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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Answers to the Punderful Halloween Costume Game!

Halloween has come and gone, but the glorious puns remain.

That’s right, today we’ve got the answers to our latest edition of the Punderful Halloween Costume Game!

So, without further ado, let’s take a look at the punny answers!


#1

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It’s Hawaiian Punch!

[Image courtesy of Hikendip.]

#2

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It’s back to the drawing board for this fella!

[Image courtesy of Country Living.]

#3

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It’s Scar-Face!

[Image courtesy of Upbeat News.]

#4

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It’s prime rib!

[Image courtesy of The Kitchn.]

#5

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It’s a Rey of sunshine!

[Image courtesy of Hannah Sloan.]

#6

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Snitches get stitches in this lovely mix of idiom and Harry Potter!

[Image courtesy of sprace.]

#7

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It’s a two-fer here with the cat’s pajamas and the bee’s knees!

[Image courtesy of Devon Prokopek.]

#8

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It’s a creative outlet!

[Image courtesy of Mental Floss.]

#9

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It’s chicken cord on blue (chicken cordon bleu)!

[Image courtesy of Hikendip.]

#10

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It’s Edgar Allan Poe Dameron in this mix of Star Wars and classic literature!

[Image courtesy of rottenartist.]


How many did you get? Have you seen any great punny costumes we missed? Let us know!

Thanks for visiting PuzzleNation Blog today! Be sure to sign up for our newsletter to stay up-to-date on everything PuzzleNation!

You can also share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on TwitterPinterest, and Tumblr, and explore the always-expanding library of PuzzleNation apps and games on our website!

The Puzzling Art of Letterlocking

letterlocking

[Image courtesy of Letter Writers Alliance.]

When you think about puzzles and personal security, what comes to mind?

Do you think of puzzle boxes, those delightfully tricky little wooden creations with all their sliding pieces and hidden compartments? Or does your mind go to encryption, the art of concealing your message in plain sight with ciphers, scytales, and other techniques meant to baffle anyone but those in the know?

Some puzzle box designs date back centuries, and ciphers can be traced back even further. (One is named after Caesar, after all.)

But there’s another centuries-old puzzly procedure you might not know about, and it kept letters and messages safe using nothing more than paper and wax.

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[Image courtesy of ibookbinding.com.]

This technique is known as letterlocking. It involves a mix of precise folds, interlocking pieces of paper, and sealing wax in order to create a distinctive design or pattern.

Although the pattern itself can work like a puzzle — requiring a particular trick to unfold it and reveal the message without ripping or damaging the letter — that’s only a secondary line of defense. The true goal of letterlocking is to reveal tampering. The folding techniques are distinctive, and the wax creates points of adhesion.

If you receive a letter and the folds are done (aka redone) incorrectly, or the wax is smeared (or the paper ripped where the wax would have held it tight), then you know the letter has been compromised.

daggertrap

[Image courtesy of ibookbinding.com.]

Some examples of letterlocking trace back to the 13th century, and key figures like Queen Elizabeth I, Machiavelli, Galileo, and Marie Antoinette employed letterlocking security in the past. Mary, Queen of Scots, wrote a message and letterlocked it with a butterfly lock six hours before her beheading. (For a more modern reference, letterlocking was employed in the Harry Potter films as well, most famously in Dumbledore’s will.)

The various techniques involved are as distinctive as knots. The triangle lock. The dagger-trap. The pinwheel letter. And some historians believe that those techniques imply connections between some of the important players in history.

For instance, both poet John Donne and the spymaster of Queen Elizabeth I employed a similar letterlocking style. Did they share a common source, or even an instructor in common? Or did a particular letterlocking technique provide a clue as to the contents of the letter within?

Letterlocking is a historical curiosity that was seemingly lost to time after the proliferation of the envelope and other security techniques, but it is slowly being rediscovered by a new generation, as well as reverse engineered by scientists and scholars. Yale and MIT both have teams exploring the burgeoning field of letterlocking.

Museums are discovering treasure troves of letterlocked messages by going directly to the source: post offices. A cache of 600 undelivered letters in the Netherlands, for instance, are being analyzed by researchers.

trianglelock

[Image courtesy of Atlas Obscura.]

