PN Review: Crossword Mysteries: A Puzzle to Die For

In January of 2018, it was announced that Hallmark Movies and Mysteries would be teaming up with Will Shortz of The New York Times Crossword fame to produce a mystery film with crosswords at the heart of the story.

This past Sunday, the film finally made its debut on cable television, starring Hallmark Mysteries stalwarts Lacey Chabert and Brennan Elliott in their fourth outing together, but the first under the Crossword Mysteries brand, collaborating to solve a twisty mystery worthy of the channel.

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 spoilers, scroll down to the next solid black line.

Ready? Okay, let’s do this!


FILM RECAP

The film opens with a stealthy thief sneaking into an art gallery via the skylight, then focusing on one particular painting. A man walks into the room, interrupting the robbery in progress, and smiles, seemingly recognizing his attacker. He then gets shot for his trouble.

Cut to Tess Harper (Lacey Chabert), a crossword editor strolling through New York City on her way to work at The New York Sentinel newspaper. She is accosted by no less than three people en route to her desk, which is obviously routine. (Ask any constructor. They’re practically mobbed in the streets by eager solvers looking for hints.)

Tess, our intrepid puzzler, meets her mentor Pierre at the elevator, and they discuss the Sentinel’s upcoming crossword puzzle tournament.

We then return to the scene of the crime, where detective Logan O’Connor (Brennan Elliott), briefs the police chief on the scene. The only clues are a single shell casing (whereas the victim was shot three times) and an unfinished crossword in the victim’s back pocket.

Tess looks around the room for ideas in order to complete her crossword, as she’s one 8-letter word shy of finishing. In a quick chat with the newspaper’s editor, Tess is credited with an uptick in online readers thanks to her puzzle editing.

She shares a desk with the paper’s crime beat reporter, Harris, and he briefs her on the murder at the art gallery. It turns out the victim was friends with Tess’s aunt, and she’s about to have lunch with her. Quel coincidence!

Our two protagonists have a meet-awkward while waiting in line for coffee. And then cross paths again when Logan talks to Harris. Tess is peppy and interested, while Logan is dismissive. He’s polite enough to ask what a crossword editor does, then proceeds to be a mild jerk about her explanation.

He does mention the crossword in the victim’s pocket, which has only sporadic across clues filled in. In pen. In cursive writing. She explains that the crossword clue he has is weird, because no one solves puzzles like that.

After their less-than-pleasant exchange, Tess classifies Logan as a Monday puzzle, “the simplest one of the week.” Ouch.

Back at the police station, Logan comes up with footage of the suspect, but there’s a discrepancy between the footage of the intruder and the coroner’s estimated time of death.

Tess, preoccupied with the crime, looks over a crossword puzzle from a week before, and thinks she sees clues pointing toward the murder.

COMMERCIAL!

Tess brings her theory to the detective, and gets brushed off rather abruptly. To be fair, her “clues” are very specious. (She points out that the word BIRD could mean Nightingale, the last name of the victim, and CINDERELLA could point toward midnight, when the crime occurred.)

We learn that the puzzle wasn’t one of Tess’s. Instead, it was a submitted puzzle from a regular constructor named Abigail Krebs. But when she tries to contact the constructor, the phone number traces back to a bar, and nobody there had ever heard of hers. When she and Harris visit the constructor’s address on file, it’s a funeral home. Another suspicious dead end.

That night, Tess attends a memorial service for the victim at his art gallery. She and her aunt meet an art dealer who worked with Alan, who is brutally rude and says Alan got his just desserts. Not the usual sort of talk at a memorial service.

Logan shows up, continuing his investigation, and continues to be kind of a jerk to Tess.

As we follow both his and Tess’s conversations with various characters, the suspects begin piling up. We have the art dealer, the person in charge of security at the art gallery (who was conveniently on vacation the night of the murder), the victim’s ex-wife who is constantly mentioned, and Tess’s two odd helpers for the tournament, Elizabeth and Alexander, who flub the name of a beach near their supposed Newport abode.

COMMERCIAL!

Logan talks to Carmichael, the security guy, who mentions how cheap the victim was, skimping on everything from employee pay to the security system. Tess continues to push her theory about the crossword constructor, but gets nowhere with the detective.

