The Best Puzzle Solvers in Fiction

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Last year, we assembled super-teams of the best puzzle solvers in horror films and television respectively. 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.

In the third installment in this illustrious series, we turn our attention to literature, seeking out the quickest minds and the deftest problem solvers from the printed page.

Yes, this list will be a bit detective-heavy, since they’re the protagonists most frequently put into situations where puzzly problem-solving becomes synonymous with the character. But we still think it’s a fair representation of the best puzzlers in the medium.


Oh, two quick notes before we get on with the post.

1.) Since both Batman and Sherlock Holmes were listed amongst the best puzzle solvers on television, we’ve opted to exclude them from this entry in order to make room for other individuals. Obviously they still make the cut, but it never hurts to share the spotlight.

2.) Fans of children’s books and young adult novels may be disappointed that the likes of Nancy Drew and Winston Breen didn’t make the list. But that’s for good reason. They’ll be getting their own list in the near future.


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Inspector Morse (Colin Dexter)

[Image courtesy of eBay.]

Detective Chief Inspector Endeavour Morse is the protagonist of 13 novels and dozens of hours of television. This opera-loving detective is famous for enjoying cryptic crosswords, and several of his novels challenge the reader with a crossword clue early on, revealing the answer in a later chapter.

Possessing a keen intellect, Morse solves cases through diligence, intuition, and a near-photographic memory. When you factor in his puzzle skills, you end up with someone who can, for instance, effortlessly realize that the spelling mistakes in a piece of evidence are a hidden threatening message, not mere errors.

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Lord Peter Wimsey (Dorothy L. Sayers)

[Image courtesy of LibraryCat.]

Although investigation is a hobby for Lord Peter Wimsey rather than a profession, that doesn’t make his efforts any less impressive or diligent. He offhandedly solves a cryptic clue for his valet during breakfast, something that will prove helpful later when he has to solve “The Fascinating Problem of Uncle Meleager’s Will.”

Resourceful in the extreme, Wimsey always manages to gather the necessary info to crack the case, whether that requires faking his own death or unraveling an entire cryptic puzzle in order to settle an acrimonious family gathering.

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C. Auguste Dupin (Edgar Allan Poe)

[Image courtesy of Learnodo-Newtonic.]

Perhaps the first literary detective, this creation of Edgar Allan Poe combined a keen eye for observation with an impressive knack for abductive reasoning (inference or making good guesses, as Sherlock Holmes does). Equally at home solving mysteries or chasing forgotten manuscripts, Dupin is the template from which so many crime solving characters sprung.

A master at demystifying enigmas, conundrums, and hieroglyphics, Poe’s creation employed “ratiocination” to place himself in the shoes of criminals and work out not only what they’d done, but where they went after the crime. Surely no criminal mastermind or logic puzzle could withstand the skills of C. Auguste Dupin.

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Mary Russell (Laurie R. King)

[Image courtesy of Goodreads.]

Fans of Sherlock Holmes know that he retired from crime solving and spent his twilight years beekeeping. But worry not, England, because Mary Russell ably fits the role Holmes left behind. As observant and strong-willed as her mentor, Mary is brilliant, proving herself a worthy student for Holmes while still a teenager.

A student of many languages, a theology scholar, and an avid reader, Mary is a fierce and intriguing character who embodies many of the puzzliest attributes of Holmes, but with her own idiosyncratic touches, even managing to resolve lingering threads from some of Holmes’s most famous cases.

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George Smiley (John le Carré)

[Image courtesy of Amazon.]

There are many characters in literature that think ten steps ahead and manage to succeed, but George Smiley is one of the few who does so in believable fashion. The fictional spymaster and intelligence agent may not have Bond’s rakish good looks, but he has the puzzly chops to crack even the most diabolical schemes.

With an encyclopedic knowledge of spycraft and a perceptive mind capable of subtly getting information out of people, George Smiley is a master of looking at the chessboard of international gamesmanship and figuring out the best moves to make, which pieces to sacrifice, and how to read your opponent and outmaneuver him.

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William of Baskerville (Umberto Eco)

[Image courtesy of Amazon.]

Given how many cryptic crossword constructors in England name themselves after Inquisitors, it’s appropriate to find a strong puzzle solver during the time of the Inquisition. Franciscan friar William of Baskerville, often regarded as insightful and humble, refused to condemn a translator as a heretic, deducing that he was innocent. Later, after leaving the ranks of the Inquisition, William is asked to help explain a series of strange deaths at a Benedictine monastery.

William manages to solve the case AND disprove the presence of a demonic force in the abbey, but not in time to prevent tragedy. Nonetheless, his impressive deductions and masterful efforts to unravel the mysteries at the heart of the case — braving labyrinths both real and invented — are key to the novel’s success.

