned intersection, and the building is on fire. He has missed the arsonist.

Amy is understandably upset with Jake when they’re back at the office. Jake confesses he’s jealous of Stermley and doesn’t want Amy to wake up one day, regretting not marrying someone as smart as her. She reassures him that he’s a brilliant detective and that’s why she wants to marry him.

[Image courtesy of FOX.com.]

Jake has a epiphany, realizing that the arsonist’s name isn’t what’s being spelled out, it’s the word MARRY. (The word “conjugate” in the letter also pointed to marriage.)

And who wants to marry Stermley?

The woman in line at the bar on crossword night.

Jake and Amy bring the woman in, and it turns out the full message she intended to spell out with her fires was “MARRY ME OR ELSE I WILL KILL YOU, YOURS FOREVER, HELEN GERBELSON.”

That would take SO MANY FIRES. (I imagine she’d have to burn down several buildings more than once, given the sheer repetition of letters and the relatively few options for numbered streets.)

But, in the end, the arsonist has been caught, thanks to the power of puzzles and good police work.

[Image courtesy of Lauren Leti’s Twitter.]

Overall, I thought this was a very fun episode of the show. The anagram gags were the puzzly highlight, though I confess, I thought they’d do more with the Will Shortz cameo.

Here’s hoping there’s a crime at the Brooklyn Nine-Nine equivalent of the ACPT next year!

Also, as someone who has seen ARSON in a thousand grids, it is funny to see someone finally link the word and the act in a puzzly way.


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Meet the Daily POP Crosswords Constructors: Bonnie L. Gentry

One of the Daily POP Crosswords app’s best features is the level of involvement from topnotch constructors. We’ve assembled one heck of a team when it comes to creating terrific, exciting, fresh themed crosswords.

And over the next few weeks, we’ll be introducing you to some of them. Some names you may know, some you may not, but they’re all doing amazing work on these puzzles and deserve a little time in the limelight.

In this installment, allow us to introduce you to constructor Bonnie L. Gentry!

How did you get started in crosswords?

I sold my first puzzle in 2003 to The Los Angeles Times after I discovered a community of crossword constructors on the website Cruciverb.com. It had style sheets and contact information so I gave it a shot.

I have since been published in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Crosswords Club, and several crossword books. I also construct a two-page newspaper crossword each Thanksgiving for numerous newspapers.

I’m only a casual solver. I enjoy constructing much more. I tried only twice to compete in a national crossword tournament (ACPT), but ranked miserably. Switching to judging was far easier.

What do you enjoy about working on Daily POP Crosswords?

I love doing the research. I learn something new for every theme I do. I like that it’s a learning experience for me as both a constructor and a solver. This is quite different than traditional crosswords that rely more on wordplay.

Patti Varol is an amazing editor. Her insight makes me a better constructor. Also the volume of work she does is just staggering.

I love that the majority of constructors are women, although there are some great men as well.

I also solve the puzzles on Daily POP Crosswords every day. They are simple enough for any level but they all give an “Aha Moment” when I solve them.

Is there a particular theme day that appeals to you most or that you enjoy working on?

I enjoy sports themes the best. I’m a big fan of all sports and I’m an enthusiastic spectator. Football is probably my favorite sport.

When I do Book Smart themes, it introduces me to books I hadn’t thought much about and has led me to read new books.

I enjoyed learning new things about David Bowie in an upcoming puzzle I made. But the downside is a particular song keeps playing in my head. (But I won’t say which one, because it’s a spoiler.)


A huge thank you to Bonnie for her time! Be sure to keep your eyes peeled for her puzzles in the Daily POP Crosswords app, free to download for both iOS and Android users!

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Farewell, David.

The puzzle world is a relatively small one, and sadly, over the last month or so, it has grown a bit smaller.

I know some of you are already aware of the passing of Raymond Smullyan, the mathematician and puzzlesmith who popularized, among other things, the logic puzzle known as “The Lady or the Tiger?”

What you may not know is that a long-time member of the Penny Dell Puzzles family also passed recently.

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A Yale-educated lawyer, David Lindsey was a fixture at Penny Press for decades, but his influence on the world of puzzles extends back years before he joined that company.

