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.


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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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[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 even 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

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[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.


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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 Mystery of the Missing Crossword Mysteries Movie

On Sunday, I was sincerely looking forward to watching the latest edition of Lacey Chabert and Brennan Elliott’s Crossword Mysteries series — entitled Abracadaver — so you can imagine my surprise when I set the DVR to record the film, but found Christmas movies in that time slot instead of my expected puzzly entertainment for the evening.

It was a mystery about a mystery. Layers upon layers, my friends and fellow PuzzleNationers.

I hit the internet to find out just what happened to Abracadaver.

As it turns out, Hallmark Movies & Mysteries, which originally had Friday, October 25th as the scheduled start date for their round-the-clock parade of Christmas content, opted to start it a week early. And since the newest edition of the Crossword Mysteries isn’t holiday-themed, it got the boot.

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But wait? Abracadaver was all finished and ready for prime time. So when WILL we get to see the third edition of Crossword Mysteries?

Well, according to star of the film Lacey Chabert, it won’t be until next year. On her Instagram, she posted:

“Hi friends! ‘Crossword Mysteries: Abracadaver’ will now air in January instead of Sunday. Miracles of Christmas starting today on @hallmarkmovie is an early Christmas present for the millions of fans who love the holiday season. We are very proud of ‘Abracadaver’ and excited to share it with you in the new year!”

That’s all very well and good, but this was clearly a sudden rescheduling decision, since they’ve been promoting these back-to-back weeks of Crossword Mysteries for months. As of Thursday last week, it was still on the schedule.

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So, I decided to do a little digging. Perhaps ratings were the reason for rescheduling, I thought.

Well, according to the cable ratings on October 13th — the night Proposing Murder debuted on the channel — the movie was 78th for the night, pulling in a 0.10 rating for viewers 18-49.

For comparison, the #1 program that night was the New York/Houston baseball game on Fox Sports 1, which had a 1.49 rating for viewers 18-49. (AMC’s zombie drama The Walking Dead was #2 with a 1.29 rating.)

Okay, so Proposing Murder didn’t exactly dominate the night. But it was still a vast improvement on the previous week for Hallmark Movies & Mysteries. In the same time period on October 6th, their rating was 0.07 in viewers 18-49, making them 102nd for the night.

102 to 78 is a pretty solid jump from one week to the next. But maybe the Christmas-centric programming would match crossword-centric viewing numbers?

The cable ratings for October 20th went live this morning, but unfortunately, I can’t give you definitive numbers, because Hallmark Movies & Mysteries failed to make the top 150 cable programs for the night. (Since it wasn’t airing any new/original content that night.)

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And it seems like the Hallmark audience is not particularly pleased with the decision.

On the HMM Facebook page — which is all decked out for Christmas already — numerous people asked why Crossword Mysteries wasn’t airing as scheduled.

The channel replied: “We decided to start Christmas programming a week early. A Christmas present to the millions of fans excited for the start of Miracles of Christmas. We regret any inconvenience it may have caused.”

As you might expect, that answer didn’t really fly with disappointed puzzlers. One commented, “I was looking forward to this premiere for weeks. I don’t celebrate Christmas and it’s OCTOBER. I don’t see why the Christmas movies couldn’t have waited a week until crossword mysteries premiered. I’m really disappointed.”

It’s been a tumultuous journey for the Crossword Mysteries this year. From the announcement in March of three follow-ups to the original film, the number was cut down to two in the intervening months (though Crossword Mysteries 4 is still listed on IMDB), and then the back-to-back premieres being scuttled and the third film pushed to January.

Here’s hoping it’s worth the wait. Abracadaver indeed.


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PN Review: Crossword Mysteries: Proposing Murder

In January of 2018, it was announced that Hallmark Movies and Mysteries would be teaming up with Will Shortz of The New York Times Crossword to produce a mystery film with crosswords at the heart of the story.

On March 10th, 2019, Crossword Mysteries: A Puzzle to Die For debuted, introducing the puzzle world (and the mystery world) to crossword editor Tess Harper and 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 October. (For reasons yet unexplained, that number has shrunk to two over the intervening months.)

This past Sunday, the second Crossword Mysteries film debuted on Hallmark Movies and Mysteries.

Its title? Proposing Murder.

