The WORST Puzzle Solvers in Pop Culture

We celebrate puzzles here at PuzzleNation, and for the most part, we really try to keep the mood light and the overall tone a positive one. Because puzzles are great, and the people who make them are creative, brilliant, innovative, funny wordsmiths who labor for hours just to bring us some delightful challenges in black-and-white grid form.

As part of the general spirit of PuzzleNation Blog, we’ve been doing a series of posts where we shout-out the best puzzle solvers from the realms of fiction, be it horror movies, classic literature, television, YA novels, and children’s books.

But in all fairness, for some reason, a lot of not-so-great puzzle solvers have also been featured in pop culture. Sometimes, a crossword puzzle is the perfect prop for a bit of comic relief. Other times, the crossword serves as a lens for the character, providing valuable insight into their personality.

And if it’s true that you can’t truly enjoy the sunshine without having experienced a little bit of rain now and then, well, let’s rain on a few characters for the sake of fun, shall we?

Here’s a quick look at some of the worst puzzlers in pop culture.


President Jed Bartlet, The West Wing

Bartlet is an incredibly intelligent and well-read individual, which makes it all the more entertaining to watch him struggle with a crossword during the third-season episode “Dead Irish Writers.” He overthinks one entry, is outwitted by another — coming up with TEA for the clue “It may be bitter” instead of END — and even coloring in a square when an answer doesn’t fit the grid.

That’s not the point of the scene, of course. It’s a showcase of Bartlet’s relationship with his wife and how they’re both confronting a crisis in different ways.

But still… Jed, you’re bad at crosswords.

Bertram Cooper (Robert Morse) – Mad Men _ Season 7, Gallery – Photo Credit: Frank Ockenfels 3/AMC

Bert Cooper, Mad Men

I haven’t seen all of Mad Men, so I can’t be certain, but I only recall one character with a deft hand when it comes to crosswords: Don Draper’s secretary Miss Blankenship. And she serves as the perfect foil for Mad Men‘s worst puzzle solver, Bert Cooper.

One of the top brass at advertising agency Sterling Cooper, Bert is solving a crossword and asks for “a three-letter word for a flightless bird.” Anyone with crossword experience will answer as Miss Blankenship does, with “emu.” Cooper replies, “Nope, it starts with an L,” to which Miss Blankenship responds, “The hell it does.” Clearly Mr. Cooper has already gone astray with this solve.

It’s a funny juxtaposition to have someone in a lower position speak so bluntly to a higher-up, and it also fits perfectly with Miss Blankenship’s abrupt style.

[Image courtesy of SyFy Wire.]

Marjory the Trash Heap, Fraggle Rock

Also known as Madame Trash Heap, this sentient compost heap claims to have all wisdom, and serves as a strange oracle for the nearby Fraggles. Although she possesses some magical powers and her advice usually turns out okay, this doesn’t prevent her from making some pretty silly mistakes. And that includes working on crosswords.

In one episode, Marjory needed an 11-letter word for “life of the party.” Proving both her faulty reasoning and her egocentric view of the world, she confidently claims the answer is her uncle, MAXIMILIAN. (It’s spelled with a silent Q, of course.)

Yes, this is a kids show, and yes, it’s not meant to be taken seriously, but it does make you question her view of the world, no matter how good her intentions are.

[Image courtesy of Screenrant.]

Eugene H. Krabs, Spongebob Squarepants

Mr. Krabs, owner of the Krusty Krab restaurant, is obsessed with money and views pretty much everyone and everything around him in terms of monetary value. This even extends to his recreational activities, as we see in one episode of the show where he is solving a crossword puzzle — well, a crisscross, but this happens in TV all the time — and puts the word “money” as the answer to every single five-letter space in the grid.

Unfortunately for Mr. Krabs, there’s one place in the grid where it wouldn’t work, spoiling the solve. (It is convenient for him that MONEY fits in so many of the five-letter spaces in the grid, though.)