The earliest editing credit I’ve been able to track down is a 1967 edition of Webster’s Crosswords, published by Merit, which is also one of the few publications where I’ve seen him credited under his real name. So, if you’ve ever enjoyed a puzzle credited to Dee Stewart or George Spelvin (a famous pseudonym from the American theater), you have David to thank for it.

Penny Press president Peter Kanter associates David with puzzles as far back as the early 70s, though it’s unclear when exactly David began working for Penny Press on a part-time basis. (I suspect it would have been around the time the Merit brand was acquired by Penny Press.)

img_20170309_142647758

He signed on full-time in 1987, and served as a puzzle editor, though perhaps his greatest legacy was the role he played in establishing its acquisitions department, the route by which outside puzzle creators and constructors could have their work featured in Penny Press magazines. David set quality standards for the puzzles that would be accepted, and served as the gatekeeper for all sorts of new puzzles.

He is also credited with creating or popularizing puzzles that are synonymous with Penny Dell Puzzles to this day. Secret Word, Chess Words, Chess Solitaire, Weaver Words, Diagramless Fill-In, Word Games Puzzles, and more flourished under his watchful eye and exacting attention to detail.

He would work the entire editing process, from concept to the final tweaks. At one point, David introduced a new type of puzzle in every issue of Variety Puzzles and Games, a Herculean feat.

His “Lindsey Lessons” — meetings where he would introduce and explain the nuances of puzzles — were invaluable to fellow editors, taking challenging puzzles like Word Math and making them more accessible, stripping away the mysteries that might have made them daunting to those who were unfamiliar with that sort of puzzling.

He even participated in a potluck-style puzzle group outside the office that would create and workshop new puzzle ideas together.

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[A photo from David’s 80th birthday celebration.]

But when I asked people about David, it wasn’t his work in puzzles that left a lasting influence on them. It was his strong sense of self, a quiet confidence that he was who he was, uncompromisingly. He was at home with his choices, his quirks, and his beliefs.

There were stories about the injured coyote he cared for, stories about him jogging shirtless in winter, and stories about the snacks he brought into the office, the fruits of his many experiments with the food dehydrator given to him by members of a cardiac rehab exercise class he conducted.

David said, “I never eat sugar”, but curiously enough, he was always first in line when cookies or cakes were about.

He was never without one of his signature bowties, and he actually taught Peter Kanter how to tie one. (To this day, Kanter still uses the instructions David gave him, on the rare occasion he has to tie a bowtie.)

He was a pillar of his community, singing in a men’s chorus, participating in Daffodil Days events for the American Cancer Society, contributing recordings to some of the first Reading for the Blind programs, and even doing the Penguin Plunge well into his 80s to raise money for the Special Olympics.

It was my privilege to work with David for over a decade, and I’ll miss him very much. And I know that I’m far from the only one who feels that way.

Farewell, David.


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The Art & Design of a Geometric Puzzle

It’s rare to get a glimpse inside the puzzly creative process.

Sure, plenty of crossword constructors are happy to share how particular puzzles of theirs came to be, but many constructors and designers, whether we’re talking mechanical puzzles, pen-and-paper puzzles, or electronic puzzles, keep their techniques and tricks secret. They’re like magicians that way.

So when a puzzler takes you behind the curtain, it’s a rare and special treat. The website Gamasutra recently hosted such an event when app designer and puzzler Paul Hlebowitsh explained in detail how he designs the puzzles for his app RYB.

In Paul’s words, “RYB is very similar to ‘Minesweeper’ or ‘Hexcells,’ but instead of using numbers or symbols, it uses colors. The colored dots inside of a shape tell you how the neighboring shapes are colored.”

I love the devilish simplicity behind the solving. It’s so universal that it transcends the language barrier. Simply show another person the first step, and they’ll pick it up immediately.

Paul goes on to explain how one particular puzzle evolved as he sought the perfect mix of puzzly challenge and unique solvability.

He took this:

and eventually ended up with this:

It’s a fascinating read, one I can’t do justice to with a brief summary, so I suggest everyone check out the full post to watch an impressive constructor at work. Being walked step-by-step through a build by the designer is a delight.

