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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A Jeopardy! G.O.A.T. revealed early?

Over the last two weeks, the three most dominant names in Jeopardy! history were brought together for a series of head-to-head-to-head battles to determine The Greatest of All Time.

Brad Rutter (the all-time money leader), Ken Jennings (the record holder for most games won in a row), and James Holzhauer (the dynamo who set daily record after daily record last year) faced off in prime time, the first time in 30 years that Jeopardy! has aired in prime time.

Each hour-long show consisted of two half-hour games, and the player with the highest point total across the two games would be the winner for the night. The first contestant to win three of the hour-long episodes would be declared the champion.

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[Image courtesy of Slate.]

Night One was Tuesday, January 7. The first game went to Jennings, the second to Holzhauer, but Jennings eked out a victory for the night over Holzhauer by a mere $200, winning $63,400 to $63,200.

Night Two was Wednesday, January 8, and Holzhauer won both games, besting Jennings by more than $25,000.

It was now 1-1, with Rutter the only player winless. Sadly, this would remain a pattern for Rutter throughout the contest. Nineteen years out from his original win streak, time was clearly catching up to him.

Night Three was Thursday, January 9, and Jennings returned to his winning ways, taking both games and the victory for the night. Rutter had his best performance yet, coming within $10,000 of Holzhauer’s second-place total.

The viewers — 14 to 15 million each night! — had to wait until the following Tuesday, January 14, for the game to resume.

Night Four saw Jennings take the first game, and Holzhauer bet the farm on the second game’s Final Jeopardy question, only to get it wrong, leaving him with $0 for the second game. Jennings claimed his third victory in four nights, and is now known as The Greatest of All Time.

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[Image courtesy of CNN.]

Unfortunately, this outcome was spoiled days ago for keen-eyed viewers, particularly those who prefer to record/DVR their shows to ensure they don’t miss out on a special event like this.

Anyone who was looking ahead to the second week of shows in order to record them would have no problem setting up the DVR for Night Four on Tuesday.

But anyone who looked forward to record Night Five and beyond was greeted instead by ABC’s usual schedule of shows. And it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that, by not blocking out the hour for another Jeopardy! prime time show — even tentatively — that most likely meant that there wouldn’t be any more episodes to come after Tuesday.

The championship would be determined on Night Four. Ken Jennings would win.

Sadly, if you were one of those very organized individuals, like my mother was, you had the outcome ruined for you as early as Friday of last week.

What a bummer. You’d think that the programming execs at ABC would have realized this and listed the block going forward for the week, complete with a side note about replacing the show with other programs in case the championship wrapped up early, as they do for the World Series and other sporting events with an uncertain number of games.

It’s an easy mistake to make, particularly with a pre-recorded show like Jeopardy!, but one that spoiled the championship for more than a few.


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The Unexpected Return of Timothy Parker

Of all the names I expected to see pop up in puzzles in the new year, Timothy Parker wasn’t one of them.

For the uninitiated, Timothy Parker was the crossword editor for Universal’s syndicated puzzle and USA Today, both of which are owned by Universal Uclick. He touted himself as “America’s most solved crossword constructor.”

And almost four years ago, devastating accusations of plagiarism emerged regarding Parker’s conduct as a crossword editor. In a story broken by FiveThirtyEight.com, more than 60 puzzles were flagged for suspicious patterns of repeated entries, grids, and clues with previously published puzzles in The New York Times and other outlets. (Hundreds more showed some level of repetition.)

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Additionally, a pattern of puzzles re-published under fake names or Parker’s name — rather than the name of the actual constructor who submitted the puzzle — also emerged.

In response — eventually — Universal Uclick released a statement that Parker “agreed to temporarily step back from any editorial role for both USA Today and Universal Crosswords.” The company later confirmed “some” of the allegations against Parker, and he was placed on a three-month leave of absence. He was soon removed as editor for the USA Today crossword. (The question of whether he was still employed by Universal Uclick would linger for years to come.)

After all the kerfuffle, Parker seemingly vanished. Except for the occasional joke on Twitter (or scathingly clever puzzle) referencing the story, that was it.

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[Image courtesy of Evan Birnholz.]

Until last week, that is.

In a promotional article on ExpoTor, Parker touted the strength and drawing power of his puzzle brand, taking the opportunity not only to toot his own horn, but to settle a few old scores.

From the article:

Thirdly, be aware of snakes in the grass. As you get more and more successful, there will be more and more snakes slithering around trying to degrade your work in hopes of boosting theirs. This is common in any industry but is particularly relevant in my industry. I once had a D-list constructor for the Washington Post actually convince a gullible major newspaper reporter that one of my family-oriented crossword themes contained a secret “rape” joke.