She does, however, upgrade him from a Monday puzzle to a Thursday puzzle: “difficult, but full of surprises.”

Later, in her apartment, Tess looks over more of the mysterious constructor’s previously published puzzles, and spots a pattern. She calls Logan, but gets no response. (Though she does get encouragement from Harris, who thinks she’s onto something.)

Tess and the detective cross paths AGAIN at the ex-wife’s bakery, and he accuses her of interfering with the investigation. Tess rebuffs his argument by continuing to point out specious clues (like boxes of frozen pies suggesting that the ex-wife lied about her alibi, which was working late baking fresh pies for the morning rush).

When Tess mentions something shady going on with Alan (he’s only half the story, according to something Veronica, the ex-wife, said to Tess), for the first time, the detective seems receptive to her help.

COMMERCIAL!

In a meeting with Logan and his police chief father, Tess presents her theory, revealing a pattern of puzzles and art heists she believes are connected. (As she explains, the chief hilariously pilfers several treats Tess brought back from the bakery.)

According to Tess, the constructor always places certain keywords in the same parts of the grid. The location is always 1 across, the point of entry is always 22 across, the time to strike is always 44 across, and the target is always 53 across. If you know what you’re looking for, you’d have everything a thief would need to know.

Although skeptical, the two cops agree to pursue the theory, and all three begin referring to the mysterious constructor as the Phantom. Which is very silly. (Unless it’s your pseudonym for cryptic crosswords in the UK, that is.)

Tess claims she can profile any constructor through their puzzles, since someone’s word choices are distinct, a personal fingerprint. She also mentions that, if the pattern is correct, there will be a robbery tomorrow, since the Phantom had a puzzle published last week.

She gets a call from Pierre that Channel 4 is waiting to interview her about the tournament, and leaves the two detectives to their work.

After an interview at the hotel, she gets a call from Harris, who has turned up something in his background research on the victim, Nightingale, and he warns Tess to be careful. As soon as she’s done with tournament stuff, she plans to meet up with him. But before photos can be taken with the interviewer, Elizabeth and Alexander find an excuse not to be photographed, which is very suspicious. Pierre offhandedly mentions to Tess that the pair have a nice collection of antiques.

Returning to the office later that night, Tess finds Harris lying on the floor, bloody and non-responsive. He’s been shot.

COMMERCIAL!

Unfortunately, Tess was too late, and Harris is gone. Logan meets her at the scene, and she mentions the possible connection between Harris’s murder and the Nightingale case. The detective is interested enough about the crossword connection to join Tess at the tournament, asking for a list of attendees and volunteers, which Pierre helpfully provides.

In the meantime, Logan corners one of the sketchy art dealer’s employees, who explains that she brokered a deal for one of Nightingale’s paintings, but it turned out to be stolen. He also claims she “got even” with Nightingale.

Tess badgers Logan into posting someone at the gallery she suspects will be the next crime scene, and explains that a work by an artist with two S’s will be stolen. Tess believes the next crime will be a stolen Picasso.

COMMERCIAL!

Tess and Logan meet for dinner across the street from the potential robbery site. Tess talks about her crossword profile of the constructor, mentioning a penchant for sailing terms and British slang. It is revealed that Tess’s love of puzzles comes from her dad and how they would solve crosswords together. She likes that crosswords, no matter how tricky, always have one answer.

Well, almost always. She namedrops the famous 1996 Election Day puzzle where both “BOB DOLE ELECTED” and “CLINTON ELECTED” were possible solutions, then realizes last week’s puzzle — the one that led to this stakeout — could also have two answers. After all, MATISSE is another 7-letter painter with two S’s.

Logan and Tess race to the Matisse gallery in time to see two suspects fleeing. Logan catches one, who turns out to be the security guy Carmichael from Nightingale’s place. He confesses to disabling the security for both the Matisse gallery and Nightingale’s gallery.

Carmichael’s accomplice — who he only met twice and knows nothing about — had chalk on his hands. Logan connects that to the rope left behind at the Nightingale murder scene, which leads them to the climbing gear store that sold the rope. The only person who bought that kind of rope recently AND has a criminal record becomes their prime suspect.