I also have to praise the puzzles themselves. The mix of geometric shapes and colors creates a truly striking image. I think I’m gonna get a print made of this one and put it on my wall:


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5 Questions with Puzzler/Artist Hayley Gold!

Welcome to another edition of PuzzleNation Blog’s interview feature, 5 Questions!

We’re reaching out to puzzle constructors, video game writers and designers, board game creators, writers, filmmakers, musicians, and puzzle enthusiasts from all walks of life, talking to people who make puzzles and people who enjoy them in the hopes of exploring the puzzle community as a whole. (Click here to check out previous editions of 5 Questions!)

And I’m excited to have Hayley Gold as our latest 5 Questions interviewee!

An enthusiastic puzzle solver as well as an accomplished artist, Hayley combines her interests with Across and Down, a weekly webcomic devoted to The New York Times crossword.

She combines humor and the keen eye of a long-time solver to not only entertain, but offer worthwhile insight into crosswords as a whole and individual puzzles in particular. Whether she’s punning on themed entries or proving her pop culture savvy with references galore, each Across and Down comic brings something unique to the table.

Hayley 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 Hayley Gold

1. Which came first for you: puzzles or art? How did you discover puzzles?

Well, I think art is rather intuitive. As soon as a child gets hold of a crayon their artistic career begins. A lot of people are miffed when artists comment that they’ve been drawing all their life, but I actually did more drawing in my youth than in my maturity, when pressure became attached to it.

That being said, I find doing puzzles much more relaxing and more natural for me. So, though one may have preceded the other doesn’t mean that it’s the dominant hobby.

2. When did you launch Across and Down, and has it evolved from your original vision?

I started the site in January 2014 as a project for my web comics class. The whole operation was rather hasty. We were told we needed to come up with a comic that’s updated weekly, the teacher said the content was completely up to us, though her web comic followed a linear narrative, as did the comics of most of the other students.

I needed something I could do without too much time lost, as the class was only an elective and I had other comics to complete, and something that focused on writing more than visuals as that has always been my strong suit. And of course I wanted it to be fun, and something that I cared about.

I never imagined it would become what it has. Okay, let me rephrase that. I have wild fantasies about it being much MORE than it is, what I never imagined is how much I would NEED it. I experience withdrawal if I go too long without making one.

[Strategy, a wonderful crayon-and-pencil piece, as featured on her portfolio site.]

3. Your comics offer a wonderful mix of humor, tongue-in-cheek wordplay, and savvy commentary from a clearly experienced solver. How have the constructors reacted to your comics? Do you think couching your critiques in this format allows you to say more than a straightforward review or blog post?

In general, I get a good response from constructors. I certainly never got any flak from anyone. Many have reached out to thank me actually, which is a very rewarding gesture. And I’ve never attempting real blogging to compare the reactions side by side, but I would guess that giving everything a lighthearted air does assuage some of the severity of critique.

But, at the same time, I am rarely totally critical and try to be balanced. And though I often address the constructor directly, I try not to make any serious personal attacks if I thoroughly rip something apart, though, by and large, I don’t do comics on puzzles that are completely horrendous. Partly because I don’t wish to be horribly cruel to anyone, and partly because I don’t think it’s very entertaining. At least in a comic, I think nitpicking about the usual crossword faux pas gets repetitive.

[A sample of one of her most recent webcomics.]

4. What’s next for Hayley Gold?

I’m working on a graphic novel, but no ETA on that. And for anyone who’s a fan of my site, I’ll warn you that it’s totally different, both graphically and narratively, so no guarantees that you’ll like it. I also need a job. Hey, anyone out there, hire me! Would love to do some custom crossword comics!

5. If you could give the readers, writers, and puzzle fans in the audience one piece of advice, what would it be?

Er, I’m not really good with this. God knows, my life is a mess. But let’s try to narrow it down a bit. How about advice pertaining to webcomics? Make it about something you’re passionate about. Most of my peers quit their webcomic after the class finished. Now, my stick-to-it-iveness may be due to my uptight nature, but also because it really meant something to me.

Also, keep at it even if you think no one is reading. I hope to get more eyeballs as I go along, though my site still reaches relatively few readers. People may look over it once and then never come back instead of subscribing, or just never come across it even though they are ardent puzzle solvers.

