Puzzles in Pop Culture: Forged in Fire

As you might expect, I am always on the lookout for puzzles on television.

Sometimes, a complete solvable puzzle appears, like in the seesaw brain teaser from Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Sometimes, they’re only referenced, like in a murder mystery involving a crossword editor on Bones.

Other times, a major portion of an episode revolves around them. We’ve seen this countless times from shows as diverse as The Simpsons and NCIS: New Orleans.

But I didn’t expect to stumble across a puzzle in an episode of Forged in Fire.

forged in fire

For the uninitiated, Forged in Fire is a reality competition show on the History Channel where blademakers show off their smithing prowess by forging knives, swords, and other bladed weapons for a panel of judges.

A typical episode consists of four competitors given a material to work with, and challenged to create a weapon of their choosing. They work on the set — known as The Forge — and at the end of the first round, they present their preliminary design, and one competitor is eliminated.

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The remaining three continue working to refine their blades in round two, and at the end of that round, after the blades are subjected to testing by the judges, another competitor is sent home.

In the third round, the two remaining competitors return to their home workshops/forges to create a different weapon entirely from scratch.

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But that was not how things went in episode 33 of season 7, entitled “Japanese Ono.”

Instead of building a blade of their choosing from a given material, the four bladesmiths were challenged to craft a blade that would fit a particular shape.

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They were each given the same amount of raw material, and they would have to shape it to fit a very specific design.

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Yes, their finished blade had to be the final piece in a jigsaw puzzle.

So their challenge was twofold. Not only did they have to exercise extreme resource management — they had only enough raw material to fill the space — but they had to exhibit the skill and finesse to make the steel bend and shape to fit the necessary design.

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These are two skills that many puzzle solvers are familiar with. Whether you’re dealing with a mechanical brain teaser by filling a particular space with various unwieldy or oddly-shaped pieces OR you’re trying to accomplish a task in a riddle with only simple ingredients, you’ve probably been in a similar situation.

Just not at 2000 degrees Fahrenheit.

four contestants

The four competitors were Nic, Logan, Keaton, and Dale, each with five to six years’ experience bladesmithing.

They had three hours for the first round of the competition, which would focus on shaping the knife to fit the puzzle.

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Dale and Keaton immediately welded their metal in preparation for putting it into the forges, while Logan grabbed a sheet of paper to trace the shape of the knife in the jigsaw puzzle.

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Keaton soon joined him, and they helped each other trace, which highlighted one of my favorite things about this show. Unlike so many reality shows where backstabbing and mean-spiritedness win the day, this one is all about competing against yourself. The blacksmiths aren’t sabotaging each other, they’re simply trying to do their best. We need more of that on TV.

Soon, all four blacksmiths had their pattern, following Logan’s lead.

Then, it was a blur of pressing and hammering their heated metal into shape, followed by quenching, grinding, and other steps in the preparation process.

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Nic and Logan were making good progress, but Dale was unhappy with how his metal was turning out, so he abandoned his current billet and started over from scratch.

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The judges noted that Keaton was the only bladesmith who kept returning to the jigsaw to trace and retrace his shape as he worked.

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But viewers would have to wait to see if that technique paid off.

When Logan went to check his blade against the puzzle template, he discovered his blade was too long, so he cut off about four inches of extra metal.

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You may recall that the judges said there was just enough metal to fill the space.

Yeah. This plot point would come up later.

But he wasn’t the only smith who had issues. Nic’s blade didn’t come out to the shape he wanted, and the judges joked it looked like an oar. Keaton quenched his blade three times (rather than one) to deal with various problems, but risked stress fractures in the blade by doing so.

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And just as the judges complimented Dale for his come-from-behind effort, he actually dropped his blade into the quenching liquid. By dipping his arm in to retrieve it, he coated his arm in a potentially flammable oil mixture. He basically turned his arm and sleeve into a potential wick.

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Good thing he brought a spare shirt.

Soon, the three hours were up, and the bladesmiths presented their blades to the judges to see how they’d fit into the puzzle.

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Dale’s blade was a decent fit, particularly considering he had to start over partway through, ending up 30-40 minutes behind his fellow competitors. But the judges warned him about several cracks in his blade that would need to be addressed in the second round.