As Logan interrogates the suspect, he confirms Tess’s theory about the crosswords, claiming he doesn’t know who hired him or about the murders of Harris and Nightingale. His job was to complete the theft, then drop off the stolen goods at a secure location. That’s all.

Logan realizes that, if the murderer and the thief are two different people, that would explain the two-hour discrepancy in the video footage mentioned earlier.

COMMERCIAL!

With the tournament starting the next day and a killer still on the loose, tensions are high. Logan meets Tess at ping-pong, where she plays to de-stress. As she and Logan go over some of the constructor’s other puzzles, Tess points out that two of the answer words point toward the shady art dealer.

We also get a Will Shortz sighting in the background, followed by a Will Shortz cameo, as he banters with Tess about vocabulary and retrieves a wayward ping-pong ball from under their table.

Leaning on Tess’s constructor profile, the duo set a trap for the Phantom: a practice puzzle for the tournament loaded with Phantom-friendly words. Whoever does well on the puzzle is a likely suspect. But then Tess is nearly run down by an SUV that races out of the alley!

Logan calls in a description of the vehicle and a partial license plate number, then offers Tess a ride to her aunt’s apartment, where she’s spending the night. Along the way, we get a little backstory on Logan, humanizing him a bit. (His jerkiness, by this point, has mostly tapered off, thankfully.)

Later on that night, Tess laments to her aunt that she can’t solve this particular puzzle, and lives hang in the balance. Man, is she earnest or what?

The next day, Logan adds a few more wrinkles to the story. A background check on volunteers Elizabeth and Alexander turns up nothing, absolutely nothing, which is peculiar. Also, Harris’s Fitbit was GPS-enabled, so he’ll be able to track Harris’s movements from the day he died, which will hopefully point to a suspect.

COMMERCIAL!

It’s tournament time in the grand ballroom of some fancy schmancy hotel, and man, ACPT contenders would be jealous of the elbow room afforded to competitors at The NY Sentinel’s 17th annual crossword tournament, because they’ve got plenty of personal space.

Tess hands out the practice puzzle, and the solvers begin. (Side note: it’s weird that the volunteers Elizabeth and Alexander are solving the practice puzzle. Shouldn’t they be working?)

Complications start piling up at a record pace. The art dealer’s SUV is a match to the one that tried to run Tess down. Harris’s Fitbit had him at Veronica’s bakery on the day of the murder. And Pierre excels at the practice puzzle, while Elizabeth and Alexander struggle.

As Logan departs to pursue the bakery angle, Tess’s assistant stumbles upon some of Harris’s background research on Nightingale, which was left behind on the photocopier and mixed in with copies of the tournament puzzles.

It’s a photocopy of an article about the Nightingales, complete with a photo and a caption mentioning Alan and Chesley Nightingale.

As Tess gives her opening speech before the tournament begins, Logan confronts Veronica about Harris’s visit on the day of his murder. She says that someone wants her to keep quiet, and by doing so, she’s preventing a third murder from happening.

As round one of the tournament wraps up and the contestants file out, Tess checks out Pierre’s bag, and finds something inside a small plastic owl trinket that alarms her.

FINAL COMMERCIAL BREAK!

Two shell casings tumble into Tess’s hands, the contents of the plastic owl. She puts them back, but not before Pierre spots her near his bag. She conjures up a quick excuse for why she was handling his things, then grabs her phone, saying she’ll be right back.

She calls Logan and tells him what she found, which confirms what he learned from Veronica: that Pierre is secretly Alan’s brother AND the constructor of the puzzles.

Logan says he’s on the way with backup and he’ll be there soon. But when Tess hangs up, Pierre has her cornered, pistol in hand!

He confirms the clues about the art dealer were a red herring, an insurance policy. And all his distractions (as well as the attempt on her life with the SUV) were intended to scare her away from investigating. [Side note: Most of his distractions were simply requests for Tess to fulfill her tournament responsibilities. But she was too busy playing detective. If I was Pierre, I’d be mildly miffed myself.]

Pierre escorts Tess to the roof to kill her, but she manages to keep him talking until Logan arrives, saving her life.