When I go to comics events, so many people come up to me to tell me what a “great idea” my site is — but they personally don’t do the puzzle so it’s not for them. I’ve experienced a very small overlap in the fanbases. The way comics are promoted, as one big giant blob of content, is rather weird — as if readers would be attracted to all of it simply because of the medium, rather than it being placed into subcategories — but I digress.

Choose something you like, stick with it.


Many thanks to Hayley for her time. Check out AcrossandDown.net for her comics and links to her other works, and to keep up on all things Hayley, follow her Across and Down Facebook page, her Twitter (@HayleyRabbit), and her Etsy page! I can’t wait to see what she has in store for us next.

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A puzzler, by any other name…

Fake names, stage names, noms de plume… they’re more common than you might think. Authors, musicians, actors, and performers of all sorts can take on new identities, either to make themselves more marketable, to build a brand, or simply to create a public persona in order to keep their private lives separate.

As I mentioned in a previous blog post, crossword constructors in the UK (known as setters) also employ pseudonyms, literally making a name for themselves as they create challenging cryptic crosswords for their solving audience.

Evocative names like Araucaria, Gordius, Crucible, Otterden, Anax, Charybdis, Tramp, Morph, Paul, Enigmatist, Hypnos, Phi, Nutmeg, Shed, Arachne, and Qaos grace the puzzles in England’s The Guardian newspaper.

That made me wonder… if American constructors were given the same opportunity, what UK-style names would they choose?

So, I reached out to some of my fellow puzzlers, and as I compiled their replies, some curious patterns emerged. I thought I’d share their responses with the PuzzleNation readership.

Whereas several UK setters have employed the names of former members of the Inquisition and other nasty sorts — like Torquemada, Ximenes, and Azed (which is Deza backwards) — to highlight the torturous challenges solvers could expect, some of their American counterparts prefer to highlight the playful, tricky aspect of constructing.

Constructor Robin Stears would publish under the name Loki or Anansi (citing two famous mythological tricksters), while meta-puzzle master Matt Gaffney would ply his craft under the name Puck. (He actually played Puck in sixth grade in a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.)

[Loki, as played by Tom Hiddleston in the
Marvel cinematic universe, seems to approve…]

Other constructors embraced wordplay involving their names, like Brendan Emmett Quigley who chose Beck (his initials pronounced phonetically) or Penny Press variety editor Cathy Quinn, who chose the nom de plume Sequin (for C. Quinn).

Still others revealed their feelings about those curious words that are only found in crosswords. Variety editor Paula Curry opted for the name Ese-Averse to show her disdain for crosswordese, while puzzle historian and constructor David Steinberg selected Osier, both for its crosswordese appeal and its homophone pronunciation (OCR, representing the Orange County Register, for whom David has served as crossword editor for years).

[This crossword features several infamous crosswordese
clues as entries. Do you recognize them all?

Naturally, my fellow puzzlers at Penny Press had some of my favorite puzzly stage names. Will Shortz’s WordPlay editor Leandro Galban sets himself firmly against the heroic solver by choosing Grendel, while variety editor Andrew Haynes opted for either Bob the Settler or The Flying Penguin. (He feels that “the” adds a certain arrogance to the pseudonym, and Bob has that delightfully bland palindromic quality.)

Editor Ariane Lewis would be known simply as Dub, leaving interpretation up to the solvers, while editor Maria Peavy offered a plethora of possible pennames, including Pushkin, Excelsior, Kutuzov (in the spirit of Torquemada), Sphinx (another famous riddler) or Grail.

Or you could adopt a full false moniker like variety editor Keith Yarbrough did, and go by Rufus T. Firefly.

As for me, I haven’t decided if I want something esoteric like Syzygy (alluding to the rare alignment of both planets and quality crossword grids), something obscure and wordnerdy like Snurp or Timmynoggy or Interrobang, or something meaningless but fun to say aloud, like Skylark or Guava.

So watch out, UK setters, because one of these days, you might see names like Sequin or Osier or The Flying Penguin baffling your solvers with cryptic crossword cleverness.

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