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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Missing This Year’s Indie 500 Crossword Tournament…

Originally, this post was scheduled to hype up the return of one of the most inventive and enjoyable crossword tournaments in recent memory, the Indie 500.

Scheduled for June 6th, the sixth annual edition of the tournament would have featured clever clues, some dynamite puzzles, and pie. (There’s always pie.)

Unfortunately, the ongoing COVID-19 crisis has scuppered many events large and small over the last few months. Crossword fans missed out on the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament back in March, though many of them — 1,815 solvers! — enjoyed the wonderful Crossword Tournament From Your Couch event that was organized in its stead.

The organizers of the Indie 500 posted back in March that they were working on a solve-at-home event to be held this summer, but as of this posting, no further details have emerged.

But do not fret. If you’re looking for some puzzly challenges to dive into over the weekend, the Indie 500 team have made the tournament puzzle packs for ALL FIVE previous tournaments available for free on their website, which is an incredibly generous and kind gesture.

And if you’re looking to get a sense of what sort of challenges and delights the tournament has to offer, we have write-ups covering each of the five previous editions of the tournament for you to check out.

Here’s hoping we still get to indulge in some fresh Indie 500 treats this summer. It truly has become one of the highlights of the puzzly calendar, one that I look forward to every year.


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The New York Times Crossword Now Accepts Online Submissions!

Photo by Matt MacGillivray, licensed via Creative Commons

There’s good news for aspiring and established crossword constructors out there, as The New York Times crossword is now accepting online submissions.

I could be cynical and say it’s about time for a change like this, given that The Los Angeles Times has been accepting online submissions for at least a decade now, and many of the other major outlets made the transition well before 2020.

But I won’t. This is a moment worth celebrating.

True, it was inevitable that the Times would move in this direction. I don’t know if the tipping point was the pandemic, given how many other companies and businesses have been forced to adapt to a paperless/lower-contact way of doing business, or if the department was simply following a directional shift the industry had already taken.

But I’m glad they have. This may seem like a relatively small change, but it’s significant for several reasons.

1.) It’s simply easier

People send emails, attach documents, and share files every day. How often do you hit the post office?

2.) Electronic submission encourages younger solvers to get involved

New blood is a necessity for any industry, crosswords included, and when the standard-bearer makes a shift toward inclusivity (even if it’s just a matter of technological familiarity), it’s a step in the right direction.

3.) Electronic submission helps level the playing field

Having to mail submissions has a price attached, through envelopes, paper, and postage, whereas electronic submissions don’t. Yes, the price of crossword construction programs is still a hindrance, limiting access to some, but again, this is a step in the right direction.

The submission page is loaded with information, including specs on puzzles, file formats for submission, and the submission form itself.

Plus NYT-savvy constructors and staff like Joel Fagliano have already posted answers online to Frequently Asked Questions in forums like the Crossword Puzzle Collaboration Directory, and have offered to answer any other questions constructors have.

Hopefully this change means not only an influx of new talent, but greater accessibility for underrepresented groups in crosswords.


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A Cornucopia of Clever Clues

Problem-solving-crossword

Last month, in the afterglow of the Crossword Tournament From Your Couch event, I waxed nostalgic about some of the clever and tricky cluing that the constructors employed to keep the solvers on their toes.

I had so much fun poring over those puzzles and highlighting the clues that caught my eye that I’ve decided to do it again.

You see, I keep track of favorite clues from constructors as I solve various crosswords. Not only are they often witty, hilarious, and/or impressive, but they inspire me as a puzzler to always try to find entertaining, engaging new angles for clues.

So here are some favorites from my personal clue vault.

(And I’m crediting the constructor listed on the byline for each clue. These clues may have been created elsewhere and reused, created by the constructor, or changed by an editor, I have no way of knowing. So I’m just doing my best to give credit where credit is due.)


I’m a sucker for delicious wordplay, and thanks to a plethora of ingenious constructors, modern crosswords are rarely lacking in linguistic legerdemain.