As it turns out, Elizabeth and Alexander are in witness protection, explaining their secretive nature and camera-shy ways. They also explain away the art dealer’s suspicious dealings, wrapping up the loose ends nicely.

Now that the case is closed, Tess upgrades Logan once more, now to a Saturday puzzle: “sometimes so exasperating, but the smartest one of the week.”

And the story ends as they part ways, both turning back to look at the other at different times, something left unfinished between them.

THE END!


ONE FINAL SPOILER-Y NOTE

We never find out why Alan was carrying the crossword in his pocket in the first place, though I have a theory.

I suspect Alan was a willing participant in Pierre’s thefts and schemes, but didn’t know exactly how Pierre contacted the thieves he employed. The small smile Alan gives before he’s murdered, after noticing the painting is missing, makes me think Alan had just recently figured out the crossword angle, and the missing painting confirmed it. (The brief glimpse of the crossword we get shows that he filled out all of the relevant across entries in the pattern Tess reveals later.)

Of course, that satisfaction turns to shock when he sees the gun and is murdered. Pierre said that Alan’s incompetence endangered their enterprise, and it turns out, he’s right. Because without Alan having that crossword in his pocket, Tess would never have gotten involved and cracked the code.

That’s my theory anyway.


CONCLUSION

I know, I know, we never actually get to see any puzzles, and we don’t know who won the tournament. But other than that, how was the movie?

All in all, it’s a very competently put together mystery. Lots of small details are important, and nothing feels terribly extraneous. The plot builds nicely, the stakes increasing as both Tess and Logan delve deeper into the mystery of Nightingale’s murder. The commercial breaks are also exquisitely timed to maximize the dramatic effect of several plot reveals and tense moments.

As for the characters, Tess is immensely likable. The detective starts off a little dry for my tastes, but is slowly worn down by the earnest charm of Lacey Chabert’s character. Not that I was surprised. After all, who can resist an intelligent woman with mad puzzle skills, I ask you?

A few of the characters are cartoonish — the art dealer, in particular, was a little too gleeful in her pseudo-villainy — but for the most part, everyone plays their parts well. John Kapelos as the police chief was a delight, stealing many of his scenes with loving fatherly regard, playful chiding, and a knack for sneaking extra baked goods when he thought no one was looking.

In the end, it’s all a bit of harmless fun, a cozy mystery with some puzzly trappings.

During the final commercial break, the network confirmed that three more Crossword Mysteries will be aired in October. (IMDb has the 6th, the 13th, and 20th listed as potential air dates for these three follow-ups.)

I’m definitely curious to see where they take the series from here, and how crosswords and criminal mischief will cross paths again. Now that the initial pairing obstacles are gone, I look forward to seeing how Logan and Tess work as a team in future investigations.

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


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Unlikely Ways to Escape an Escape Room!

[Image courtesy of I Googled Israel.]

Solving an escape room is a unique experience, one that immerses you in a story and surrounds you with tasks to complete and puzzles to unravel. Although there are some similarities between rooms (as well as solving techniques you can learn to be better at solving all sorts of escape rooms), each one has its own flavor, its own challenges, and its own quirks.

The same can be said for those groups who tackle the escape room experience. They all have different skill levels, different styles, and different approaches. Some players are terrific at the hide-and-seek portion of a room — discovering hidden compartments, secret caches, and so on. Others are better at identifying and solving puzzles. Still others can be strong abstract thinkers who look outside the box and recognize where patterns are formed and where they are absent.

But sometimes, players think too far outside the box, surprising escape room managers and designers with their curious efforts to complete the game.

[Image courtesy of Snorg Tees.]

In a post on Quora Digest, someone asked what was the weirdest or most unexpected thing that has happened during an escape room event?

One commenter, the owner/operator of an escape room, said that a player once snuck a Swiss army knife into the room, used it to unscrew the boxes containing keys to some of the major lockboxes, and escaped the room in five minutes. Naturally, to the disappointment and chagrin of his friends, he skipped the vast majority of the game itself, missing the point entirely by doing so.

Figuring that there had to be more stories like this out there in the world of escape rooms, I reached out to some of the escape room companies we’ve connected with on Twitter, and wouldn’t you know it, there’s plenty of escape room weirdness to go around!