This preposterous and asinine assumption was then actually written up by a reporter who stated I had “hidden” a rape joke in my crosswords. Having a G-rated, family-oriented brand for 21 years, this could have been devastating to the brand. But in my case, solvers who have known my work for years came to my rescue, and not only chastised the D-list constructor responsible for this nonsense but also the reporter as well. The article stayed up for a couple of hours and was quickly removed.

Both the supposed “D-list constructor” and the supposed “gullible major newspaper reporter” gladly identified themselves, pointing out that the article — you know, the one that was quickly removed back in 2017? — is still up on HuffPost today.

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[Image courtesy of Huffpost.]

As for the secret rape joke, the grid contained the message “PSST HEY DOES THIS OLD RAG SMELL LIKE CHLOROFORM TO YOU.” The clue? “Run away from anyone who says this.”

Good lord. That’s about as overt a rape joke as I’ve ever seen that didn’t actually include the word “rape.”

Parker concludes the point with “The lesson learned here is rivals are rarely an asset to your brand.” You’d think a better lesson to learn — other than “don’t make offensive comments the centerpiece of your crossword” — would be “Don’t waste time in the middle of a promotional pitch grinding an ax that makes you look petty, incompetent, and insensitive.”

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[Image courtesy of biaphysio.]

Now, fellow puzzler, you might very well be asking yourself, “why waste blog post space on a topic like this?” That’s a fair question.

But I think it’s important to identify and call out problematic members of a community. Parker has never once admitted any fault or claimed any responsibility for the plagiarism scandal years ago. He has never apologized to the hardworking constructors whose work was stolen and/or reused without credit.

And for him to make such snide comments about another constructor — a well-respected one, I might add, with vastly higher standards for what constitutes a quality puzzle — reflects poorly on the entire field.

It’s been my privilege to meet and interact with dozens of top-flight constructors and puzzle editors. And the vast majority of them are good people, Evan included. They’re decent, creative, often brilliant, and frequently incredibly supportive of their fellow constructors.

Meanwhile, Parker claims that “Timothy Parker Crosswords is a brand that’s known worldwide.” That’s true, though DeLorean and Ponzi are also brands known worldwide.

Thankfully, USA Today and Universal Crosswords (part of Andrews McMeel Syndication) are both in more capable, reliable, and honest hands, being edited by Erik Agard and David Steinberg, respectively.

Here’s hoping the trend toward editors who support and respect both their fellow constructors and the crossword audience continues onward into 2020 and beyond.


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PN Review: Crossword Mysteries: Abracadaver

On March 10th, 2019, Crossword Mysteries: A Puzzle to Die For debuted, introducing the puzzle world (and the mystery world) to crossword editor Tess Harper and detective Logan O’Connor, as the unlikely duo unraveled the murder of an art dealer with a crossword puzzle in his pocket.

During the final commercial break, three more Crossword Mysteries films were announced for the fall. The second Crossword Mysteries film — Proposing Murder — debuted on October 13th. But the third film, originally scheduled to air one week later, was suddenly pushed to January of this year to make room for more Christmas movies.

In October.

But I digress.

This past Sunday, the third Crossword Mysteries film finally debuted on Hallmark Movies and Mysteries.

Its title? Abracadaver.

I’ll recap the story below, and then give my thoughts on the whole endeavor. If you’d like to read my conclusions but skip the full recap, scroll down to the next solid black line.

Ready? Okay, let’s do this!


FILM RECAP

The show opens at the Magic Manor, a combination magic school and performance space. We see a gun being prepared for a performance. A woman aims it through a sheet of glass at the magician, who stands with his arms spread wide and his mouth open.

While crossword editor Tess wanders around the mansion, admiring old posters, she hears the gunshot.

Cue the credits, introducing the main characters and framing them with crossword grids and clues, setting the aesthetic for the film.

Tess peeks in on the rehearsal in time to see the magician — the Amazing Alisdair — remove the bullet from his mouth, no worse for wear. Tess is then chastised for sneaking a look at another magician’s rehearsal. Apparently Tess is a student of magic in her voluminous free time.

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The next day, Tess is hard at work on a puzzle with random theme-appropriate words strewn throughout the grid: MAGIC, WAND, etc. She writes an incredibly bland clue for FRENCH DROP, a classic sleight of hand technique.

We then meet Reed, the new crime reporter for The Sentinel, who will be sharing a desk with Tess. (Apparently, he’s been hired to replace the crime reporter murdered in the first Crossword Mysteries film, which was months ago at this point. Has no one been covering the crime beat in New York City since then?)

Naturally, he is instantly charmed by our friendly neighborhood crossword editor, as all people are everywhere. Ask any puzzle editor. We are beloved figures.