It’s a remarkable thing, really, this union of centuries-old skills with twenty-first century knowledge. These are puzzles, frozen in time, waiting to be solved and placed into the larger picture of history.

Letterlocking is nothing less than a rare and beautiful art combining puzzles and privacy, as elegant as it is clever. There are no doubt many more secrets to be found behind the folds, slits, and wax seals of these lovingly crafted messages.


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Answers to the Punderful Pop Culture Halloween Costume Game!

Halloween has come and gone, but the glorious puns remain.

That’s right, today we’ve got the answers to this year’s edition of the Punderful Pop Culture Halloween Costume Game!

So, without further ado, let’s take a look at the answers!


PuzzleNation’s Punderful Pop Culture Halloween Costume Game!

#1

It’s Beauty AND the Beast!

#2

It’s the Black (Pink) Panther!

(Black Panther from the Marvel Universe + The Pink Panther)

#3

It’s the Darth Knight!

(Darth Vader from Star Wars + Batman, aka The Dark Knight)

#4

It’s Ronald McDonald Weasley!

(Ron Weasley from Harry Potter + Ronald McDonald)

#5

It’s a Royal Lifeguard!

(Royal Guardsman from Star Wars + lifeguard)

#6

It’s Gand-ALF!

(Gandalf from The Lord of the Rings + ALF)

#7

It’s Snow-ba Fett!

(Snow White from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs + Boba Fett from Star Wars)

#8

It’s Sailor Freddie Mercury!

(Sailor Mercury from Sailor Moon + Freddie Mercury of Queen)

#9

It’s OB-GYN Kenobi!

(OB-GYN + Obi-Wan Kenobi from Star Wars)

#10

It’s Doctor Cindy Lou Who!

(Doctor Who + Cindy Lou Who from How the Grinch Stole Christmas)

#11

It’s Doctor Stranger Things!

(Doctor Strange from the Marvel Universe + Netflix’s Stranger Things)

#12

It’s Hermione Texas Ranger!

(Hermione Granger from the Harry Potter books + Texas rangers)

#13

It’s Stevie Wonder Woman!

(Stevie Wonder + Wonder Woman)

#14

It’s a WeresWaldo!

(Werewolf + Where’s Waldo?)

#15

It’s Ash Wednesday!

(Either Ash from Pokemon + Wednesday Addams from The Addams Family OR Ash from Evil Dead/Army of Darkness + Wednesday Addams from The Addams Family.)


How many did you get? Have you seen any great punny costumes we missed? Let us know!

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You can also share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on TwitterPinterest, and Tumblr, and explore the always-expanding library of PuzzleNation apps and games on our website!

Crosswords: Scourge of Society!

Study history for any length of time, and patterns will emerge. One of the most curious patterns is how new forms of recreation are embraced, then inevitably sensationalized, stigmatized, and finally vindicated when cooler heads prevail. You see it over and over again in pop culture across the decades.

Video games continue to suffer from periodic demonization, accused of instigating violence in children. Harry Potter books are still banned by some schools and communities for spreading occult ideas. Not so long ago, one of my favorite pastimes — Dungeons & Dragons — was maligned as Satanic and damaging to young minds.

All of these panics were (and are) patently ridiculous. After all, you can go back through history and find other examples that are absolutely ludicrous in retrospect.

For example, check out this excerpt from The San Antonio Texan from August 26, 1858, about the dangers of overindulging in reading:

A whole family brought to destitution in England, has had all its misfortunes clearly traced by the authorities to an ungovernable passion for novel reading entertained by the wife and mother. The husband was sober and industrious, but his wife was indolent and addicted to reading everything procurable in the way of romance. This led her to utterly neglect her husband, herself and her eight children.

One daughter in despair, fled the parental home, and threw herself into the haunts of vice. Another was found by the police chained by the legs to prevent her from following her sister’s example. The house exhibited the most offensive appearance of filth and indigence. In the midst of this pollution, privation and poverty, the cause of it sat reading the last ‘sensation work’ of the season, and refused to allow herself to be disturbed in her entertainment.

That is proper nonsense.

And yet, it should come as no surprise to you, fellow puzzler, that crosswords also received this kind of treatment. Yes, crosswords were the focal point of a moral panic.