For instance, the crew at Boxaroo, based in Boston, Massachusetts, have had to deal with the opposite problem: people sneaking things OUT of an escape room:

We’ve had interesting things stolen from our rooms. The usual locks, keys, and even a light bulb once. But the most bizarre was an entire lockbox that went missing. About 4″ by 5″ by 11″.

We had no idea how the person snuck it out until we checked our security tape footage. It was someone sticking it in their trenchcoat, old-school style.

When asked about their most peculiar moment with players, the team at ESC Escape Rooms, based in North Hollywood, Los Angeles, shared a story that explores the dangers of getting into character and immersing yourself too deeply into the setting of a game.

One of the employees was overseeing a game from outside, and instructed the player to go through a door. That’s all, just use the door as you would any other.

The player responded by creating a fake door — like a mime or an actor in an improv show — and pretending to step through it, as if acting out the instruction was somehow part of the solve.

Much like the escape room supervisor who witnessed this, I’m totally baffled.

Sometimes players take instruction in a manner you wouldn’t expect. Other times, they take those instructions all too literally.

Just ask the folks at Red House Mysteries in Exeter, England, who lost visual contact with the solvers in one escape room scenario.

The room had a suspended ceiling, and apparently, this created a blind spot for one of the cameras used to monitor the room.

After not being able to see the players on the CCTV for a good 5 minutes and getting no response on the radio, they went into the room to see if everything was ok.

They found the team of 3 people standing on each others shoulders, having removed the ceiling tiles, and currently climbing into the roof cavity above.

“Whilst technically this is escaping, it’s not really the spirit of the game scenario. Nor do I have any idea where they were going to go from there. Needless to say, they didn’t manage to escape…”


To close out this sojourn into the world of escape room shenanigans, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention something that happened during my very first escape room.

We broke something. We broke one of the mechanisms that released a hidden key.

As a group of ten or so players, we quickly scattered around the room and began looking for clues, hidden compartments, hints on how to proceed, and so on. One team member, an acquaintance of my sister I didn’t know, spotted a small statuette on the mantel.

It was meant to be turned 90 degrees, releasing a hidden key below. Not knowing this, she lifted it off of its small base instead, triggering the hidden key.

And since there was a matching statuette nearby, the group surmised that lifting it would release another key on the other side.

It didn’t.

My best guess is that she managed to lift AND turn the first statuette when she picked it up, triggering the release. The second statuette was lifted straight up, leaving the hidden key still untriggered.

As it turns out, the statuettes weren’t intended to be lifted off their bases, and we’d broken the second release trigger. One of us managed to trigger it with a quarter and free the key, but we didn’t realize we’d actually damaged the game room until the session was over.

Here’s hoping it was a quick and easy repair job. I still cringe when I think about it.

Needless to say, I’ve been far more cautious in all of my subsequent escape room attempts.

Have you ever had or seen any strange escape room moments, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you.


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A New Gaming Opportunity for Opportunity?

[Image courtesy of Wikipedia.]

Last month, the world collectively mourned the loss of the Opportunity Rover, as NASA declared that the incredible machine’s marathon body of work on Mars had officially ended.

Its mission was meant to last 90 days. Opportunity vastly overperformed, delivering photos and data for a mind-blowing fifteen years of service. The Little Engine That Could has got nothing on the Opportunity Rover.

The outpouring of sadness and affection for the Rover surprised many, serving as a heartwarming reminder of the amazing things we can accomplish. It also represents our almost magical ability to come together as a people in appreciation of an icon, one we’d come to adore and anthropomorphize into a plucky, inquisitive adventurer.

[Image courtesy of Tom Gauld.]

As you might expect, a character with this much esteem couldn’t pass into history without the game community immortalizing it in some way, shape, or form.

Thanks to WalrockHomebrew, an independent content creator for RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition, the Opportunity Rover can now be part of your roleplaying campaigns!

Creating not only full stats for Oppy as a neutral good construct but a plausible explanation for how this real-world scientific device has found itself in a magical universe, WalrockHomebrew has crafted a fun fictional legacy for the much-loved rover.

Understandably, Oppy isn’t much of a fighter, though it can use its rock abrasion tool to scratch at any potential foes. It’s far more capable as an observer, seeing through magical illusions and glamours.