One of my favorite cluing tropes is the old word-form switcheroo, when a constructor makes you think the clue is one word form (a verb, for instance) when it’s really a noun, or vice versa.

Erik Agard’s clue “Leaves from a club” certainly sounds like a verb, so it’s a fun surprise when you realize the answer is LETTUCE.

Similarly, the ability to utilize the multiple meanings of words can make for some seriously elusive clues. Mike Shenk’s “Volume setting?” has you thinking music or audio, but the answer SHELF also fits neatly.

Byron Walden is a master at this sort of cluing, as evidenced by his clue “Uruguayan uncle?” for the phrase NO MAS. Given how often TIO, TIA, MADRE, and other Spanish familial terms are used in crosswords, it’s a keen example of misdirection.

keep-right-misdirection

And playing with the tropes of crossword cluing creates opportunities for more wordplay.

“Trick or treat,” a clue from Aimee Lucido, masquerades as the common Halloween phrase when it’s really two examples cluing the answer VERB.

Similarly, “Jets or chargers starter” sounds like a sports reference, but the lowercase “chargers” reveals something else is afoot. The answer to this clue (which appeared in a puzzle constructed by Craig Mazan and Jeff Chen) is TURBO.

Erin Rhode’s “Drum, for some” sounds like a simple example-style clue, but the answer RHYME reveals how she hid her wordplay in plain sight.

Yes, these clues have a lot in common with wordplay clues, but they also play with the conventions of crossword cluing.

owl

Oh, and speaking of clues that hide their trickery in plain sight, I’ve got a few examples of that as well.

Kathy Weinberg once clued ROWS as “15 things in this puzzle,” which is the sort of clue that’s simultaneously so vague and so on-the-nose that it drives me insane.

Similarly, Steve Faiella uses modern slang to hide an answer in plain sight with the clue “Has beef with somebody, say.” That sure sounds like a vernacular use of “has beef with,” so you’re less likely to read the clue as a simple description of EATS, the actual answer. Very sly.

I’m going to close out today’s post with a clue that’s not only clever, it’s economical as well. Robyn Weintraub clued HOLE with two simple words — “Darn it!” — and it’s as hilarious as it is effective.

What are some of your favorite crossword clues, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you.


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Cultural Sensitivity and Crosswords: Where Is The Line?

crossword1

A few days ago, an entry in The New York Times Crossword caught the eye of a solver. That solver posted about it in the Facebook group “The Crossword Puzzle Collaboration Directory,” which is dedicated to encouraging new constructors to make and submit puzzles.

That post kicked off an intense debate about problematic entries and how to handle them. Not only is this topic far from settled, but it’s emblematic of a larger question: where is the line?

You see, one of the advantages of our modern Internet-savvy culture is that feedback is virtually instantaneous now. If someone is offended or troubled by an entry or clue in the Monday crossword, it doesn’t take days for a letter to the editor to arrive at the paper. It takes seconds to post online and reach a potential audience.

Of course, that rapid response is a double-edged sword, because hot takes and rush-to-judgment commentary are just as quick to spread.

Both sides of that double-edged sword were in full effect as the replies piled up on that original Facebook post. As those in agreement with the original poster offered their support, counterpoints rolled in, either in defense of the entry or the clue.

(Naturally, given that this is the Internet, some chose to expand on the topic in general disagreement with a culture they claimed was too sensitive and quick to condemn every little thing that offended them. But since those people are an incredible waste of time and energy and have little interest in genuine discussion, this will be my last mention of them.)

Other posters focused on the mechanics of the puzzle itself, pointing out easy fixes that would have prevented the potentially problematic word from appearing at all. Some of these folks sided with the original poster, pointing out that a word that is potentially problematic should be edited out, and it’s part of a constructor’s job to think of these things.

And that’s the question. How much should constructors and editors be taking the potentially problematic aspects of words into consideration when constructing?

True, it’s not always possible to anticipate every negative response to the words filling your grid or the accompanying clues. (Heck, we have numerous examples of words and clues slipping through that catch fire with part of the audience in the worst possible way.)