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Keaton’s blade fit nicely, showing that the multiple tracings served him well. In the end, his blade would end up as the best fit of the four.

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Logan’s blade was well-shaped, and actually followed the pattern nicely. It was simply too small, because he wasted metal early by making the blade too long and then cutting off the “excess.” Judge Doug Marcaida couldn’t even let the blade sit in the puzzle like the others, because it would fall out.

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Finally, Nic’s blade was solid and well-made, but just doesn’t fit the pattern, either toward the hilt or along the edge. Beyond that, there was a big crack near the tip of the blade.

The shape alone was reason enough for Nic to be eliminated.

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And then there were three.

In round two, the remaining bladesmiths had two hours to address the problems raised by the judges, refine their blades, AND use two different kinds of handle material on each side of the tang (the metal on the back end of the knife) to make the handle.

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Plus a harsher test awaited each blade in round two, as the blades would be subjected to chopping a bone (to test its strength) and slicing a series of apples (to see how the blade retains its sharpness).

Logan and Keaton focused on grinding out the issues with their blades, while Dale had to try to weld shut the cracks in his blade to ensure it would endure the strength test. But in doing so, he noticed more cracks. “It’s make-it-or-break-it time,” he told us, prophetically.

While Dale was still grinding, Logan had moved on to choosing materials for the handle, focusing on building a resilient knife and worrying less about appearances.

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As Keaton worked on his handle, it turned out that he viewed this — getting the different materials to line up correctly and fit the design — as the puzzliest part of the whole endeavor.

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He also confessed that he didn’t pay much attention to which materials he chose — he just wanted it to look like a puzzle.

Soon enough, the two hours had expired, and the three bladesmiths presented their refined blades to the judges for the dreaded bone chop test.

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The judge, J. Neilson, happily slammed each of the knives against these unforgiving bones, interested in seeing what damage the bones inflicted on the blades and how the blades weathered his treatment of them. This would test not only the overall strength of the blade, but how well they retained their edge.

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Logan’s blade was first for testing, and it went through the first bone like butter. The next five swings of the knife barely made an impression on the second bone. But Neilson complemented the handle design (which allowed for a secure grip), even though the knife had some pitting and metal tearing from the test.

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Much like Logan’s blade, Keaton’s blade went through the first bone and was chewed up by the second. He lost some of his handle in the testing, and his blade showed similar damage to Logan’s, but again, the blade mostly held up against the strenuous field test.

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I actually liked Dale’s handle design the most. It looked and felt like pieces of a jigsaw put together, and really fit the aesthetic of the episode’s theme.

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Unfortunately, one chop into the testing, despite slicing through the first bone, Dale’s blade catastrophically failed.

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So Logan and Keaton moved on to the final round, where the puzzly theme fell away and the episode’s actual title came into play.

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The two bladesmiths were given four days in their home workshops/forges to build a Japanese ono, a double-headed battle-axe used by samurai in Japan during the 17th century.

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Logan, based in Bryan, Texas, and Keaton, based in Nantucket, Mass, set out to recreate this unfamiliar weapon.

Similar to his approach with the puzzle knife, Logan’s technique again involved cutting off the excess metal, but this time, he then stacked the extra metal to reforge and weld to make the large, unusually-shaped blade.

Keaton, meanwhile, focused on using a single piece of metal and shaping each end into one of the blades.

On Day 2, Logan’s blade shattered, and he had to start over from scratch. As it turned out, his welds failed to hold the blade together.

logan ono

[Logan’s finished second effort.]

Meanwhile, Keaton quenched his axe head and was overjoyed with how it turned out. He had ample time to cast heart-shaped ornamentation out of bronze for the axe while working on the handle.

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After the four days had elapsed, they returned to The Forge and presented their blades for testing. Each Japanese ono was tested against a ballistic gel dummy (to test lethality), a bamboo wall (to test strength and resilience) and a series of water-filled plastic tubes (to see how well it retained its edge).

Both blades performed well, but in terms of balance, design, and execution, Keaton’s was considered the superior blade, and he won the day, becoming a Forged in Fire champion and winning $10,000.