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 spoilers, scroll down to the next solid black line.

Ready? Okay, let’s do this!


FILM RECAP

The show opens with a lovely little introductory montage with the characters framed by crossword clues and grids. It’s a nice touch (and a sign that the network expects to continue with these).

An apartment door opens, and a young man picks up his newspaper, smiling at the crossword inside. He carefully sets it down with an elegant table setting for brunch, then answers a knock at the door. Everything goes white.

We cut to detective Logan O’Connor standing over the body.

A title card flashes on the screen:

FIVE DAYS EARLIER

Tess chats with her assistant Josephine about Josephine’s cousin, a new intern at the paper. She then bumps into Detective O’Connor for a lovely little meet-awkward. It’s been two months since they’ve seen each other.

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Logan is running around doing errands for his sister’s wedding. The sister, Angela, is also there, immediately making things more awkward, and asking if Tess can get a photo of the couple into the paper (alongside the usual wedding announcement). Tess makes no promises, but says she’ll see what she can do.

She then shares weird wedding trivia with Logan, and he and his sister leave. Oh, puzzle people and their trivia. (That part’s actually true.)

Tess meets the intern, who is (of course) a huge fan of her puzzle. He will be helping with research, apparently. Tess then solicits help for her puzzle, looking for a romantic 9-letter word, second letter H. Her assistant suggests CHRISTMAS (which simply has to be a tongue-in-cheek reference to Hallmark’s never-ending barrage of Christmas programming).

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Also, it must be stated, nobody actually constructs puzzles this way.

Tess’s puzzlesmithing is then interrupted by a call from a Professor Clark.

We cut to her and Professor Lyle Clark, who it turns out is the victim we saw in the opening sequence. Oh Tess, is every casual acquaintance of yours bound to be murdered? We can only hope.

He’s using one of her crosswords as a bookmark. She comments on that. This is in no way an important detail for later.

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Lyle brings Tess (and the audience up to speed): he’s a college professor, he’s got tenure now, and he has a knack for codes. (Tess namedrops Navajo codetalkers and World War II ciphers.) He’s also reading a book on the Beale papers.

Lyle talks about the big distraction in his life — his girlfriend Abby — and it turns out Tess’s crossword is not only solved by every human being on the planet, but it’s also a romantic talisman. You see, Lyle and Abby were both solving Tess’s puzzle, and that’s how they met. They do her puzzle together over brunch every Sunday. Awww.

He’s going to propose to Abby, showing off a massive diamond ring, and he asks Tess to hide his marriage proposal to Abby in her upcoming puzzle. Tess happily agrees.

We cut back to her working on the puzzle and explaining the concept to the new intern. She clues ABBY “Free with her advice” (which is terrible cluing) and the word WILL “Shakespeare, to friends,” and “Words that have a nice ring to them” for MARRY ME. The idea is to spell out ABBY, WILL YOU MARRY ME?

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[It’s so romantic. “LOAM ABBY WILL YOU VINYL CONTENTMENT.”]

FIVE DAYS LATER

Back at the murder scene, the Chief arrives, avoiding wedding planning with a convenient murder. (The Chief is also Logan’s father, for those who didn’t see the first Crossword Mysteries film.)

The victim has been stabbed. There’s no surveillance footage, no sign of the murder weapon, and no sign of forced entry. His girlfriend Abby found him, unfortunately.

We also meet Logan’s new partner, detective Winston Sams. He calls him “Rookie” and “Rook” because he’s charmingly condescending, I suppose. Winston notices one of the chef’s knives from the block is missing. Logan has him check the victim’s financials while he heads down to the hospital to question Abby.

At the hospital, Logan chats with the obviously upset Abby.

She hadn’t seen Lyle since the night before at a faculty party. She was going to meet him for brunch to solve the crossword. She found the door open and his body on the floor. Abby mentions that Lyle has been getting threats in the mail for months. (He said they were from his ex-girlfriend Bethany.) He always threw them the threatening notes away, but Abby kept one, which she promises to give Logan.

She also mentions a Professor Emory who was arguing with Lyle at the faculty party the night before. Lyle beat him out for tenure the previous month.

Back at the police station, the plot… well, doesn’t thicken. Simmers? Let’s go with the plot simmers.