I’m fairly certain Mr. Krabs doesn’t care, but hey, if you’re solving a crossword or a crisscross, you should care. A little. (At least he doesn’t color in grid squares like Jed Bartlet.)

[Image courtesy of Bill Watterson.]

Calvin, Calvin and Hobbes

There’s no denying that Calvin is a very clever boy. He creates games like Calvinball, builds some hilariously morbid snowmen, examines the world with a unique perspective that flummoxes and surprises in equal measure. But one Calvin and Hobbes comic strip reveals that he’s not necessarily a good crossword solver.

In response to the incredibly vague clue “bird,” Calvin says, “I’ve got it! ‘Yellow-bellied sapsucker!'” When Hobbes points out that there are only five boxes, Calvin brushes him off with a casual, “I know. These idiots make you write real small.”

On the one hand, Calvin would have no problem with rebus-style crosswords that put more than one letter into the grid. But on the other hand, no sane constructor would jam twenty letters into five boxes. (Hopefully.)

Walt Tenor, Stuck on You

A pair of conjoined twins in this comedy film from 2003, Bob is the quiet shy brother and Walt is the outgoing one driven to seek success in Hollywood. To further illustrate the differences between the two brothers and the central personality conflict between them, crosswords are mentioned twice in the film.

In both cases, the obvious correct answer — provided by the more timid and thoughtful Bob — comes as a surprise to Walt, who has come up with more inappropriate potential answers. I can’t share either of them with you, fellow puzzler, because we try to keep it family-friendly here on PN Blog, but sufficed to say, the answers tell you what’s on Walt’s mind most of the time, to the detriment of both his relationship with his brother and his ability to actually complete a crossword.

By ignoring the common sense answers and always twisting the clues to suit what he’s thinking about, Walt shares several of the bad qualities seen in other people on this list. He might just be the worst puzzle solver in pop culture.

Can you think of any bad solvers in popular culture that we missed? Let us know in the comments section below. We’d love to hear from you!


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NBC: Novel Board-game Content

book rock

By the late 2000s and early 2010s, NBC’s Must See TV Thursday lineup was a thing of the past, but they were still putting out quality comedy content. My Name Is Earl, The Office, Community, Scrubs, Parks and Recreation, and 30 Rock all had loyal followings.

And you’d be surprised how much puzzle and game content ended up on those shows.

The Office featured in-house Olympics and betting games, as well as a Da Vinci Code-esque prank. Community had two Dungeons & Dragons-inspired episodes (which I should really cover at some point).

But those last two shows — Parks and Recreation and 30 Rock — both featured made-up games that either spoofed or were inspired by modern board games.

(Yes, we’ve previously covered the Valentine’s Day scavenger hunt from Parks and Rec, but there were two other scavenger hunt moments, as well as the many game references made by the character Ben Wyatt.)

Parks and Recreation had The Cones of Dunshire, and 30 Rock had Colonizers of Malaar. Both of these games are much more elaborate takes on Settlers of Catan, a board game about resource management that is considered one of the top titles in modern board games.

In one episode of 30 Rock, executive Jack Donaghy is struggling with his position, given that NBC is under new ownership with Kabletown, and he finds refuge in a game of Colonizers of Malaar with the writers for comedy show TGS.

Jack believes his business acumen will make the game an easy victory, only to find the play experience strangely similar to his current problems at work. He flees the game for some fresh air.

Later, Jack returns to the game, inspired. He makes a seemingly ill-advised move — playing a fire card in a desert wasteland — that turns the game on its head. The fire turns all the sand into glass, a much-needed resource, and suddenly he’s back in control.

His success in the game inspires him to do the same with his new employers, and Jack leaves, reinvigorated.

The game itself allowed for a few silly throwaway lines, but Jack’s gaming experience was a clever way to allow him to reach rock bottom and rebound. Like many newcomers to a game, he struggled, found his way, and later triumphed, his day improved by playing the game.