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While this wasn’t the traditional sort of puzzling we usually cover in a Puzzles in Pop Culture post, I do feel like the ingenuity, problem-solving, and resource management shown by each of the bladesmiths easily fall under the puzzle-solving umbrella.

Like a key into a lock, they had to forge the final piece of a very unique puzzle, and for the most part, they succeeded. That sounds like solid puzzling to me.


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The PN Blog 2020 Countdown!

It’s the final blog post of the year, so what do you say we revisit all of 2020 with a countdown of my ten favorite blog posts from the past year!


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#10 Farewell, Keith

I don’t mean to start off this countdown on a sad note by mentioning the loss of fellow puzzler and Penny Dell colleague Keith Yarbrough. Writing this post was incredibly difficult, but I am proud of how it turned out. It served as a valuable part of my healing process, allowing me to immerse myself in nothing but good memories of my friend. Giving other people the opportunity to know Keith like I did was a worthwhile experience.

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#9 Tap Code

Exploring the different ways puzzles have been involved in historical moments, either as anecdotes or key aspects, is one of my favorite parts of writing for PuzzleNation Blog. But it’s rare to have a historical story about puzzles that tugs on your heartstrings like this one. The way the Tap code served to keep the spirits of POWs high — and the way that codes and spycraft helped a husband and wife endure the hardships of separation — made this a post with a lot of depth and humanity.

#8 Holiday Puzzly Gift Guide

Every year, one of my favorite activities is putting together our Holiday Puzzly Gift Guide. I get to include the best products sent to me for review by top puzzle and game companies, mix in some of my own favorites, and draw attention to terrific constructors, game designers, and friends of the blog, all in the hopes of introducing solvers (and families of solvers) to quality puzzles and games.

#7 Crossword Commentary

There’s more to writing about crosswords than simply solving puzzles and unraveling clues, and that was especially true this year. The social and cultural aspect of crosswords came up several times, and it’s important to discuss these issues in an open, honest way, even if that means calling out a toxic presence like Timothy Parker, or even questioning the choices of the biggest crossword in the world to hold them accountable.

Whether it was exploring representation in crossword entries and cluing or continuing to debate cultural sensitivity in crossword answers in the major outlets, we took up the torch more than once this year because it was the right thing to do.

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#6 Best Puzzle Solvers

Last year, we began a series of posts examining the best puzzle solvers in various realms of pop culture, and I very much enjoyed combing through the worlds of horror movies and television for the sharpest minds and most clever problem solvers.

This series continued in 2020, as we delved into literature (for adult readers, young adult readers, AND younger readers, respectively), as well as compiling a list of the worst puzzle solvers in pop culture. We even graded the skills of different fictional crossword constructors to see who was representing the best and worst in puzzle construction in media!

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#5 Crossword Bingo

One of the most clever deconstructions of the medium of crosswords I came across this year was a bingo card a solver made, highlighting words and tropes that frequently appear in modern crosswords. It was a smartly visual way of discussing repetition and pet peeves, but also a sly bit of commentary. So naturally, we couldn’t resist making our own Crossword Bingo card and getting in on the fun.

#4 Pitches for Crossword Mysteries

Hallmark’s Crossword Mysteries series was one of the most noteworthy crossovers between puzzles and popular media last year, and that continued into this year with the third Crossword Mysteries film, Abracadaver. But we couldn’t get the idea of a fourth film — still promised on IMDb and other outlets — out of our heads, so we ended up pitching our own ideas for the fourth installment in the franchise. Writing this, no joke, was one of my favorite silly brainstorming sessions of the entire year.

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#3 The World of Puzzles Adapts

Even in a post celebrating the best, the most satisfying, the most rewarding, and the most enjoyable entries from 2020, you cannot help but at least mention the prevailing circumstances that shaped the entire year. 2020 will forever be the pandemic year in our memories, but it will also be the year that I remember puzzlers and constructors adapting and creating some of the most memorable puzzle experiences I’ve ever had.

From the initial experiment of Crossword Tournament From Your Couch to the creation of the Boswords Fall Themeless League, from tournaments like Boswords and Lollapuzzoola going virtual to the crew at Club Drosselmeyer creating an interactive puzzly radio show for the ages, I was blown away by the wit, ambition, determination, and puzzle-fueled innovation brought to the fore this year.