The girlfriend’s alibi checked out. There was apparently a struggle between the victim and the killer, but the tip of the knife was embedded in his body. They’re waiting on more details from forensics.

Logan’s partner finds a note with the initials TH and a phone number in the victim’s wallet. He calls it, and surprise surprise, it’s Tess who answers.

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She mentions the ring, but Logan says they didn’t find the ring at the crime scene. They all note how expensive the ring would’ve been for a college professor. Logan also recalls that Abby said the victim had been looking at property in Connecticut, which would be costly. But the victim’s record seems clean, save for a single parking ticket.

Tess confirms his sister’s photo will be in the paper before she hangs up. Logan and Winston discuss the ex-girlfriend, a surgeon, who is on the suspect list.

Cut to Tess and Aunt Candace (who knows simply EVERYBODY who’s ANYBODY) walking the streets of New York. Tess mentions that Lyle told her he hadn’t been researching anything lately, and ponders whether Lyle had a secret that cost him his life.

COMMERCIAL BREAK!

We get an ad for next week’s new edition of Crossword Mysteries. It’s titled Abracadaver. We cross our fingers for a David Kwong cameo.

COMMERCIAL BREAK CONTINUES!

Logan is talking to the victim’s mother. She talks about her childhood in Connecticut and how she wanted that idyllic life for Lyle. His grandfather was a World War II codebreaker, which sparked Lyle’s interest in the field of codes and ciphers. After she mentions Lyle always rooting around in the basement, Logan heads down there himself. He shines the light at the camera A LOT, which is atmospheric, yet annoying. He takes a picture of a military uniform hanging up in the corner.

Tess, meanwhile, is reading an article Lyle wrote about WWII operational codenames like Neptune. (Surprisingly, she doesn’t make the crossword connection there.) Her assistant reminds her that the Sunday puzzle is due, because Tess always has to be reminded to do her job. She decides to make it World War II-themed as a tribute to her friend, then heads off to do some research.

Tess heads to the library at Lyle’s college to look up his research on codebreaking. Along the way, she meets Clayton, who worked with him and helped with his research. He immediately identifies her as the famous crossword editor, because in this universe, “crossword editor” is just below “rock star” in terms of familiarity and name-recognition.

The assistant mentions that Lyle had just driven back from Connecticut before the faculty party. He had gone up there a lot recently, interviewing WWII vets. (He was also lying about his teaching schedule, only teaching one class instead of the many Tess thought.) The dude acts suspiciously, and the lights ominously click on and off behind them, thanks to motion sensors.

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Logan and his plot-exposition-device of a partner talk, confirming that there’s no record of a ring purchase in the victim’s bank account. No unexpected DNA or prints at the murder scene either.

Logan and Tess then have one of their classic meet-randomly-in-the-same-place run-ins. He asks her for a 7-letter word for “going where one shouldn’t”. She offers INTRUDE — which is not the same verb tense, COME ON, TESS — and they banter about his crossword skills. He tries to usher her off-campus, but she dangles the information she got from Lyle’s TA, and Logan folds like a pamphlet.

Tess mentions Lyle’s secret trip to Connecticut, and explains that he had a form of night blindness that made driving at night dangerous. He then shares that Abby said Lyle had been going to Connecticut on house-hunting excursions. She also mentions the scheduling lie.

Finally managing to send Tess on her way, Logan then gives her the exasperated “oh, her” double take as she walks off.

COMMERCIAL BREAK!

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On campus, Logan sits in on a college class. Christina Blake is the guest lecturer, an expert on antique books, and Logan talks to Professor Emory Nelson, who acts like the argument he and Lyle had at the faculty party was just animated debate. He offers an alibi for the time of the murder, a pancake breakfast covered in the school newspaper.

Logan then returns to the crime scene, noticing a can of beef stew in the cabinet and realizing that Lyle claimed he was a vegan. (Though he said that to Tess. I don’t recall her telling Logan this.) Inside the can is the wedding ring and a folded note, containing a series of numbers and dashes. It is quite obviously an encoded message.

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(Naturally, if I was trying to hide something from my vegan girlfriend, the fake can of beef stew in the front of the kitchen cabinet would be my first choice for a hiding spot.)

