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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Crimes Against Crosswords!

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[Image courtesy of Goodreads.]

I know what you’re thinking. “Crimes against crosswords? Isn’t that a bit dramatic?”

Sure it is. You might think it’s over the top to shudder every time someone promises a crossword but publishes a crisscross instead.

But it’s true. There are numerous ways people can transgress against the noble crossword, harming both the body and the spirit of the crossword itself.

For instance, check out this picture of a crossword from The Los Angeles Times,  republished in a local newspaper, which was shared on reddit:

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Look at it! They cropped all four sides of the puzzle in order to fit the available space. Good luck figuring out which across word is clued by “mesake of a ed ratio” or one of the many other mangled clues along the left-hand side of the puzzle.

That is a crime against crosswords.

They’re not always so obvious and clumsy, though.

No, sometimes, a crossword is harmed by crummy fill or an abundance of nonsense abbreviations or numerous Naticks formed by crossing obscure words with other obscure words.

Granted, these are far rarer in the major outlets. (Unless you’re checking out r/crossword or reading Rex Parker’s blog, where they find so-called crossword indignities by the dozens. Good lord.)

But in reality, the vast majority of crossword venues won’t publish puzzles so undermined by careless choices.

evan 5

Yeah, you noticed I didn’t say “all crossword venues.”

This unfortunate grid was published by Vox, but it was later deleted, as reported on Twitter by constructor Evan Birnholz:

evan 4 may 22

Evan is an avid follower of the Vox crossword, but not because he’s a fan. No, Evan has been dunking on the Vox crossword for what feels like forever. He’s not doing it to make his own puzzles look better by comparison; as a top-flight constructor, he doesn’t need to.

His criticisms are never unfair or mean-spirited; on the contrary, they’re founded in trying to make the puzzle better by pointing out poor choices.

They’re also founded in defending the work of fellow constructors. Evan’s keen eye has caught more than a few questionable examples of clues that seem to have been pilfered wholesale or altered slightly by Vox constructors.

evan 1

Now, the first puzzle I posted was silly. Sure, it made the crossword nigh-unsolvable, but there’s no malice there. The second puzzle, the one with the unpleasant pattern, doesn’t deserve the same benefit of the doubt. It was a poor choice, and a puzzle that never should have made it to solvers.

But as for stolen clues, that’s something else entirely. If that’s what is happening here — and Evan makes a fairly compelling case — that’s not just a crime against crosswords, it’s a crime against fellow constructors. It’s a sign of disrespect.

I love shouting out smart clues by constructors, not only so other people can enjoy the wit and wordplay, but so that the right person gets the proper credit. The crossword community is a brilliant group of people; they’re clever and hardworking and constantly innovating.

And it sucks to see some members of the community take advantage of others. It hurts the community as a whole, far more than any bad cropping of a puzzle ever could.


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