Tess’s assistant, Josephine, mentions Tess’s upcoming birthday dinner at the Magic Manor. As it turns out, she’s taking magic classes as research for a puzzle she’s working on. (This checks out. I once disappeared for five years in the mountains of Tibet while doing research for a puzzle on sasquatches.)

Tess invites Reed to join in the magical birthday festivities. Reed seems nice, in that his jerkier tendencies appear unintentional.

We cut to the Magic Manor, where Tess arrives for class. They do sleight of hand practice and play with disappearing foam balls. The instructor talks to a testy Amazing Alisdair, and the words “no more favors” can be overheard. By Tess. Nosy nosy Tess.

Later, Alisdair is testy with his assistant Bianca before the show. A large steamer trunk is delivered.

At dinner in the performance area of the Magic Manor, Tess chats with her Aunt Candace and her assistant Josephine, and they mention fundraising efforts for the Manor’s upcoming museum of magic. Detective Logan O’Connor shows up, and Tess is surprised. Aunt Candace is playing matchmaker. He gives her a charm bracelet with a little crossword charm on it.

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Reed arrives with flowers for Tess, and there is instantly dude tension between Reed and Logan over the pretty girl. Thankfully, the performance is starting soon and we can leave the forced love triangle behind for a bit.

Backstage, Bianca brings a drink to Amazing Alisdair. Onstage, the emcee mentions the Magic Manor used to be a speakeasy. (I am instantly on alert for secret passages from here on out.)

As Amazing Alisdair does his introduction, the camera lingers on a nearby table, where Suspicious Man and Dude Wearing Sunglasses Inside are sitting. Amazing Alisdair asks for a volunteer, pointedly ignoring Suspicious Man’s raised hand and choosing Josephine instead.

He does some sleight of hand with her watch. Tess, the magic student, asks how they do that. She is clearly a bad magic student.

Amazing Alisdair leans over in a worrying manner after helping Josephine down from the stage, as if winded or fatigued. He then grabs the gun, and prepares for the big illusion: the Bullet Catch. Tess is invited onstage to mark the bullet, which she labels with her initials.

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Bianca and Amazing Alisdair prepare for the Bullet Catch. His hand shakes while he loads the gun. Bianca fires, the glass shatters, and Alisdair is left laying on the ground. Suspicious Man and Dude Wearing Sunglasses Inside immediately bolt for the exit, as innocent people are wont to do. Logan then stands up, calls in the crime, identifies himself as a cop, and gets everyone to wait outside while he secures the scene.

A Good Samaritan doctor checks on Alisdair, but he’s dead. Logan and the doctor can’t find a bullet wound.

Suddenly, the lights go out as Logan finds a bullet on the ground nearby.

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The assembled guests loiter around the Magic Manor. Aunt Candace tries to comfort the shaken Bianca. Logan’s partner Winston shows up to investigate the murder.

Logan talks to Bianca, and she mentions the drink before the show, as well as Alisdair’s hand shaking. Bianca asks to go to her dressing room, and when she and Winston arrive, the room has been broken into and ransacked. Keen-eyed viewers notice there’s no sign of the steamer trunk.

The doctor walks around looking suspicious. The emcee, Rocco, also paces about nervously.

Logan talks to Tess about her time at the Magic Manor. She’s been taking classes for a few weeks, and mentions the exchange between Cormac (her instructor) and Amazing Alisdair. Alisdair wanted a favor. Cormac agreed, but said it was the last time. Tess mentions Alisdair’s weird lean and sweatiness. Logan sends her home, and asks her not to investigate, then wishes her a happy birthday.

Naturally, Tess ignores his wishes immediately and for no apparent reason follows a woman in a sparkly dress upstairs. And all around the manor. But then loses her in a corridor with no exit.

COMMERCIAL BREAK!

At the police station, Logan and his father (the Chief) discuss the trick, explaining the bullet Logan on the floor and the lack of a bullet wound; the trick didn’t kill Amazing Alisdair. They’re waiting on autopsy to report on heart attack or other possible explanations. Logan gets a call from forensics that there was residue on the bullet from Alisdair’s mouth. He might’ve been poisoned.

At The Sentinel, Reed and Tess chat about the long night. Reed considers taking magic classes at the Manor to get a different angle on the story. Tess dissuades him, but offers to share anything she learns during her classes. He tries to dissuade her in return. Mutual dissuading continues for a bit.

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[Tess in her subtle crossword-pattern jacket.]

Back at the police station, Logan gets details. A fish poison, tetrodotoxin, was found on the bullet. Forensics also found traces of it on Amazing Alisdair’s scotch glass.