Back at the police station, Logan has Tess confirm that the ring is the same one Lyle showed her. The chief then suggests Logan show her the mysterious page of numbers. Logan thinks they’re bank account numbers, but Tess thinks it’s a code, because she’s not an idiot. When Logan tells her she can’t have a copy of the numbers, she tries to memorize them in front of him, before he folds like a lawn chair and gets her a copy of the codes.

At the hospital, Logan tries to talk to Bethany, the surgeon ex-girlfriend. She’s abrupt and bitter about moving to NY for Lyle, then getting dumped, and casually, bitterly mentions that Lyle was engaged just a year later. Logan points out that the proposal-to-be wasn’t common knowledge, and she replies that he proposed in the crossword. (You know, the crossword everyone knows about. Duh.)

The farm in Connecticut comes up again before she leaves. After she walks off, Logan manages to nab her water bottle. Detective work.

COMMERCIAL BREAK!

Tess has the intern researching high-end ceramic knives (like the one Logan’s partner accidentally mentioned), and he points out they’re used by chefs and scuba divers.

I immediately get my hopes up for an underwater knife fight scene.

I will be disappointed.

Logan and Tess bump into each other again at the jeweler’s. She drops more wedding trivia on him and then pretends they’re an item as they talk to a store employee. Logan confirms Lyle’s ring wasn’t purchased there. The jewelry store employee says that the diamond in Lyle’s ring is older, probably a museum piece. Then Tess tries to extort a diamond stickpin out of Logan. Hilarity!

Back at the paper, Tess has the intern working on the page of codes — though he’s comparing them to social security numbers and other numbers, instead of looking at them as an encoded message — and Tess remembers that Lyle was carrying a book about the Beale papers. They quickly namedrop the concept of book ciphers.

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At the police station, Tess explains book ciphers to Logan and the chief (and the audience). Angela, the sister, shows up (she and the chief have to practice for the father-daughter dance) and the sister not-so-subtly mentions Logan is dateless for the wedding.

At the college library, Tess tries to get the librarian to tell her what books Lyle had been taking out, but the librarian rightly points out that such information is private. Tess responds by stealing a staff member access card and sneaking into a restricted area, getting a look at Lyle’s last three checkouts, all books on Enigma and WWII codes.

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Back in the ominous stacks, Tess is book-hunting, looking for a clue by rifling through pages, and finds a receipt pointing to Heirloom Books for a book costing $300. (Ah, the “anything as a bookmark” comment from earlier comes home to roost.)

She calls Logan and leaves a voicemail explaining what she’s found, then spots Lyle’s TA and his girlfriend Abby together at a picnic table. She takes a picture before leaving.

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COMMERCIAL BREAK!

At Heirloom Books, Tess tries to find another copy of the book Lyle purchased, a collection of children’s stories. Christina, the guest lecturer from earlier, also owns the bookstore; Tess gives her a business card, asking to be contacted when Christina finds a copy of the book, and then she mentions how much work doing the crossword for The Sentinel is.

Seriously, Tess? You are NEVER there. I’m going to ask Will Shortz, Evan Birnholz, Mike Shenk, David Steinberg, Patti Varol, and Rich Norris how much free time they have to solve murders.

At the police station, Logan discusses the photo of Abby and Clayton that Tess sent him, and Detective Winston says Bethany called Lyle five times the day of the murder. He also mentions that Lyle’s mother, who had been facing foreclosure, suddenly had her mortgage paid off.

Tess arrives, having partially decoded the page of numbers using pages of the children’s book she was able to find online. (Conveniently, she gets words like JEWELS and BURIED, instead of lots of THE, AND, and -ING suffixes.)

It’s a letter from Lyle’s grandfather about caches of jewelry buried around the old farm in Connecticut. Logan sincerely tells her she did a good job on the codebreaking, then they have another petty back-and-forth about her taking a picture of Lyle’s grandfather’s uniform before Logan folds like a cheap suit.

Tess walks with Aunt Candace, who of course is attending Angela’s wedding (because she knows EVERYBODY) and mentions Logan’s datelessness. Tess doubts Lyle’s girlfriend, and makes a plan to surveil Abby. Aunt Candace points out she’s putting herself in harm’s way. So Tess ropes Aunt Candace into joining her.