Plenty of board game fans have had similarly joyful experiences.

Colonizers of Malaar, as far as we can tell, is a marketed game in the 30 Rock universe. The Cones of Dunshire from Parks and Recreation, on the other hand, is created by character Ben Wyatt and initially treated as a mistake, a nonsensical result of his boredom and frustrations.

The game becomes a running gag in the show. Ben leaves it as a gift at an accounting firm that he has been hired by (and walked away from) several times.

Later, we find out the game has been produced, and Ben stumbles across it when dealing with a dotcom company. He mentions that he invented it, but is shrugged off. He then proves not only his gaming skill but his authorship of the game when he beats the dotcom bosses in a tense playthrough.

It’s mentioned once that a gaming magazine called Cones of Dunshire “punishingly intricate,” a point that makes Ben proud.

Part of the fun of Cones of Dunshire is that the viewer never really understands what’s going on, so supposedly dramatic moments can be played for laughs. (I also appreciate that the name of the game is basically a fancy way of saying “dunce hat.”)

And, in the sort of cyclical storytelling that could only happen in a nerdly pursuit like board games, the company that made Settlers of Catan — Mayfair Games — produced a giant version of the game as part of a charity event at GenCon.

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A Kickstarter campaign for a limited run of the game was launched twice, with copies costing $500 due to the insane complexity and number of pieces for the game, but it ultimately failed to reach its goal.

Nonetheless, these two fictional games made an impact on both the characters of the show and the fans as well. What more could you ask for?


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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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Forrest Fenn’s Treasure: Found?

Well, it looks like someone took my advice.

On June 6th, Forrest Fenn announced on his blog that his treasure has been found.

In such quiet fashion ends a ten-year search undertaken by an estimated 350,000 people, one that sadly cost five of those people their lives.


In 2010, Forrest Fenn hid a treasure chest full of gold and diamonds, purported to be worth millions, somewhere in the Rocky Mountains. The only clues offered — nine, to be specific — were hidden in his poem, “The Thrill of the Chase.”

[Image courtesy of Westword.]

After eight years — and several of the deaths mentioned above — Fenn offered a few new clues in the hopes of preventing any further tragedies:

The treasure chest is not under water, nor is it near the Rio Grande River. It is not necessary to move large rocks or climb up or down a steep precipice.

Please remember that I was about 80 when I made two trips from my vehicle to where I hid the treasure.

In the two years since those clues were released, many more attempts have been made to find the treasure.

And now, with this brief announcement, it appears to be over:

It was under a canopy of stars in the lush, forested vegetation of the Rocky Mountains and had not moved from the spot where I hid it more than 10 years ago. I do not know the person who found it, but the poem in my book led him to the precise spot.

I congratulate the thousands of people who participated in the search and hope they will continue to be drawn by the promise of other discoveries.

So the search is over. Look for more information and photos in the coming days.

Fenn claimed in a local interview that the chest had been found “a few days” before he broke the story. Additionally, he told the Santa Fe New Mexican:

“The guy who found it does not want his name mentioned. He’s from back East,” he said, adding that it was confirmed from a photograph the man sent him.

The paper then reported that Fenn “declined to produce the photograph Sunday.”

forrest fenn

[Image courtesy of the Santa Fe New Mexican.]

But, as you might expect when there are millions of dollars at stake, this news is not without controversy.

A real estate attorney in Chicago alleges that she solved the puzzle but was hacked and had the solution stolen from her. Supposedly, the thief had been taunting her through text messages for months. She is suing not only to prevent the unnamed treasure hunter from selling any of the treasure, but also to have the court award the chest to her as well.

This seems like a peculiar scenario. Unless she was unwisely braggadocious about her solve, how would someone she doesn’t know “hack” her, steal her solution, and then beat her to the treasure?