Arthur Wynne’s “word-cross” first appeared in The New York World in 1913. Simon & Schuster published The Cross-Word Puzzle Book, edited by Margaret Farrar, in 1924. 1924 also marked the first time a UK newspaper, The Sunday Express, would publish crosswords. By that point, crosswords were officially a fad, inspiring fashion trends (black and white patterns), hit songs, and musical revues on Broadway.

Ah, 1924. It was a strange year for crosswords. Because 1924 also saw some of the most inflammatory accusations hurled at the simple pencil-and-paper puzzles.

In November of that year, Canadian Forum referred to the spread of crosswords as an “epidemic obsession.”

The paper went on to psychoanalyze crossword solvers, claiming that crosswords were, at heart, a regressive and childish pursuit:

It is obvious from the similarity of the cross-word puzzle to the child’s letter blocks that it is primarily the unconscious which is expressing itself in the cross-word puzzle obsession.

The same year, The London Times went so far as to call America “enslaved” by the puzzle:

[The crossword] has grown from the pastime of a few ingenious idlers into a national institution: a menace because it is making devastating inroads on the working hours of every rank of society… [people were seen] cudgeling their brains for a four-letter word meaning ‘molten rock’ or a six-letter word meaning ‘idler,’ or what not: in trains and trams, or omnibuses, in subways, in private offices and counting-rooms, in factories and homes, and even — although as yet rarely — with hymnals for camouflage, in church.”

That church reference was particularly notable, as there were church sermons decrying the negative influence of crosswords on society. Sermons! Imagine crosswords being treated like heavy metal in the ’80s. It’s mind-boggling.

Much like that hyperbolic story about a family decimated by reading, newspapers published dubious tales of familial collapse sparked by crosswords:

Theodore Koerner of Brooklyn asked his wife for help in solving a crossword. She begged off, claiming exhaustion. Koerner shot her (superficially) and then shot himself (fatally).

And The New York Times, bastion of puzzles for the last 75 years? Yes, even the Gray Lady had harsh things to say about crosswords:

Scarcely recovered from the form of temporary madness that made so many people pay enormous prices for mahjongg sets, about the same persons now are committing the same sinful waste in the utterly futile finding of words the letters of which will fit into a prearranged pattern, more or less complex.

The paper went on to call crosswords “a primitive form of mental exercise” and compare their value to that of so-called brain teasers that should be solved by schoolchildren in 30 seconds or less.

Crosswords wouldn’t debut in the New York Times until 1942.

But could there have been a hint of truth buried beneath all the sensationalism? Perhaps.

There were reports that overzealous solvers, desperate for an edge over other puzzlers, went so far as to desecrate books at the New York Public Library in order to prevent others from utilizing the same resources. A sign, circa 1937, firmly stated that “the use of library books in connection with contests and puzzles is prohibited.”

Those darn crossword addicts, always getting into trouble. Can’t trust ’em.

So, the next time someone tells you crosswords are boring and passe, you can tell them that crosswords were as cool and as dangerous as rock n’ roll, once upon a time.

Heck, they still are.

[Thanks to The Atlantic, The Senior Times, Historical Nonfiction on Tumblr, The 13th Floor, and CommuniCrossings for images and quotations.]


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It’s Follow-Up Friday: Harold and the Hashtag Game edition!

Welcome to Follow-Up Friday!

By this time, you know the drill. Follow-Up Friday is a chance for us to revisit the subjects of previous posts and bring the PuzzleNation audience up to speed on all things puzzly.

And today, I’m posting the results of our #PennyDellKidsBooks hashtag game!

You may be familiar with the board game Schmovie, hashtag games on Twitter, or@midnight’s Hashtag Wars segment on Comedy Central.

For over a year now, we’ve been collaborating on puzzle-themed hashtag games with our pals at Penny Dell Puzzles, and this month’s hook was #PennyDellKidsBooks, mashing up Penny Dell puzzles and anything and everything having to do with picture books, storybooks, kids books, nursery rhymes, anything!

Examples include Oh the Places Please You’ll Go!, Charlotte’s Spider’s Web, and The Giving Three from Nine.