I was right. Tess will be the death of everyone around her.

COMMERCIAL BREAK!

At Heirloom Books, Christina explains that Lyle had been throwing her odd jobs over the years, helping her cover the costs of maintaining the bookstore. She mentions that Lyle told her about the threatening notes he believed were from his ex, and then says she was working at the bookstore at the time of the murder.

Tess and the intern determine that the Fighting Badgers — the group represented by the patch on the grandfather’s uniform — were stationed near a castle in Europe where a bunch of jewels went missing. Logan is planning to go up there, and Tess wants to go. Logan rightly asks if she has work to do, and she promises to do it in the car during the ride up to Connecticut. Logan folds like an origami swan.

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We then get our Will Shortz sighting, as Tess asks for a clue for GOLD, and policeman Will offers “what some hearts are made of”.

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(She apparently doesn’t recognize him from their table tennis-centric meeting in the first film. This raises the question of whether he’s the same character or not. If not, then I look forward to another random Stan Lee-like cameo next week. If he is the same character, why didn’t Logan recognize him as another cop from the same precinct in the first film?)

During the ride up to CT, she helps Logan with his toast. They talk weddings and Tess’s farmgirl past. It’s a nice moment in a series where cutesy antagonism usually runs roughshod over the character beats.

At the old farmhouse, the current owner mentions chasing off two men who were digging a hole. He mentions the barley in the field, which sticks tenaciously to Logan’s clothes. (Hello, second bit of important detail!) When Logan shows him pictures of suspects, he confirms that it was Lyle and his TA Clayton digging the hole, but mentions that someone else had been snooping around the farm as well.

Back in NY, as Logan is dropping Tess off, she gets a call from someone about the children’s book. At the police station, the chief tells Logan that forensics found DNA on the envelope the threat was sent in.

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The chief notices that Logan didn’t go to Connecticut alone, and then mentions Logan’s datelessness for the wedding. Logan and his partner ponder how Lyle would’ve fenced the jewels if he found them.

Tess is back on the college campus, passing a film crew as she heads for the library. But the librarian can’t find the book; she clearly wasn’t the one who called Tess.

Tess goes hunting in the stacks for the book anyway, because we were promised ominous stacks and they are going to give us ominous stacks.

As Tess book-hunts, she hears someone stalking around, and the assailant keeps pushing books at her from the other side of the shelves. Panicked, she runs around the shelves lost, and narrowly avoids getting an entire bookcase dumped on her.

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COMMERCIAL BREAK!

Logan is with Tess at the university, admonishing her for getting involved in the murder case, before begrudgingly confirming that a burner phone was used to call her. They don’t know who tried to scare/hurt her.

At the station, Winston has an idea about how Lyle fenced some of the jewels. A parking ticket points toward a jeweler in Long Island, but the obviously shifty fellow claims he didn’t buy anything from Lyle.

At one of Abby’s cooking classes, Tess and Aunt Candace are taking notes. As Tess and Abby chat — and the crossword comes up, of course — Abby mentions she hadn’t left the house since Lyle’s death (which is a lie, the photo Tess took of Abby and Clayton proves that). Tess uses her aunt as a distraction to bag one of Abby’s knives and hide it in her purse. Given that it was the knife Abby had JUST been using, there’s obviously no way she’d notice it was missing. Tess is a mastermind.

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Tess brings the knife to Logan, who is understandably furious that Tess endangered herself AND potentially contaminated evidence. Winston interrupts, mentioning wire transfers involving an account that traces to Abby AND Clayton, as well as the suspicious jeweler Logan talked to. The wire transfer that paid off Lyle’s mom’s house was probably made in exchange for the jewels. (Meaning that the jeweler technically didn’t lie to Logan about buying the jewels.)

At Lyle’s campus office, Tess adds flowers to an ever-growing pile of notes and offerings, before bumping into Bethany. They talk about Lyle’s love of puzzles. Bethany’s first likable moment as a character is immediately undercut by her assertion that puzzles are for kids and triathlons are for adults.

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Logan talks to Clayton at Lyle’s mom’s house, where the TA is helping load boxes into the moving truck. Logan mentions that Clayton was working during Tess’s attack, but he claims he snuck off for a workout. Logan points out how the meeting with Abby and the trips to CT with Lyle make him look pretty guilty, but Clayton claims he owes his life to Lyle, because Lyle gave him a chance after Clayton made some youthful mistakes.