(Having traveled between Chicago and Santa Fe over twenty times as part of her search, she claims she’s spent between $10,000 and $30,000 trying to locate the treasure, only to have it stolen out from under her.)

This isn’t the only lawsuit tied to Fenn’s treasure hunt. He was previously sued for $1.5 million by a Colorado man who claimed Fenn cheated him out the treasure through misleading clues and fraudulent statements. (This case was thrown out by a judge in late February, but the claimant is petitioning to have it reopened.)

A third case is pending, and the plaintiff believes Fenn is fraudulently announcing the treasure has been found in order to undermine his case.

Of course, there are folks who believe the treasure was found years ago, but Fenn never told anyone, using the mystery to feed fame and book sales.

And then, there are those who claim the treasure never existed at all.

[Image courtesy of Wikipedia.]

I must admit, I can understand the doubters’ skepticism. It’s a little too perfect, isn’t it? Exactly ten years after he first hid it, despite no new clues for two years, suddenly the treasure is found.

And yet, we have no photograph, no identity for who found it, and court cases already claiming theft and chicanery. All we’re left with is a brief announcement, a small flurry of press, and more questions.

Who found Forrest Fenn’s treasure?

Was the solution stolen?

Did the treasure ever exist in the first place?

Perhaps we’ve waited ten years only to end up with a new mystery.


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Puzzles Come to Animal Crossing for May Day!

animal-crossing-new-horizons-switch-hero

[Image courtesy of Nintendo.]

The latest edition of the video game franchise Animal Crossing — New Horizons — has been out for a few months now. But recently, they ventured into the world of puzzles as a special promotion.

Thankfully, friend of the blog Jennifer Cunningham — puzzler, artist, musicologist, and former Tabletop Tournament Champion — has returned to the blog with the lowdown on the recent May Day event.

So, without further ado, let’s turn things over to Jen for her piece on Animal Crossing: New Horizons.


Possibly one of the most anticipated video game releases of the year, Animal Crossing: New Horizons arrived at just the right time, hitting Nintendo Switch consoles at the end of March.

The latest installment in the Animal Crossing series finds its players arriving at a beautiful island paradise. There are multiple goals in the game including expanding your home, gaining wealth, collecting insects and fish to donate to the local museum (or to sell for profit), and of course improving your island’s appeal so that popular singer/songwriter K.K. Slider will play a concert for you and the other residents.

animal-crossing-new-horizons-guide

[Image courtesy of VG 24/7.]

Players across the world have gone wild for this game, making it their entertainment of choice while stuck at home at this uneasy time. The social aspect of the game, which allows players to virtually invite their friends to their islands, share gifts and resources, and even to chat, has helped many feel less isolated.

And the makers of Animal Crossing are doing their part to keep the game interesting and engaging for players who have likely been obsessively playing since the release date. As months change, so do your island’s insects and fish, and special events ensure players keep coming back. An Easter-themed event called Bunny Day saw players collecting eggs to build themed objects, and more recently an environmentally centered event called Nature Day encouraged activities related to planting trees and flowers.

May Day on May 1st was part of the Nature Day celebration. Starting on this day, everyone’s favorite raccoon/tanuki mogul Tom Nook gave players a special ticket for a May Day Tour on a special getaway island via Dodo Airlines. Unlike other island excursions that players may take, this particular tour package had an unusual surprise. Players were transported to an island with a puzzly secret: a maze!

20200503_194628

[Image courtesy of Jennifer Cunningham.]

Normally Animal Crossing doesn’t involve much in the way of problem solving — it’s a pretty straightforward collect-and-build-style game — so to challenge players with a puzzle was a surprise.

The entire May Day Tour island is composed of a hedge maze, blocked off in spots by boulders, trees, and shrubs. Using a simple shovel supplied at the maze entrance, players must collect resources such as fruit, wood, and iron ore to build more tools and make their way through the maze.

animal-crossing-new-horizons-money-tree

[Image courtesy of Newsweek.]