It can even see invisible creatures and creatures in the Ethereal Plane. As far as we know, the actual rover couldn’t.

Though, if it could, I suspect its reports to NASA would’ve been front page material every single day.

[WalrockHomebrew even offered rules for how to restore the rover in-game to full operational capacity. Pretty cool!]

This is a wonderful tribute to one of the most amazing devices ever conceived. Thank you, Oppy, for all of the wonders you revealed.

And thank you, WalrockHomebrew, for letting us hold onto that magic in an unexpected and delightful way.


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All Sorts of Puzzle Goodness in the Month of March!

March is here, everyone, and it’s absolutely loaded with puzzle events all month long. If you’re looking to test your puzzly mettle and spend time with fellow puzzlers along the way, you’re sure to find something to do in today’s post!


This Saturday, March 2nd, if you’re in the Akron, Ohio, area, you can flex your crossword muscles at the 10th Annual Akron Crossword Puzzle Tournament!

Open to all solvers 18 and older, this will be perfect practice for the slightly more famous crossword tournament happening later this month.

Click here for more details, or call 330-643-9015 to register!

Next weekend, you won’t even have to leave your home for a puzzly event to enjoy, as Crossword Mysteries: A Puzzle to Die For will debut on Hallmark Movies & Mysteries channel on Sunday, March 10th at 9:00 p.m.

Starring Lacey Chabert and Brennan Elliott, the film features a crossword puzzle editor who finds her life completely disrupted when several of the clues in her recent puzzles are linked to unsolved crimes. She is pulled into the police investigation, and as you can tell from the still picture above, ends up rubbing elbows with some famous puzzlers.

And for folks to like a little levity with their puzzling, if you’re in the Los Angeles area, you can check out The Crossword Show with Zach Sherwin on March 13th.

Sherwin, who has appeared on Epic Rap Battles of History and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, hosts this “smart, one-of-a-kind show in which two comedians solve a crossword puzzle live onstage in front of an audience. There’s music. There’s comedy. There’s trivia. There’s nothing like it!”

Click here for more details.

If you’re in the Vermont area March 14th through the 17th, you can combine a love of jigsaw puzzles with some murder mystery fun, thanks to the crew at Stave Wooden Jigsaw Puzzles.

As you enjoy a murder mystery event going on around you — complete with actors playing out scenes as the story unfolds — you’ll play detective by solving jigsaw puzzles to reveal clues to the murderer’s identity!

Click here for more details!

And, of course, we close out the month with one of the biggest puzzle events of the year, as puzzlers from all over the country converge on the Stamford Marriott in Connecticut for the 42nd Annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, running March 22nd to the 24th.

Enjoy a weekend of puzzly camaraderie, discussions, contests, and crosswords as you compete alongside the best, brightest, and friendliest group of puzzlers in the land.

Click here for more details and here to check out our rundown of last year’s event!


Are you planning to attend any of these events? Or do you know of any puzzle events in March we missed? Let us know in the comments section below!


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An 80-Year-Old Literary Mystery Returns!

[The Doctor, of Doctor Who fame. No stranger to nonlinear stories.]

Avid readers and television watchers are probably familiar with the concept of nonlinear storytelling.

Whodunits often bounce forward and backward in time so that readers and detectives alike can reconstruct the events of the crime, and of course science fiction is filled to bursting with time-travel stories that tie the readers’ minds in knots. Bookworms are used to getting their story elements out of order.

But what if the entire novel was out of order? Imagine every single page out of place. Could you reassemble the story and solve the murder?

That was the question posed by Cain’s Jawbone, a 1934 novel by famed cryptic crosswords constructor Edward Powys Mathers, who published under the pseudonym Torquemada.

Readers were tasked with identifying the six victims of the killers, as well as who killed each victim. Not only that, but a successful solve also needed to include the correct order of all 100 pages of the novel.

A prize of 15 pounds was offered to the first reader who could unravel the mystery. That is no small feat, given that the number of possible page combinations is in the millions.

And yet, two solvers did submit solutions and get their prizes, even if the solution was never shared publicly.