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Sirius Black (J.K. Rowling)

[Image courtesy of Boxlunch.]

Yes, he was a devotee of the Daily Prophet crossword, but it takes more than that to land you on this list. Although reckless at times after a long incarceration in Azkaban, Sirius proved on more than one occasion to have a quick, clever, and strategic mind, a trait shared by many great puzzlers.

He managed to sneak into Hogwarts twice, escaped the infamous Azkaban prison, and deduced where he could find the traitorous Peter Pettigrew. Not bad, especially when you consider the damage Dementors can do to someone’s psyche.

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The Black Widowers (Isaac Asimov)

[Image courtesy of Amazon.]

A fictional dining club (men only, sadly), the Black Widowers often solve problems without ever leaving the dinner table. While many mystery novels walk you through the detective’s deductions and theories at the very end as the crime is solved, each Black Widowers case is solved in front of you, as they ask questions and pose solutions, before the final deduction (and correct solution) emerges.

Combining skills in chemistry, cryptography, law, art, and math, the Black Widowers are equipped to handle every puzzle, even if common-sense solutions occasionally elude them.


Did I miss any world-class puzzlers from famous (or obscure) works of literature? Let me know in the comments section below! I’d love to hear from you!

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PuzzleNation Book Review: Two Across

Welcome to another installment of PuzzleNation Book Reviews!

All of the books discussed and/or reviewed in PNBR articles are either directly or indirectly related to the world of puzzling, and hopefully you’ll find something to tickle your literary fancy in this entry or the entries to come.

Let’s get started!

Our book review post this time around features Jeff Bartsch’s novel Two Across.

Vera is a math prodigy whose childhood has been spent in rundown motels as her mother’s sales job takes them all around the country. Stanley is an overworked master of trivia, living in a hotel under the thumb and watchful eye of his reclusive mother.

Vera wants adventure, intrigue, and freedom from her mother’s itinerant lifestyle. Stanley wants to abandon the Harvard-bound track his mother has railroaded him toward and take up his true passion: creating crossword puzzles.

When the two of them meet at a prestigious spelling bee, they form a curious bond in that nebulous gray area between friends and more-than-friends.

Stanley’s master plan is for them to fake a wedding for the cash and gifts, funding their plans to escape their mothers and live their own lives. But the scam is complicated by Vera’s growing feelings for Stanley and his singleminded focus on his goals.

As we follow them through Vera’s college career and beyond, we watch their relationship evolve and change, haunted by Stanley’s selfishness and Vera’s willingness to pick up at a moment’s notice and start a new life elsewhere.

But, through the peaks and valleys of friendship and more, Vera and Stanley’s mutual love of crosswords proves to be not only common ground, but the thread that may draw them back together.

Partly a coming-of-age story, partly a romantic comedy of errors, miscues, and unintended consequences, Two Across is an interesting look at the social awkwardness that often comes hand-in-hand with intellect, as well as the many curious ways peoples’ lives connect over time.

Stanley is, admittedly, a putz — proving the old adage that being smart doesn’t necessarily make you wise — and he becomes at times a frustrating character to follow, almost serving as something of an antagonist in the story.

Vera on the other hand, for all her foibles and quirks, is sincere, engaging, and believable, someone who forges her own path. While you do root for Stanley to right his ship and make up for his failings, it’s far easier to cheer for Vera when she picks up the pieces (more than once) and continues onward toward a hopefully brighter future.

And since this is a puzzle blog, I would be remiss if I didn’t discuss the crosswordier aspects of the novel.

The puzzle references for the most part are clever, with sharp themes and playful cluing. (Though a reference to having the 8-letter RIFFRAFF as a center entry made me wary.)

Stanley’s early puzzle efforts in particular are great, in one case cluing words like BUTTERFLIES, CONCERN, and APPREHENSION with “winged insects,” “business,” and “the catching of a suspect,” while allowing the anxiety theme to emerge. In another, he creates a New York-themed puzzle where the boroughs are located geographically in the grid.

(Sadly, we only hear about these ambitious grids, we never see them.)

But it’s Vera’s puzzles that drive the narrative. When difficulties between them arise, Stanley hopes that she will reach out to him through published puzzles, solving obsessively so he won’t miss out if she does.

As someone who has forged many friendships (and a relationship or two) on shared puzzly interests like crosswords, spelling bees, and trivia, I related to a lot of the awkward moments in this book, and I suspect many other readers will as well.

The novel does drag a bit near the end as it diverts from the Stanley-Vera focus for an unexpected interlude, but for the most part, Bartsch delivers an enjoyably Ross and Rachel-style romance for the world of puzzles.


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