But is that part of a constructor’s job?

In my opinion, yes, it is.

Crosswords should be inclusive. They should be an engaging activity that evokes occasional frustration but eventual satisfaction, whether you’re completing a grid, unraveling a particularly tricky theme, or besting your previous solving time. It should be fun. It should be entertainment, a distraction.

It should NOT be a place where people feel excluded, or where personal or historical traumas surface because of cluing or grid fill.

For example, I don’t believe CHINK should appear in crosswords, even as “flaw in one’s armor,” because anyone casually glancing at the grid will only see that word, not necessarily the context.

We can do better.

[Image courtesy of Bogoreducare.org.]

Originally, I wasn’t going to mention the specific clue/entry at all, because the issue is larger than this one example. But knowing the word that offended our original poster adds context.

The entry was NOOSE, and the clue was “End of a hangman’s rope.”

For the poster, the associations surrounding both clue and entry were troubling. But, for the most part, the main reason for posting appeared to be twofold:

1. Pointing out that the word’s inclusion in the grid was easily avoidable
2. Asking if other constructors/aspiring constructors found the entry as problematic as she did

She wasn’t calling for peoples’ heads. She was opening a dialogue and inviting discussion. She made her personal feelings clear — by using the word “appalled” — but made the discussion about something larger than her individual reaction.

Problem-solving-crossword

Some replies concerned the clue more than the entry, pointing out that the noose was used for many other, non-negative uses. The general association of nooses with lynching was brought up, with some instantly making the connection while others felt it was unfair or hypersensitive to make that association. Others brought up the word LYNCH, asking if the entry was problematic even if the cluing was about director David or actress Evanna.

These aren’t easy questions to answer. This is obviously not a debate that will be concluded anytime soon. But it’s one worth having.

And when it comes to conclusions to draw from all this, I think the original poster said it best in one of her replies: “In my opinion, it’s better to err on the side of empathy.”

Amen.


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View a Clue: Crossword Characters Answers!

A few weeks ago, we brought back one of our trickiest recurring features: the View a Clue game!

If you recall, I selected ten fictional characters that commonly show up in crossword grids — some have become crosswordese at this point — to see if the PuzzleNation audience could identify them from pictures.

Without further ado, let’s give it a shot!


#1 (4 letters)

view fcc 1

[Image courtesy of Heroes and Villains Fandom.]

Answer: ODIE, loyal and drooly companion of Garfield and his owner Jon Arbuckle


#2 (4 letters)

view fcc 2

[Image courtesy of Pinterest.]

Answer: ASTA, beloved dog of film detectives Nick and Nora Charles in the Thin Man series


#3 (3 letters)

view fcc 3

[Image courtesy of Redbubble.]

Answer: REN, from Nickelodeon’s Ren & Stimpy


#4 (4 letters)

view fcc 4

[Image courtesy of Disney Fandom.]

Answer: SMEE, Captain Hook’s right-hand man from the Peter Pan stories


#5 (4 letters) [I’ve included two possible characters for this one.]

view fcc 5a

view fcc 5b

[Images courtesy of E! Online and Wikipedia.]

Answer: ELSA


#6 (4 letters)

view fcc 6

[Image courtesy of Hulu.]

Answer: EYRE, more specifically Jane Eyre


#7 (4 letters)

view fcc 7

[Image courtesy of Amazon.]

Answer: IGOR, the assistant of Dr. Frankenstein


#8 (5 letters)

view fcc 8

[Image courtesy of Soap Central.]

Answer: ERICA, more specifically Erica Kane of All My Children


#9 (4 letters)

view fcc 9

[Image courtesy of Getty Images.]

Answer: AHAB, Captain of the Pequod from Moby-Dick


#10 (3 letters)

view fcc 10

[Image courtesy of Warner Bros.]

Answer: RIN, as in Rin Tin Tin, the famous Hollywood dog


How many did you get? Let me know in the comments below! And if you have ideas for another View a Clue game, tell us below!

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