In addition, players could collect “Bell vouchers” which can be traded in for Bells (the game’s currency). At the end of the maze awaited the main prize as supplied by a mysterious returning character popular to fans of the game’s previous generations. (I admit as a new fan, this wasn’t a big draw for me, but for die-hard fans, this was a very big deal.)

The maze was intuitive, and it didn’t take long for me to figure out how to navigate it, although it does involve a lot of backtracking to meet the necessary steps in the correct order.

animal-crossing-new-horizons-may-day-tour-featured_feature

[Image courtesy of Super Parent.]

That said, the maze did offer some challenges. I completed my first attempt fairly quickly, but failed to maintain enough fruit in my stores to remove three boulders and access a group of bell vouchers. (For a bit of context, consuming fruit boosts players’ strength, allowing them to dig up whole trees or break boulders).

Thankfully the maze offered a reset option. It took me about three attempts to finally perform every necessary action in the correct order to collect all of the maze’s prizes.

animal-crossing-new-horizons-guide-may-day-event-rescue-services-reset

[Image courtesy of Animal Crossing World.]

Overall, while not the most challenging of puzzles, it was refreshing to do some problem solving in a game that can admittedly get a little repetitive. There was a hint within the game’s dialog that there may be more islands of this sort, and I do hope that is true. Likely these will be included in future events to keep players coming back for more.

If you haven’t jumped on the Animal Crossing bandwagon yet and want to try your luck at the maze before it’s too late, the May Day event runs through May 7.


Thank you Jen for that marvelous report!

Will you be participating in the May Day Animal Crossing event, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers? Let us know in the comments section below. We’d love to hear from you!

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The Best Puzzle Solvers in Young Adult Fiction

In the past, we have assembled super-teams of the best puzzle solvers in horror films, television, and literature. The goal was to highlight characters who stand out, the ones you’d want on your side, because they’re clever, decisive, and immensely capable.

In the fourth installment in this delightful series, we turn our attention to books for young adult readers, seeking out the quickest minds and the deftest problem solvers from the printed page.

So let’s meet (or revisit) some wickedly bright minds from teen-centric reads.


nancy drew

[Image courtesy of Amazon.]

Nancy Drew

Originally created as a female counterpart to the Hardy Boys, detective Nancy Drew has largely eclipsed them at this point, cementing her reputation as one of the most prominent teen detectives in literature. Nancy’s interest in numerous fields — psychology, language, and many others — served her well as she dove headlong into each case.

Her gift for association — making connections others miss — gave her a leg-up in locating clues and building cases before her lawyer father and the local police could do so. The criminal element in River Heights never left a puzzle that the diligent and outspoken Nancy couldn’t solve.

hermione-granger

[Image courtesy of Claire Fox Writes.]

Hermione Granger, Harry Potter series

When you’re a student of magic at one of the most dangerous schools in the world, you need to be sharp and ready. And Hermione Granger has those qualities in abundance. As studious as they come, Hermione is one of the puzzliest characters in modern literature. She brewed the notoriously difficult Polyjuice Potion, solved Professor Snape’s potion riddle, and deduced that Remus Lupin was a werewolf.

She’s as comfortable bending time to enhance her coursework (and save a few lives) as she is battling the gossip and lies of the treacherous Rita Skeeter. Numerous mysteries surrounding Hogwarts and Voldemort are solved by the trio of Ron, Harry, and Hermione, but without the stalwart and clever Miss Granger, Ron and Harry would’ve been out of luck.

wide window

[Image courtesy of Thrifty Teachers.]

Violet Baudelaire, Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events

The eldest of the three Baudelaire orphans, Violet has the most mechanical mind of the trio. She is a prolific inventor, making marvelous contraptions out of whatever’s handy, and often getting her and her siblings out of dangerous situations in the process. Pursued by the malevolent and greedy Count Olaf, Violet outwits Olaf on more than one occasion, paying close attention to him and tailoring her behavior accordingly.