Clayton mentions the book cipher and the diamonds they dug up, but that there’s a larger cache out there worth millions. He swears that Lyle only wanted a small cut of the jewels, and made Clayton promise to return the rest to the original owners, a European family.

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Clayton explains that he set up the Cayman Islands account with the first cache of jewels they found, and he was meeting with Abby after Lyle’s death to tell her about the money, but she didn’t want it. Lyle thought something might happen to him, because he spotted someone else up at the farm, looking for the jewels.

As he leaves Clayton at the house, he gets a call from Winston, confirming that Bethany’s DNA was on the envelope containing the threats to Lyle.

Back in the city, Logan and Tess talk about Clayton. He also mentions that Abby’s knife doesn’t match the murder weapon. He then runs off after a call, saying there’s been a break in the case.

COMMERCIAL BREAK!

The murder weapon has been found by a jogger, on a jogging trail that Bethany favors. All the evidence points to her.

Logan then makes a stop at the university, asking about film crew permits. Tess, meanwhile, talks to Lyle’s mom. She gets a text that Christina finally has a copy of the children’s book at Heirloom Books, and Tess asks about it. The book, it turns out, was her favorite. That’s why Lyle’s grandfather chose it.

At the police station, Logan tells Winston that Bethany confessed to sending the threats, but not to the murder. He also has the film crew’s footage from that night, and as Tess passes through the frame, she’s being closely followed… by Professor Emory.

Logan meets with Emory, who brushes off Logan’s conjecture and lack of hard evidence, and as Logan leaves, he sees a picture of Emory with Bethany and Christina. Meanwhile, Tess meets with Christina to pick up her book, and Christina shows her a copy of the first crossword puzzle, the word-cross created by Arthur Wynne. It looks like a pristine page copy of the actual printing of The New York World from December 21, 1913.

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As Christina heads off to grab her book, Tess notices barley stuck to a coat on Christina’s coat rack. GASP! She’s been at the farm.

Tess heads toward the door of the shop, and finds it locked. Christina pulls a box cutter on her. Logan has Winston looking up info on Christina, while Tess confirms that Christina has had the book all along.

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Christina is furious that she’d known Lyle all these years, but he didn’t let her in on the secret of the jewels. Between Lyle getting the book from her and asking Emory about unsolved crimes from World War II, she put it together pretty quickly. On the day of the murder, she confronted Lyle about the jewels, but he claimed he was just trying to return them to the rightful owners.

As she backs Tess away from the door with the box cutter, she talks about killing him with one of Abby’s knives and then searching the apartment. But she only found the book, not the cipher. (She took the knife with her in order to frame Bethany.)

She saw the cipher in Tess’s purse earlier and demands it from her, taking her purse and dumping its contents on the floor. She grabs the cipher and locks Tess in the freezer.

FINAL COMMERCIAL BREAK!

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Trapped in the freezer, Tess tries in vain to break the glass with one of the books on the shelves.

Winston confirms that Bethany and Christina were roommates in college, and Logan realizes that Tess was probably on her way to Christina’s bookstore. He heads there himself.

Tess tries her keys on the glass and fails, before remembering the diamond stickpin that she conned Logan into buying for her aunt. She breaks the glass with the diamond and escapes the freezer, just in time for Logan to arrive. Yes, Tess has saved herself, which is a nice change from the previous mystery.

Christina has a 20-minute head start on them, and Logan heads off to catch her. Winston finds out details about her car, and they put out an APB. She’s nabbed fairly quickly. Once Logan arrives, he charges her with the crime, and he asks why she attacked Tess in the library. She says it was Emory’s idea.

Back at the station, Tess and Logan talk about Christina and Emory’s plot. And he finally asks her to be his date to his sister’s wedding.

Cut to the wedding, for much clapping and frivolity, and the chief dancing with Aunt Candace. You sly dog, chief. Logan dances with Tess and there is lots of twirling. He asks if she knows the foxtrot, and she says it’s just like a crossword, “2 down, 1 across.”

And, naturally, the camera drifts upward to reveal the dance floor is a checkerboard… very reminiscent of a crossword grid.