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#2 Eyes Open

Earlier this year, we made a promise to all of the people standing up for underrepresented and mistreated groups to do our part in helping make the world better for women, for people of color, and for the LGBTQIA+ community. We launched Eyes Open, a puzzle series designed to better educate ourselves and our fellow solvers about important social topics. And that is a promise we will carry into 2021. We hope that, in some small way, we are contributing to a better, more inclusive world.

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#1 Fairness

Part of the prevailing mindset of PuzzleNation Blog is that puzzles can and should be for everyone. They should be fun. And they should be fair.

So this year, two posts stood out to me as epitomizing that spirit. The first was a discussion of intuitive vs non-intuitive puzzles, which I feel is very relevant these days, given the proliferation of different puzzle experiences like escape rooms out there.

The second, quite simply, was a response to a friend’s Facebook post where she felt guilty for looking up answers she didn’t know in a crossword, calling it “cheating.” I tried to reassure her there was no such thing as cheating in crosswords.

And since I couldn’t decide between these two posts for the top spot in our countdown, I’m putting them both here, because I feel like they represent a similar spirit. I hope you feel the same.


Thanks for spending 2020 with us, through brain teasers and big ideas, through Hallmark mysteries and Halloween puns, through puzzle launches and landmark moments. We’ll see you in 2021.

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The Internet Rallies Together to Solve a Fall Guys Jigsaw Puzzle!

[Image courtesy of Fabrik Brands.]

It’s always fun when companies use puzzles as part of their marketing campaign. We’ve seen it loads of times over the years with varying degrees of success.

On the plus side, there was the intriguing trailer hunt for the Cartoon Network show Infinity Train, and the excitement when Game of Thrones launched a viral challenge where folks hunted down copies of the Iron Throne around the world.

On the minus side, there was the Busch Beer Pop Up Schop promotion where days of little puzzles led to hundreds more attendees showing up to the event than expected, and many were turned away disappointed when the free beer and merch dried up quickly.

I think my favorite thing about all of these puzzly campaigns is how people from all over the Internet rally together to solve them. They share information, theories, speculation, and general enthusiasm, driving each other toward a solution.

We got to see another example of collective puzzle-solving on the internet recently for fans of Fall Guys.

[Image courtesy of Wired.]

Fall Guys, for the uninitiated, is a game where dozens of players can compete in silly obstacle courses, tag-style chase games, and other sporty competitions as these goofy little costumed toddling characters, the fall guys.

It’s great fun and rapidly became one of the go-to games for streamers on YouTube to share their successes, frustrations, and all the shenanigans involved in playing.

The team behind Fall Guys, Mediatonic, teased the third season of Fall Guys by launching Operation #JigSawus, wherein they sliced a promotional photo into three hundred pieces and distributed them to fans across a number of different Twitter and Instagram accounts and Discord servers.

Then, it was up to the fans. Would people put aside the competitiveness that made Fall Guys so fun in order to find out just what the jigsaw would reveal?

Of course they would. Puzzle people are good people.

[Image courtesy of Mediatonic.]

It took only a few hours for the entire image to be revealed: a promotional poster for the theme for Fall Guys Season 3, Winter Knockout.

Yes, most fans probably assumed that the third season, launching in wintertime, would have a winter theme, but hey, it’s a bit of fun, and another nice reminder of how people can come together to solve puzzles and support each other.

Puzzles really do make the world a better place.


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Puzzling in the Past with the Fantastic Club Drosselmeyer Radio Show!

Over the previous four years, the organizers of Club Drosselmeyer have hosted an event in Boston set in a nightclub during World War II. The events have featured era-appropriate costumes, music, puzzle solving, dancing, and even a swing-time version of the Nutcracker Suite!

But given the current global circumstances, this year they redesigned their magical December event, and for the first time, folks outside the Boston area took part in a virtual Club Drosselmeyer puzzle experience presented as a radio show from the same era.

The first event was this Saturday, and your friendly neighborhood puzzle blogger was in attendance. And I just have to say… I was absolutely blown away by the show.

I’ve done a lot of puzzle-from-home things, from crossword tournaments to escape rooms, but none of them had the same style, ambiance, and energy as the Club Drosselmeyer Radio Show.