At the Magic Manor, Tess and Bianca talk while they clean up the dressing room. Tess discovers that Bianca and Amazing Alisdair used to date. Bianca mentions their bad breakup and namedrops Sinclair, the person who convinced Alisdair to do the Bullet Catch trick.

Logan arrives, and is immediately mad at Tess for investigating. She compares him to “a paper that keeps printing the same puzzle day after day after day.” She comes off as quite a jerk here, but mentions the woman in the sparkly gold dress before she leaves.

Logan talks to Bianca. Turns out Amazing Alisdair brought the scotch with him. Bianca swears no one would want to harm the magician. When the detective checks out Alisdair’s place later, Winston mentions that the lock may have been picked. The repair guy, who has apparently read the script, asks if Alisdair had a secret life.

Logan finds a note being used as a bookmark, callously disregards Alisdair’s efforts to mark said page, and takes the note, which reads “Meet me beyond the stars. XO”

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COMMERCIAL BREAK!

At the police station, we meet Amazing Alisdair’s aunt. They discuss Alisdair’s sister Claire, an anthropologist whom rarely visits. The aunt was surprised to hear Claire was in town. She also mentions that Rocco was threatening to take away Alisdair’s headliner status in exchange for a bigger cut of the profits of his performances at the Magic Manor.

Conveniently, Tess is at the Magic Manor, learning the ball and cup trick from Alisdair’s former partner Cormac. Logan talks to Rocco and gets the list of people with reservations the night of the murder. Tess and Cormac discuss Alisdair’s relationship with the mysterious Sinclair.

She and Logan meet again, and after the appropriate scolding for her constant interference in the investigation, she spills the details about Bianca and Alisdair.

Later, Tess investigates Sinclair through his incredibly annoying website, which employs cryptic clues instead of helpful directions to Sinclair’s workshop. A white rabbit tells Tess to “travel by rail through the looking glass.” Another clue instructs her to “find a good friend. Stop just past where the spirit catches you.”

Tess and Josephine ponder these instructions and come up with Carroll Street subway station as a starting point, and Delavan Street as a destination. (Delavan is apparently an Old English word for friend.)

Tess, wandering alone of course, spots a distillery, “where the spirit catches you” and keeps going, heading down an incredibly sketchy back alley and into a warehouse full of magical claptrap.

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She meets a strange woman who offers to let Tess play with a giant saw blade. Sinclair mentions designing Alisdair’s Bullet Catch mechanism.

At the police station, Logan and Winston try to track down Ann Morrison, who wasn’t on the reservation list, but was present for Alisdair’s death (given that they found her fingerprints at the scene). Her name is in the system because she was present for the explosive death of another magician in Vegas.

COMMERCIAL BREAK!

Logan is suspicious of both Ann Morrison and Alisdair’s sister Claire, both of whom are difficult to locale. While verifying the statements of the Manor’s guests after the murder, Drexler (our Suspicious Man) apparently had a good reason for leaving, and the only curious name left is the Good Samaritan doctor, who hasn’t responded to their inquiries because he’s at a conference.

Logan then talks to Cormac, who is getting Alisdair’s spot now that he’s dead. Cormac claims he was working nightclub security during Alisdair’s performance.

Tess arrives at the Manor and sees Cormac’s poster has replaced Alisdair’s. While talking to Tess, Bianca realizes the giant steamer trunk that was delivered the night of Alisdair’s murder is missing. This has somehow slipped her mind for days now. Tess and Bianca talk about Alisdair’s love for ballroom dance, before Bianca discusses being nervous about performing Cormac’s sword cabinet trick tonight. She will be assisting the new headliner.

Logan and Tess literally collide at The Sentinel and she mentions the missing steamer trunk. They talk about misdirection and seeing what someone wants you to see. (I suspect at this point, Tess’s boss would want to see a finished crossword.)

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Logan confirms the trunk delivery with security footage and asks Winston to see if he can find when the trunk leaves the building. They also see footage of Drexler (who is some sort of tech billionaire) as he leaves the Magic Manor. Winston is suspicious of Drexler’s excuse for his quick exit. Logan notices that Drexler left the theater, but hung around the Manor for ten minutes before leaving. What was he up to for that ten minutes?

COMMERCIAL BREAK!

A figure dressed in all black, complete with gloved hands, replaces Bianca’s trick handcuffs before the show. DASTARDLY. (It looks like a woman’s walk as the saboteur exits.) Bianca overhears footsteps and investigates, finding a broken vase, then calls Tess. Tess misses the call because she keeps dropping the bracelet Logan gave her. (This will in no way become a plot point later on.)