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The end.


CONCLUSION

I know, I know, we never find out if the rest of the jewels are dug up or if that castle-dwelling European family got their jewelry back. We also don’t find out why a book of children’s stories is 440 pages long (according to one of the codes). But other than that, how was the movie?

All in all, I thought the plot was a slight step down from the previous entry in the series. The crime (and how the main puzzle tied into it) was certainly more realistic than the robbery-plans-through-crosswords plot of the first installment.

Both were competently assembled mysteries with lots of small, important details that get followed up on, but the relative dearth of suspects and the nature of the puzzle as the heart of the mystery just felt a little lacking.

And I don’t mean Tess’s proposal puzzle. Which… oof.

I mean, we’re beaten over the head with the fact that the guy was a codebreaking expert. So why is Tess’s intern not researching types of codes? (Also, does he know what a social security number is? They follow a pretty specific pattern that does NOT match the list of codes on the paper.)

I did enjoy that one crime — the murder of Lyle — leads to Tess committing seemingly dozens of crimes. Trespassing, stealing, breaking and entering, coercing a police officer, damaging private property, whatever it’s called when you damage antique books… not to mention neglecting her duties as crossword editor.

Nonetheless, this was a fun watch. It’s ridiculous and cheesy in all the best ways, jam-packed with over-the-top generalizations, and coincidences pile up like unfinished puzzles on Tess’s desk. (Yes, there was the obsessive ex-girlfriend, which is a trope we could all do without, but that filled our Crossword Mysteries quota of cartoonishly obvious red herring suspects.)

Tess remains immensely likable, despite her criminal nature. The detective, meanwhile, grew on me quite a bit. Yes, his constant efforts to keep Tess away from the case seem more and more labored over time, but hopefully that’s all over. Also, I think he laughed more in the last five or ten minutes of the episode than he did in the entire previous installment.

And, of course, John Kapelos shined as the police chief and father figure of the film, funny and distracting in equal measure. Though, sadly, there were no baked goods to be stolen in this one.

It’s light, frothy, slightly murdery fun. No harm in that. (Unless you’re one of Tess’s friends, that is.)

Did you watch the film? What did you think? Will you be watching Abracadaver next weekend? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you.


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How Will Shortz Works

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[Image courtesy of Lifehacker.]

Last week, Lifehacker posted the latest edition of their How I Work series, which takes readers behind the scenes and into the workspaces of all sorts of experts, scientists, creators, and pop culture icons to see how they do what they do.

And New York Times crossword editor Will Shortz stepped into the spotlight to share his average workday and what his job is really like.

It provides an interesting snapshot of a job most people know very little about. (And, sadly, thoroughly debunks the glamorous crime-solving editorial life Lacey Chabert portrayed in A Puzzle to Die For earlier this year.)

Will talks about going through submissions, editing and polishing crosswords, working on clues, interacting with his assistants, and takes us into his workplace itself, including his reliance on book sources over Internet verification. He also namedrops his table tennis club (always table tennis, never ping-pong), and gives a well-deserved shout-out to XWordInfo.com as a world-class database of NYT crossword data.

But there’s one line in particular from the interview that stood out to me, and I suspect it stood out to other puzzlers as well. When discussing the editorial process for each Times-approved crossword, Shortz stated:

“I don’t think any other puzzle in the country goes through such rigorous editing and testing before publication.”

Now, I like Will. I do. I’ve interviewed him, and chatted with him at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament on more than one occasion. Hell, this year, I purposely lassoed him and pulled him aside so fans could grab photos with him before the tournament started AND still managed to work in a joke or two about the Crossword Mysteries movie.

But, man, there’s putting over your own product, and then there’s just stepping in it.

There are SO MANY great editors in the crossword market today. Off the top of my head, I can mention the editors at The Los Angeles Times, The Chronicle of Higher Edition, The American Values Club, The Universal Crossword, and The Crosswords Club, not to mention special projects like Women of Letters and the Indie 500, all of which provide wonderful, insightful feedback and attention to detail during the editorial process.

Sure, those puzzles might not all get the attention of ten test-solvers before publication, as Will claims each NYT crossword does. But then again, if you ignore those test solvers, as Will did in January when he used the word BEANER in a grid, that number doesn’t really matter much.