Allow me to explain a bit more.

Participants could either order a box of physical material to be delivered to the house (your Drosselbox) or download and print the necessary materials. But either way, you had puzzles and helpful items in front of you during the show.

drosselbox

[Some of the contents of your Drosselbox.
Puzzle materials excluded to avoid spoilers.]

Then you log into your account online, which gives the Club Drosselmeyer team your phone number and sets up your unique radio show page, which you have running online.

Every participant — or group, since you could play with up to five people (or more if people wanted to share roles) — had a scheduled two-hour window for the full solving experience. The radio show itself serves as musical performance, ambiance, and a built-in two-hour timer for your solve!

Plus you would periodically call into the Drosselmeyer Industries Switchboard with your phone to interact with prerecorded performances with the characters. A push-button system allowed you to answer questions and input puzzle solutions, which is already really cool. But, during the scheduled performance times, at points, you would be kicked over to the ACTUAL PERFORMER who voiced the prerecording you had just interacted with!

I must confess, I was startled virtually every time a voice said “Hello?” and then called me by name.

The interactions were so cool, and really immersed you in this fun roleplay aspect of the game as you gave them your solutions and were directed what to do next. The performers weren’t just professional, they were charming and helpful and it was an absolute treat to have these unique interactions with them.

Plus, your phone interactions would affect your individual radio show as you listened. You could trigger plot-specific updates and one of SEVEN different conclusions based on your contributions to the night’s events!

Oh, and what were the night’s events? Well…

In this scenario, puzzlers take on the role of an air raid warden and a civilian defense unit during World War II. It’s supposed to be a quiet night in Massachusetts while you listen to your favorite radio show. But suddenly, an air raid siren blares into the night, and you’re called into action!

I won’t go into the puzzles themselves, since solvers can still interact with the automated system, but I do want to highlight the radio show itself.

The music and sound design were absolutely top-notch, really adding to the whole experience. The music varied from soft lilting pieces to absolute big-band bangers, and it all felt so perfect for the time period. (I actually had to go back to listen to some of the song performances afterward, because I was so in-the-zone with my puzzle solving that I barely registered them.)

There was a post-show videochat so that players and performers could show off their period-specific costumes and interact, and I had the pleasure of speaking to several of the performers. They were incredibly welcoming and interested in the players’ solving experiences, and the mellow after-show aspect was a delight.

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[Just some of the characters you interact with through prerecorded messages AND live chats during the actual show!]

I inquired whether they’d be doing another Club Drosselmeyer Radio Show in the future, but the performers seemed quite anxious to get back to their usual live show format. I can appreciate that, but I sincerely hope they do this again. Eschewing videochats for a pure radio show-style feel was so engaging and felt so fresh and vibrant, and the phone interaction system (both automated and live) was truly impressive.

I simply cannot say enough good things about this experience. The puzzles were cleverly designed and varied in challenge (to allow for easier solving paths for less-experienced players or puzzle-light listening experiences), and the performances were outstanding. The entire team, from puzzlers to technicians to performers to musicians, should be very proud.

The Club Drosselmeyer Radio Show was an absolute blast. I loved every minute of it. (Yes, even the minutes wasted making dumb mistakes on a puzzle. *laughs*)

[Please check out their website here for all things Club Drosselmeyer.]


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Puzzles in Plain Sight: Secret Message in Hollywood Edition!

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[Image courtesy of MathTutorDVD.]

I am fascinated by codebreaking, secret codes, and that whole subgenre of puzzle solving. Probably because I’m pretty bad at it.

Don’t get me wrong, I can crack your bog-standard cryptogram or alphanumeric message. I’m fairly good at identifying patterns and deciphering codes when it comes to simple three-, four-, and five-digit answers in most escape room scenarios.

But when you start getting into encryptions where a letter’s meaning can shift as the coded message evolves — like the one employed by a devious 10-year-old kid in a puzzly letter to Santa years ago — and I quickly find myself stymied.

It leaves me all the more impressed when I read about codebreaking efforts as ambitious as ENIGMA and as silly (and, yet, still quite impressive) as Futurama fans cracking the multiple alien codes in the show just from random snippets.