Bianca leaves a message for Tess and asks her to meet up at intermission. We then cut to Bianca and Cormac performing the sword cabinet illusion as Tess searches the Magic Manor for her. Tess finds the broken vase and the trick handcuffs as Cormac slides the first sword into the cabinet.

Cormac inserts a second sword into the box, and there is an unpleasant sound when he does so. Tess runs onstage and stops him from adding the final sword (which would have gone through Bianca’s heart!) and we hear her screaming for help from inside the box.

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Logan arrests Cormac and talks to Bianca, who confirms that the assailant was wearing high heels. Regarding Cormac’s arrest, I’m kind of with Logan on this one. HOW DOES YOUR CRAPPY TRICK USE REAL SWORDS AND SOMEHOW HINGE SOLELY ON A PAIR OF TRICK HANDCUFFS FOR THE WOMAN’S SURVIVAL?!

Tess and Aunt Candace talk, and Candace mentions a friend of hers had an antique snuffbox stolen during the fundraiser at the Magic Manor. Amazing Alisdair was in attendance, alongside a blonde woman — possibly the woman Tess followed for no reason — and Tess asks her aunt for the guest list from the fundraiser.

Logan stops Drexler and his lackeys, including Dude Wearing Sunglasses, discussing the missing ten minutes from the night of Alisdair’s murder. We also find out a jade bowl of Drexler’s was stolen during a party. Drexler is a smug jerk the whole time, because each Crossword Mysteries film needs an insanely unlikable red herring.

COMMERCIAL BREAK!

Tess is charming a gaggle of police officers at the station when Logan arrives. She mentions the missing snuffbox and ponders whether Alisdair and an accomplice were stealing from the fundraiser during his performance. (She also demonstrates misdirection and sleight of hand for Logan. Logan is charmingly befuddled.)

Tess sees a photocopy of the “beyond the stars” note, and Logan mentions the handwriting isn’t Bianca’s. Tess then looks at Logan’s Pinterest wall of Alisdair Case Details and recognizes Ann Morrison as Sinclair, the woman she met in Red Hook.

Logan visits Sinclair’s workspace, and she says Alisdair had everything he needed for the Bullet Catch trick weeks ago; she seems genuinely surprised that someone tried to kill Bianca. Logan then confirms that Sinclair didn’t send the trunk.

Tess tries to track down the dance studio where Amazing Alisdair and the blonde woman would dance on Sunday nights, and makes a specious connection between the Galaxy Dance Studio and the “beyond the stars” note.

She calls Logan, and they head to the dance studio. AND IT’S TIME FOR WILL SHORTZ’S CAMEO.

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(Logan doesn’t recognize him as the cop from the second film or the table tennis player from the first, so this is meant to be a different character. Perhaps New York City is loaded with Will Shortz lookalikes, and the fourth movie will involve two dozen or more Will Shortz characters as suspects.)

Tess recognizes a painting on the wall from the background of Alisdair’s trophy photo. This is definitely the place.

Logan and Tess dance the tango, and he dips her twice while they banter. The second one is full of swoony romance. He stares at her while she notices a clue: a photo of Alisdair and the blonde woman. Tamara, the owner of the studio — who was dancing with Will — comes over and helps identify the woman. It turns out, she lives upstairs. Convenient!

COMMERCIAL BREAK!

Upstairs, Logan and Tess meet Julia, and Tess pretends to return Julia’s earrings to her as a reason for the meet-cute. Tess spots that Julia has a bag packed and is generally anxious to get rid of them.

The next day at the police station, the Chief is back to his pastry-thieving ways, and we love him for it. John Kapelos is the best.

Logan gives him details on Julia, who is a married pharmacist (and therefore would have access to tetrodotoxin). The Chief asks the very reasonable question of why the married woman would kill Alisdair. Logan suggests that maybe it was her husband instead.

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The Chief mentions that there’s no sign that the trunk left the Magic Manor on the night of the murder, and no sign of it inside the Manor. He suggests they get blueprints of the building. (The Chief, like me, suspects secret passages are afoot!)

At the Manor, Tess is at another class — good lord, are magic classes every single day? — and she asks Rocco about Julia, but he claims not to have seen her on the night of the murder. He then quotes Houdini and says nothing ever vanishes.

At the police station, father and son compare blueprints and discover that the entire basement has been covered up, along with several closets and the exit for that strange hallway Tess saw.

AND SPEAKING OF THAT HALLWAY, Tess is there now, sneaking around and looking for a secret exit by loudly knocking on the walls. Tess is not a subtle human being. Her bracelet falls off — plot point confirmed! — and we await her imminent peril/kidnapping, because why else would the dropped bracelet be a thing?

Tess finds the secret exit, complete with a ladder to the basement. As Logan arrives at the Manor, Tess wanders around the basement, then hides when she sees someone with a flashlight behind her.