85 years later, Cain’s Jawbone is returning to publication, allowing a new generation of puzzlers the chance to solve one of Torquemada’s greatest puzzles.

From publishing company Unbound’s announcement page:

Subscribers to Cain’s Jawbone will receive its 100 pages unbound in a box. This means that they can be spread out and placed next to each other – so much easier than when pages are bound, as in the original publication.

A space for notes is provided as well as a page to submit with the answer. Only solutions submitted on a page from the box will be eligible.

The competition is returning as well, and a prize of 1,000 pounds is being offered.

With a release date of September of this year, it will be fascinating to see how quickly modern solvers can unravel this classic mystery.


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How Far Away Are Computer-Generated Crosswords?

[Image courtesy of ESLTower.]

There’s no denying that computers play a large role in the world of crosswords today.

Some companies use computer programs to generate their unthemed crosswords, no human intervention necessary. Computer programs like Crossword Compiler aid constructors in puzzle design and grid fill, allowing them to build and cultivate databases of words with which to complete their grids.

And, of course, with those little computers in your pocket, you can solve all kinds of crosswords (like those in our Daily POP Crosswords and Penny Dell Crosswords apps).

Heck, computers are even getting pretty good at solving crosswords — just look at Matt Ginsberg’s evolving crossword program, “Dr. Fill.

An article in Smithsonian Magazine posed the question, “why haven’t computers replaced humans in crossword creation?”

The answer, as you’d expect, is simple: computers are just fine at plugging words into established grids and generating basic, unthemed crosswords.

But unthemed is the key word there.

When people think of The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The American Values Club, The Crosswords Club, or any of the other well-respected crossword outlets in the market today, I doubt unthemed puzzles are what comes to mind.

And when it comes to creating themes, innovating, and playing with the conventions of crosswords in order to create puzzles that surprise and challenge solvers, computers simply don’t have the chops.

They might be able to solve puzzles, but as far as I can tell from my research, there’s no program out there capable of generating and executing a theme with any sort of wordplay element involved.

[Image courtesy of Crossword Compiler.]

There is an art to creating an exciting grid, an intriguing theme, or a new puzzle mechanic that solvers have never seen before. The creativity of constructors is truly boundless.

And, it seems, the potential for crossword grids is just as boundless.

Recently, Oliver Roeder of FiveThirtyEight challenged the puzzle fans in his readership to calculate how many different crossword puzzle grids were possible.

He offered the following conditions:

  • They are 15-by-15.
  • They are rotationally symmetric — that is, if you turn the grid upside down it appears exactly the same.
  • All the words — that is, all the horizontal and vertical sequences of white squares — must be at least three letters long. All the letters must appear in an “across” word and a “down” word.
  • The grid must be entirely connected — that is, there can be no “islands” of white squares separated from the rest by black squares.

Now, obviously, all of those rules can be violated for the sake of an interesting theme. We’ve seen grids with vertical symmetry, islands of white squares, and more. Heck, plenty of grids allow words to go beyond the grid itself, or allow multiple words to share puzzle squares.

[“Cutting Edge” by Evan Birnholz. A puzzle where answers extend
beyond the grid. Image courtesy of The Washington Post.]

But assuming these rules are standard, what total did solvers come up with?

None. They couldn’t find a total.

One solver managed to calculate that there were 40,575,832,476 valid 13-by-13 grids following the above conditions, but could not apply the same technique to 15-by-15 grids.

40 billion valid grids. For a comparison, there are 5,472,730,538 unique solutions for a 9×9 Sudoku grid, and I previously calculated it would take 800 years to use every possible 9×9 Sudoku grid.

Of course, that’s 40 billion 13-by-13 grids. The number of possible 15-by-15 grids must be orders of magnitude larger.

Consider this: There were 16,225 puzzles published in The New York Times before Will Shortz took over the NYT crossword. The current number of NYT crosswords in the XWordInfo database is somewhere in the neighborhood of 25,000 puzzles.

And they’re one of the oldest crossword outlets in the world. Even when you factor in the number of newspapers, magazines, subscription services, and independent outlets for crosswords there are these days, or have been in the past, we barely scratch the surface of a number like 40 billion.

Maybe by the time we’ve run through that many, AI constructors will have caught up.


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