So, without further ado, check out what the puzzlers at PuzzleNation and Penny Dell Puzzles came up with!


The Wonderful Wizard Words of Oz

The Jumble Book

The Tail Tags of Peter Rabbit

Horton Hears a Who’s Calling? / Horton Hears a Sudoku! / Horton Hears a Guess Who! / Horton Hears a Word Games

Gerald McBingo Bingo

The Cat in the Hat Comes Back Around the Block

The Categories in the Hat / The Categories in the Hategories

One and Only Fish, Two by Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish
One and Only Fish, Two at a Time Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish
Pine Cone Fish, Two by Two Fish, Assembly Required Fish, Blue Fish

Green Eggs and Piggybacks

Dr. Seuss’s Sleep Bookworms

Hopscotch on Pop / Hop on Top to Bottom

Oh Say Can You Say That Again?

How the Grinch Stole Crisscross / How the Grinch Split and Splice Christmas

A Great Day for Ups and Downs

Shuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale

Fox In and Around Socks / Fox in Shadowbox

The Very Hungry Caterpill-around the Block / The Very Hungry Bookworm / The Very Hungry Crackers-pillar

Where the Wild Animal Crackers Are / Where and There the Wild Things Are / Where the Wild Wacky Words Are

A Wrinkle in Timed Word Seek / A Wrinkle in Two at a Time

The Secret Word Garden

Mad-End of the Line / MadeLine ‘Em Up

Love You ForEverything’s Relative

Harold and the Purple Pencil Pusher / Harold and the Point-the-Way Crayon

Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Wheels Bus / Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus Wheels

The Story of Ferdinand and the Bull’s-Eye Spiral

One Morning in Mystery State

Chips for Sal

Harry Potter and the Samurai Sudoku / Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secret Words

Hubcaps for Sale

If You Give A Mouse Crackers / If You Give a Mouse a CooKeyword / If You Give A Mouse a Crostics / If you Give a Mouse a Codeword

Alice in Wonderland: By Another Name: Everything’s Relative All Mixed Up / Alice’s Adventures in Word Seek Land

Goodnight, Sunrays

Are You My Mother? Who’s Calling?

Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel Build A Pyramid

Curious George Goes to the Crypto-Zoo

Where the Crossroads End: A Visual Deduction Problem

Crisscross Country Cat

The Windowboxes in the Willows

Patchwords the Bunny / Patmatch the Bunny

Make Word Ways for Ducklings

The Cricket in Times Square Deal

Bob-the-Build(er)-A-Pyramid

These Three Blind Mice

Rub-A-Dub-Dub, These Three Men in a Tub

Snow White and The Seven-Up Dwarfs

Good Night Moon, Good Night Star Words

The Itsy-Bitsy Spider’s Web went up the water spout

Crisscross Moo: Cows that Type

The Dial-a-Grams of a Wimpy Kid

The Little Puzzler That Could / The Logic Problem That Could

James and the Puzzler’s Giant Peach

The Give & Take Tree

The Giver and Take

A Crisscross in Time

Penny and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Decisions

One Topsy-Turvy Crazy Summer Fill-in

Anagrams of Green Gables

The Lion, the Which Way Words and the Wardrobe

The Tales of Uncle Rebus

The Word Maze Runner

The Hardy Boys “Hunting for Hidden Word Squares”

Nancy Drew “The Secret Word at Shadowbox Ranch”

Put me in the Crypto-zoo

The Magic Scrambled Up Bus


Several of my fellow puzzlers went above and beyond with these, launching such gloriously wordy titles as:

Alexander and the “Takeout”, “Hubcaps”, “No-List”, Very “Blips” Day

AND

Make Way for Crackers (er, quackers) as they Crossblocks and Dash-It (Mother Duck heard to quack: Keep On Moving! as they Shuffle along in the Middle Of The Road)

Talk about a mouthful!


And members of the PuzzleNation readership also got in on the fun! On Twitter, @HereLetty submitted Where the Wizard Words Are!

Have you come up with any Penny Dell Kids Books entries of your own? Let us know! We’d love to see them!

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You can also share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on TwitterPinterest, and Tumblr, and explore the always-expanding library of PuzzleNation apps and games on our website!