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In the hallway, Logan finds Tess’s bracelet just as Tess is grabbed by an armed thug. He ineffectively covers her mouth and her screams can be heard TWO FLOORS ABOVE, THROUGH A WALL, BY LOGAN.

Tess tags the goon in the gut with an elbow as Logan arrives, and he chases the man through the basement, though the thug manages to escape. In the meantime, Tess has found the missing trunk in the basement, empty.

COMMERCIAL BREAK!

Tess arrives at The Sentinel, and Reed mentions that Amazing Alisdair was at the party where Drexler’s jade bowl went missing. Following a tip from Reed, Tess goes to an antiques dealer looking for the jade bowl. He mentions he already sold it. And naturally, she bumps into Logan there. (At this point, he should just LoJack her and follow her around for case-solving convenience.)

They confirm that the goon who attacked her was the one who sold the jade bowl to the dealer. (The dealer, realizing Logan’s a cop, claims he didn’t know the bowl was stolen when he sold it.) Tess and Logan posit that Drexler was at Alisdair’s show because of the theft, and perhaps he spent that missing ten minutes ransacking Bianca’s dressing room looking for it.

At the police station, they review the footage of the trunk delivery and confirm the deliveryman was the same goon who attacked Tess and sold the jade bowl. Cormac’s alibi for the murder checks out. So does Julia’s. Oddly, the Good Samaritan doctor has an alibi as well. Apparently, he was in Seattle the night of the murder. Say what?

Amidst the confusion, the morgue attendant arrives, and he mistakes Julia for Alisdair’s sister Claire, who IDed the body. Logan checks the morgue, and the body labeled Alisdair isn’t actually Alisdair’s body. (Dental records confirm the body is Julia’s husband.)

As Logan gets a warrant to search Julia’s properties, Tess meets with Bianca at the Magic Manor to warn her that Alisdair is still alive. Bianca confesses that she followed Alisdair one night to a place in the Bowery where he met a woman.

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Logan arrives at Julia’s place and Tamara tells him she already left. She mentions she hasn’t seen Julia’s husband since “the fight,” and Logan finds a piece of jade from Drexler’s bowl under the chair.

At the Magic Manor, Tess has another encounter with creepy flickering lights — they must have the same electrician as the college library from Proposing Murder — and gets a jump-scare from Rocco. He gives her a key to pass along to Logan; it’s the key to the trapdoor in the stage floor, which he claims they haven’t used in years.

Tess tries the key, and the trapdoor works perfectly.

FINAL COMMERCIAL BREAK!

Tess explores the secret room, then hides when she hears someone. Only it turns out to be Logan, because of course, they bump into each other forty-nine times a day.

There’s a conveyor belt up to the stage, which they think was used to sneak Alisdair from the stage and swap the body of Julia’s husband onstage in its place while the lights were out.

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While they figure out the plan and how Julia was involved — the steamer trunk most likely contained the body of Julia’s husband — the trapdoor closes and they’re locked in the room. Logan immediately gets frustrated, while Tess smartly realizes that VERY RECENTLY other people got in and out of this room without using the trapdoor, so she goes hunting for secret passages.

She finds marks on the floor where a bookcase has recently moved. The goon from earlier opens the trapdoor again and tries to shoot them, but they’ve already figured out how to open the secret door and escape. He pursues them through the secret passage, but ha-ha! They fooled him by hiding under the conveyor belt, and they head back up through the trapdoor. Looney Tunes-style trickery wins out again!

Back onstage, Logan gets a message that Julia’s phone was last used in the Bowery. With Tess’s help, Logan stops Julia from escaping. A very much alive Amazing Alisdair arrives just as Winston puts Julia in the back of a squad car. Logan uses a completely unnecessary bit of subterfuge to sneak up on Alisdair and pull a gun on him. Alisdair is captured, but not before Logan fires off a few one-liners.

In an interrogation room, Logan interviews the hired goon (Julia’s cousin), Julia, and Alisdair, filling in the little bits of pieces of how they all met.

Tess arrives at the Magic Manor, bringing flowers to Bianca, who is headlining tonight’s show. A happy ending for the nearly-sworded former assistant!

Cormac and Sinclair attend the show, along with Logan, Tess, Reed, and Aunt Candace.

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After the show, Logan quotes Reed’s article about Tess cracking the case. Reed conveniently vanishes so Tess and Logan can flirt and grab a late bite to eat together. Awww.

The End.


CONCLUSION

Abracadaver is a bit of a mixed bag. On one hand, it’s easily the twistiest edition of the Crossword Mysteries yet, with fake deaths, secret rooms, and all sorts of chicanery involved. The plot moves briskly and all the magical accoutrements are great window dressing for the film.