Whether she’s inventing a grappling hook to save her sister or picking a lock to find evidence against Count Olaf, Violet has a mind made for puzzles, whether she’s putting things together or taking them apart. As imaginative as she is capable, no mechanical brain teaser could stymie her for long.

ender game

[Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions.]

Ender Wiggin, Ender’s Game series

Although Ender’s story is not as happy as some of the others in this list, as mistreated and manipulated as he is throughout the first book, he should absolutely be counted among the best puzzlers in young adult literature. He is a phenomenal tactician, first in laser tag competitions in zero gravity, then later in simulated interstellar combat scenarios as part of his command training.

Ender uses his cleverness to circumvent the final test and win an unwinnable battle. And when he discovers that the battle was NOT simulated, and he had in fact won a war through his clever ruthlessness, he turns his puzzly mind to figuring out the mistakes that led to the war in the first place. As his adventures continue, he unravels numerous mysteries, often saving lives in the process.

ready player one

[Image courtesy of Goodreads.]

Parzival, Aech, and Art3mis, Ready Player One

In a virtual world known as the OASIS — a fully immersive Internet where work, school, and recreation are conducted — the characters of Ready Player One are on the ultimate puzzle hunt. For five years, the prize has remained unclaimed, no matter how expansive or expensive the methods employed to find it. Entire corporations are dedicated to solving it, because the prize is nothing less than control of the OASIS itself.

Which makes it all the more impressive that game and puzzle-loving teenagers are the ones to uncover several of the keys needed to complete the hunt. They are clever, determined, and resourceful puzzlers who combine a thirst for knowledge, top-notch gaming skills, and impressive deductive reasoning to accomplish the seemingly impossible.

westing game

[Image courtesy of Amazon.]

Turtle Wexler, The Westing Game

When you find yourself — and everyone else in your apartment building — on the list of possible heirs for a dead millionaire’s fortune, you know something strange is going on. And if it’s a race to a fortune predicated on solving an intricate puzzle, solving a murder, and uncovering a mysterious secret, then Turtle Wexler is the person you want on your side.

Possessing a keen mind and some serious analytical chops — after all, she plays the stock market at 13 years old — Turtle’s intellect is nearly as quick as her shin-kicking feet. Another strong tactician, Turtle takes advantage of opportunities (and creating a few of her own), eventually winning the Westing Game.

queen's thief

[Image courtesy of Christina Reads YA.]

Eugenides, The Queen’s Thief Series

The puzzles that Eugenides concerns himself with are far different than the ones tackled by other characters on this list. Eugenides is a master strategist, a chess player who must treat entire countries as his gameboard. Eugenides is observant and patient, playing out slow-burn tactics that can take months or years to come to fruition, all in the hopes of protecting those he serves.

It’s quite something to solve a puzzle in front of you, but it’s something else entirely to solve the next five puzzles before they’ve even shown themselves. Over the course of The Queen’s Thief series, Eugenides shows a tremendous understanding of how others think, what motivates them, and who can be trusted. There’s not a logic problem or a brain teaser around that Eugenides couldn’t plot his way past.

benedict

[Image courtesy of Amazon.]

Sticky, Constance, Kate, and Reynie, The Mysterious Benedict Society

If you’re looking for the most overtly puzzly quartet in young adult lit, this should be your first stop. These books are loaded to the brim with puzzles and mysteries, and this fearsomely brilliant foursome is equipped to handle any riddle, cipher, or brain teaser in their way.

Whether it’s Reynie’s logical deduction skills, Kate’s incisive ability to find shortcuts, Sticky’s memory and recall, or Constance’s penchant for finding patterns in plain sight, the sinister plans of Mr. Curtain (and any other puzzly evildoer out there) don’t stand a chance.


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

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