But codebreaking isn’t just about cleverness, pattern-recognition, and determination.

Sometimes, it’s about knowing where to look.

For instance, in Los Angeles, there have been secret messages being transmitted in plain sight for decades.

Just cast your eyes to the light atop the Capitol Records building in Los Angeles.

The building was designed to look like a stack of records on a turntable, complete with the spindle pointing skyward. It opened in 1956, and the president of Capitol Records at the time, Alan Livingston, wanted the light to send out a message in Morse code. On opening day, Leila Morse — the granddaughter of Samuel Morse, inventor of Morse code — turned the light on.

The secret message being broadcast? “Hollywood.”

The message blinked away for decades. But it wasn’t the only message the light atop Capitol Records would send over the years.

In 1992, to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Capitol Records, the code was changed to “Capitol 50” for the entire year. Then it went back to the traditional “Hollywood” code.

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A decade later, it was changed again. What was the message? A secret announcement that would excite millions of pop music fans…

“Katy Perry. Prism. October 22, 2013.”

But as far as anyone can tell, nobody noticed. This teaser announcement never made the local or national news.

And so far, there hasn’t been a secret message since. At least, not that anyone has noticed.

Still, best keep your eyes on that light. You never know if your favorite artist might send you a secret signal. And it sure beats looking for backwards messages in heavy metal songs.


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New Puzzly Mystery Series? Parnell Hall’s Puzzle Lady Headed to TV!

parnell-hall-puzzle-lady

Some exciting news broke recently if you’re a fan of puzzle-fueled mysteries on television.

A few days ago, it was announced that a team of production companies have acquired the rights to Parnell Hall’s Puzzle Lady mystery series and are looking to develop it into a new mystery drama series.

The series centers around the grumpy Cora Felton, a nationally syndicated crossword puzzle editor who prefers to spend her time investigating crimes and nosing around police investigations than worrying about grid fill or witty cluing.

And, of course, each novel includes crosswords from Will Shortz that are woven into the narrative.

Although there are a host of colorful supporting characters to fill out the cast — one that will adapt nicely to the screen, in fact — the other major player worth noting is Cora’s long-suffering niece Sherry, a clever young woman who both handles the crossword side of things and tries to keep her aunt’s detective shenanigans in line.

Most of the press releases refer to Cora as “Miss Marple on steroids.” Personally, I don’t see it, unless they’re referring to Cora’s penchant to ignore social niceties in order to solve the case. I suspect that her combination of hardheadedness, determination, and keen observation skills will make her a favorite of mystery fans.

After all, who can’t get behind a sharp-tongued older woman who tolerates no guff and happily sidesteps the authorities in order to make sure justice is done?

two more options

As for the production side of things, they’ve assembled a solid team. ZDF Enterprises, which is headlining the project, recently sold crime drama The Bridge to the BBC. (One production company involved, Canada’s December Films, is a relatively new entity.)

The other production company, North Yorkshire’s Factual Fiction, already has several successful projects to their credit, producing The Curse of Ishtar and Agatha and the Midnight Murders. (Another entry in the Agatha series, Agatha and the Truth of Murder, was produced by the founding members of Factual Fiction for Channel 5 in the UK.)

Although they have acquired the rights to all twenty books in the series, the plan right now is for a six-episode run, and members of the production staff, including top execs and screenwriter Dominique Moloney, are already in place.

There’s no word yet on casting or when production will start, but we’ll keep you posted as soon as we know more.

Naturally, this makes one wonder about the OTHER crossword mystery series we’ve come to enjoy over the last year or two: the Hallmark Movies and Mysteries’ series The Crossword Mysteries.

A fourth film is still listed as forthcoming on IMDb, but the latest updates (posted back in June, as far as I can tell) show no movement on that front.

Astonishingly, the last one (Abracadaver) aired only back in January. It feels like it was a hundred years ago in 2020 time, doesn’t it?

Well, it sounds like cruciverbalist Tess Harper and detective Logan O’Connor might soon have some stiff competition in the puzzly sleuthing market.

Are you excited about the Puzzle Lady mystery series announcement, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers? Who would you like to see cast in the series? And can we expect some Will Shortz cameos? Let us know in the comments section below. We’d love to hear from you!


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