There are a few glaring plot holes, like the fake doctor, who is never explained. How did Tess know to follow one random well-dressed woman? Why the attempt on Bianca’s life? Were they trying to frame Cormac for both Bianca and Alisdair? Why is Bianca headlining? Cormac was in the crowd, so he’s not still in jail. Did he feel bad for nearly killing her and that’s how she ended up headliner?

These detracted ever-so-slightly from my enjoyment of the film, simply because I enjoy a tightly-crafted mystery, and this one had more than a few lingering threads.

But the movie is harmless fun, a ridiculous and cheesy romp that will no doubt satisfy Hallmark’s many mystery fans.

But it’s also the least puzzly of the three films. I mean, other than the brief glimpse of Tess’s magic puzzle in progress — oof — the only puzzly endeavor is Tess and Josephine unraveling Sinclair’s peculiar directional riddle. Other than that, there’s no puzzling to be had.

Tess didn’t even get to employ her sleight of hand to steal a clue or something. That’s a real missed opportunity, given the subject matter.

Three episodes in, Tess remains very likable, despite her lackadaisical approach to puzzling. And Logan shined here as both love interest and detective. He was charming, protective of Tess, and generally effective as a crimefighter. Very little of the smug condescending character from the first film remains. Instead, we root for him to get the bad guy and the girl.

And, of course, John Kapelos shined as the police chief and father figure of the film, funny and distracting in equal measure.

It’s light, frothy, slightly murdery fun. Plus dancing Will Shortz. How can you go wrong?


Did you watch the film? What did you think? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you.

And hey, if you missed Sunday’s airing of Abracadaver, worry not. It’s airing again tonight at 9 PM Eastern, and there will be a Crossword Mysteries mini-marathon on Sunday, January 12th, with A Puzzle to Die For at 2 PM, Proposing Murder at 4 PM, and Abracadaver at 6 PM.


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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!

A College Application Includes a Puzzly Twist

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[Image courtesy of Rochester.edu.]

My nephew recently started his first year at college, so it wasn’t that long ago that we were discussing applications, college essays, and all that.

Applying to college is more competitive than ever, so everyone is always looking for an edge. Sports, clubs, volunteering, all manner of extracurricular activities… anything and everything that could separate you from the pack is worth pursuing.

And for some applicants, their ethnic background or upbringing can help tell the story of what makes them a desirable applicant.

Of course, sometimes that goes awry.

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[Image courtesy of TheBestSchools.org.]

The college applicant in question was always told he was 1/8th Native American. His family had a few keepsakes from his heritage, but otherwise it wasn’t a big part of his life.

When I got old enough I asked my parents what tribe we were and I was told the Yuan-Ti. Now I didn’t know anything of it but I did tell my friends in elementary school and whatever and bragged I was close to nature (as you do).

So recently I applied to colleges and since you only have to be 1/16 native I thought I had this in the bag. Confirmed with my parents and sent in my applications as 1/8th Yuan-ti tribe.

So why am I discussing this story on a puzzles and games blog? Well, there’s one key reason, which our unfortunate friend soon discovered.

You see, the Yuan-Ti is not a Native American tribe. It’s a species of serpentfolk — human-snake hybrids — from the roleplaying game Dungeons & Dragons.

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[Image courtesy of Forgotten Realms Wiki.]

Apparently, his parents have happily kept up this fiction even after this application debacle. He has been reaching out to the colleges and explaining his mistake, and hopefully the schools will look past this and accept him.

Yes, the fact that he never bothered to do any research himself and figure out that he’s not a psionic snakeman from the Forgotten Realms is kinda on him. But the fact that his parents doubled down on their Yuan-Ti heritage during college applications makes them either the most diabolical pranksters on the planet or legitimately insane.

But sometimes we do accept what are parents tell us as gospel years after we should have figured out the game. I remember a time in college when an ice cream truck was going by, and several of us commented that we wanted ice cream. One guy spoke up and said, “Don’t bother; they only play the song when they’re out of ice cream.”

That’s what his father told him as a child to get out of buying ice cream, and he still believed it years later. Poor guy.

Granted, that’s a world away from telling your son to basically list “lizard person” under “ethnicity” on a college application. But still. I get it, a little.

Here’s hoping our friendly gullible college applicant gets into the college of his choice… and gets a little better at researching the topics of his future college essays.


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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!

The PN Blog 2019 Countdown!

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It’s the final blog post of the year, so what do you say we revisit all of 2019 with a countdown of my ten favorite blog posts from the past year!