No, this isn’t always the case, obviously. Just two weeks ago, the Twitter account The Truth About Nursing praised Shortz “for allowing Howard Barkin’s description of nurses as ‘Pro caregivers, for short,’ implying expertise & autonomy. This contrasts with the 2007 clue ‘I.C.U. helper’ & the 2009 clue ‘hospital attendant’.”

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If you click through to the actual article, Howard does get the lion’s share of the thanks, as he should, given that the tweet shortchanged him a bit. But you also get more backstory on how the team at The Truth About Nursing spoke out against tone-deaf cluing regarding nurses:

Both of those clues led the Truth to protest to longtime Times puzzle editor Will Shortz. We explained to him in detail why the common misconceptions of nursing that the clues reflected were damaging, in light of the global nursing shortage and the proven influence that the media has in shaping public attitudes toward the profession… Shortz never responded directly to our concerns.

Yes, the NYT crossword gets more criticism because it is the flagship. But if you’re the flagship, you’re also supposed to set the tone, and with a track record of tone-deaf entries like ILLEGAL and HOMIE, as well as clues like “Decidedly non-feminist women’s group” for HAREM or “Exasperated comment from a feminist” for MEN, criticism is well-deserved.

The line between tooting your own horn and overplaying your hand is a very fine one, and undoubtedly, people are bound to disagree on which side of the fence this statement lands.

Some may say that Will deserves all the accolades and horn-tooting he wishes, given the subscriber numbers the NYT crossword garners. Others may take umbrage at Will seemingly dismissing the terrific work done by crossword editors around the country (with fewer resources, it must be said). I mean, Will himself mentored some of those editors!

I can’t speak for any of those editors, and I won’t. But, for me, as someone who has had the pleasure and privilege of meeting and getting to know so many of those creative, qualified, hardworking, and giving editors, methinks he doth toot a bit too much.


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We’re Not the Only Ones With Puzzles on the Brain!

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[A photo from the early days of PuzzleNation Blog, as one of our intrepid puzzleboys spreads the word of PuzzleNation far and wide. Image courtesy of Toledo’s Attic.]

I would love to tell you that PuzzleNation Blog is the only game in town when it comes to outstanding puzzle content, but that’s not the truth.

Sure, I think we put out some of the best writing in the puzzle business, but there are other outlets that also pen some marvelous stuff. Deb Amlen’s Wordplay blog on The New York Times website, for instance, is a treasure trove of great material, featuring breakdowns of NYT puzzles, interviews with constructors, and more.

The New Yorker recently posted an intriguing one-two punch of puzzle content. The main article was a meditation on crosswords — their potential, what they mean to a fan, and more — while the accompanying video featured an interview with constructor Natan Last (conducted by crossword editor Liz Maynes-Aminzade) about political entries in puzzles.

What’s slightly more surprising is that another popular Internet outlet has also had puzzles on the brain:

The Onion.

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Three times in the past month or so, the satirical news outlet has posted some hilarious puzzle-centric content. On June 20th, one of their headlines read “Exhilarated Woman Discovers Last Person Who Used Jigsaw Puzzle Left Lots Of Pieces Sticking Together.”

Two weeks earlier on June 6th, the article “Maze With Cheese In Center Enters Human Trials Following Decades Of Testing On Mice,” which feels all too apropos after our post last week about corn mazes.

But the cream of the crop was undoubtedly the article posted on May 28th, “Will Shortz Frustrated That Police Yet To Crack Taunting Puzzles Revealing Locations Of 40 Years Of Murder Victims.”

In a hysterically brief send-up of both the famously mild-mannered Shortz and classic criminal masterminds in general (like the one in the Brooklyn Nine-Nine episode that also featured Shortz, or the one from the Hallmark Crossword Mysteries earlier this year), the article paints the crossword editor as a murderous genius who feels unappreciated in his efforts to play a game of cat-and-mouse with the NYPD:

“I naturally assumed that, at some point during the last four decades, at least one detective would be smart enough to solve the case,” said Shortz, who also implied that the geographic coordinates of the victims could be determined by analyzing the sudoku puzzles in the Sunday edition.

It was one of the funniest pieces of the year for The Onion, and further proof of just how ubiquitous crosswords truly are these days.


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