#10 Daedalus

I’m a huge history and mythology buff, so any opportunity I have to indulge those interests in a puzzly way, I will happily seize. Delving into the story of the famous labyrinth builder and trying to separate fact from fiction was great fun, probably the most interesting deep dive into a subject I experienced all year.

#9 Escape Room Goodness

Escape rooms are the biggest puzzly fad in years, an interactive form of group puzzle-solving that is immersive, challenging, and story-driven. This year, we teamed up with several escape rooms around the world to share stories of some of the weirdest moments from the relatively brief history of escape rooms.

From people breaking into the ceiling to escape to others sabotaging the room in insane ways, it was a treat to hear just how far some people will go to “escape.”

#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 Crosswords

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 the biggest crossword in the world to hold them accountable.

Whether it was The New York Times ignoring good advice and placing an offensive word in a grid or Will Shortz dismissing the hard work done by other crossword editors in the field (intentionally or unintentionally), we took up the torch more than once this year because it was the right thing to do.

#6 Wordventures

At the start of the year, we were already rolling with Wordventures, our interactive puzzle mystery that incorporated narrative, word search puzzles, and roleplaying elements into a unique solving experience.

It was an absolute delight to explore that narrative in posts like this, taking the reader into the mysterious world of the Vampire Pirate, one where sight and sound helped draw you into one of our most ambitious puzzle apps yet.

#5 PUZZLE FEST

April Fools Day pranks are an Internet tradition at this point. Some websites go all out in celebrating the holiday. (Heck, ThinkGeek has started using the holiday to tease the public’s interest level in “fake” products, going on to actually release some of those April Fools pranks as real items later in the year!)

So after Puzzles for Pets and PNVR both made a splash in subsequent years, we couldn’t resist getting in on the pranking fun again this year. And why not have a little fun with the famously disastrous Fyre Festival by pretending to host our own PUZZLE FEST? With an elaborate brochure, lots of photos, and enough overblown promises of puzzly luxury to catch all sorts of eyes, we made a lot of puzzlers laugh (and left a few disappointed that there wasn’t a luxury puzzle resort… at least, not yet anyway).

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#4 Top Solvers

Blending pop culture with puzzles always makes for an enjoyable blog post, and this year, I was fortunate enough to combine my love of puzzles with my love for horror movies when I made a list of the best puzzle solvers in horror films. It allowed me to discuss some of my favorite clever characters without delving too far into the horror element (which I know some of our readers wouldn’t necessarily enjoy), making it the best of both worlds.

Plus, it’s kicked off a recurring series of posts, since I recently followed up with a list of the best puzzle solvers on TV. For 2020, we’ll see additional lists like the best puzzle solvers in literature and the worst puzzle solvers in pop culture.

#3 Puzzle Events

And speaking of top solvers, there are few things better than spending time with fellow puzzlers and gamers, and we got to do a lot of that this year. Whether it was cheering on our fellow puzzlers at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament or putting our hands dirty with some knock-down, drag-out, game-playing ferocity during our Tabletop Tournament, these interactions were both invigorating and encouraging. Events like these really help solidify the spirit of community that comes with being puzzly.

#2 Crossword Mysteries

One of the funniest and most peculiar moments of the year 2019 was finally getting to see the long-ballyhooed Crossword Mysteries film debut on Hallmark Movies & Mysteries. Not since the Wordplay documentary had crosswords gotten such public attention, and this only increased when the channel announced three additional movies in the series would air later in the year.

Although we only got to see one more of them before the year was out — still waiting on #3, Hallmark — it was tremendous fun to review the marriage of the curiously campy style of Hallmark murder mysteries with puzzles (particularly when it involves Will Shortz cameos).

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#1 Daily POP Word Search

There’s nothing more exciting than getting to announce the launch of a product that has been months or years in the making, so picking #1 was a no-brainer for me. It had to be the announcement of Daily POP Word Search.

But it’s not just the app, it’s everything behind the app. I’ve watched it grow and evolve during the development phase, and I had the pleasure of interviewing some of my favorite fellow puzzlers who contribute so much to its success and style thanks to their puzzle designs and terrific content.

It may sound self-serving or schlocky to talk about our flagship products as #1 in the countdown, but it’s something that we’re all extremely proud of, something that we’re constantly working to improve, because we want to make our apps the absolute best they can be for the PuzzleNation audience. That’s what you deserve.

And it’s part of the evolution of PuzzleNation and PN Blog. Even as we work to ensure our current products are the best they can be, we’re always looking ahead to what’s next, what’s on the horizon, what’s to come.

Thanks for spending 2019 with us, through brain teasers and big ideas, through Hallmark murders and Halloween puns, through puzzle launches and landmark moments. We’ll see you in 2020.


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!