So it’s only fair that I turn the tables and take a look at fictional constructors as well.
There are plenty of crossword constructors that test the skills of puzzlers all across fiction, and today, I’m going to rank some of the most famous, most obscure, and most interesting among them into three categories: The Across (aka the Good), The Down (aka the Not-So-Good), and The Fill (aka those who fall in between).
How am I ranking them, you ask? Excellent question, fellow puzzler.
I’ll be taking the following questions into consideration:
- How much do we know about them and their puzzles?
- How do puzzlers in their fictional universe regard them and their puzzles?
- How do puzzlers in our world regard them and their puzzles?
- What are their extracurriculars like? (For instance, are they also solving crimes or are they committing them?)
So, without further ado, let’s look at the array of fictional cruciverbalist talent we’ve assembled for you today.
[Image courtesy of The Guardian.]
Daedalus, Inspector Morse series
(novels by Colin Dexter)
Our first constructor (or setter, in this case) comes from Julian Mitchell’s adaptation of Dexter’s famous character for ITV in “The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn.”
Taking the name of the famous maze-builder of legend, Daedalus is cited by Morse as “a right sod” for his devious puzzles. Morse confesses, “I once spent a whole day on one of your five downs.” 5 Down, in Morse’s universe, is apparently much like Puzzle 5 at ACPT. And Morse is hardly a stranger to puzzles, either in crossword or crime form, so this is high praise indeed.
Although the production makes a mistake — showing Daedalus pointing to a 13x grid when 15x grids are standard in Morse’s world — as far as we can tell, Daedalus is a top-notch setter worthy of his reputation.
[Image courtesy of The Daily Star.]
Puzzler, various DiscWorld novels (Terry Pratchett)
Another setter, Puzzler serves as the puzzlemaster for The Ankh-Morpork Times. Celebrated as a skilled constructor by no less than Lord Vetinari himself (ruler of the city of Ankh-Morpork), Puzzler is known for employing fiendish and obscure vocabulary, once flummoxing Vetinari with the entry “snarkenfaugister.” (Just imagine what that cryptic clue looked like.)
In real life, Puzzler is later revealed by Vetinari’s dogged investigation to be pet-food shop owner and trivia hound Grace Speaker, who accidentally hinted toward her puzzly alter ego by answering a trivia question “only five people in the city could answer.”
[Image courtesy of Amazon.]
Stanley and Vera, Two Across (Jeff Bartsch)
We never actually see one of Stanley or Vera’s puzzles, but based on what we hear in this romantic journey, they must be pretty impressive constructors. In one instance, Stanley creates a New York-themed puzzle where the boroughs are located geographically in the grid. (To be fair, there is a reference to having the 8-letter word RIFFRAFF as a center entry, which makes me wary.)
In the later sections of the book, it’s Vera’s puzzles that drive the narrative. Her puzzles are crisp, interesting, and Stanley is so desperate not to miss them that he solves puzzles obsessively to ensure he sees her next creation.
The characters are drawn as honest, flawed people who both find joy in puzzles. They’re an easy shoe-in for the Across rank.
Lawrence Brooks, Bones
In one episode of the TV crime procedural Bones, the team tries to explain the death of Lawrence Brooks, a reclusive syndicated crossword constructor. Lawrence is considered by some to be a master in his field, one whose reputation is bolstered by the attention of an ambitious assistant, but also dogged by accusations of stealing puzzles by former colleagues.
Although the twists and turns do cast doubt on his assistant Alexis, it turns out that much of the trouble uncovered throughout the episode is due to ongoing issues with Alzheimer’s. (For instance, it’s believed that he mistakenly published the work of others, confusing them with his own work, while his wife tried to cover for him by publishing puzzles he’d previously rejected for falling below his standards.)
By episode’s end, Lawrence’s reputation is restored, and this fictional Will Shortzian figure remains a benchmark for puzzly skill.
[Image courtesy of Kobo.]
Belle Graham, Crossword Mystery series (Nero Blanc)
Belle is a crossword constructor who helps her husband, a private investigator, unravel mysteries that often intrude on the couple’s vacations. Solving crosswords inevitably proves helpful to cracking the myriad cases that cross Belle’s path.
Belle spends much more time solving than constructing, so despite appearing in more than a dozen books, we don’t know a lot about her constructing. We do know it’s compelling enough to inspire a TV crime series she constructs puzzles for; we also know there was a fierce rivalry between her and another constructor, Thompson C. Briephs, a flamboyant playboy (as many constructors are).
But given the clues and references to constructing that pepper the books, I think The Fill is a fair place to rank Belle.
[Image courtesy of The Guardian.]
Aristotle, Oliver’s Travels
Mixing elements of a road trip, a midlife crisis, and a romance, Oliver’s Travels is all about an enthusiastic puzzler seeking out his favorite constructor/setter, only to stumble upon a mystery.
We’re told over and over again that Aristotle is “the best in the business,” publishing in the Times, the Guardian, and the Listener, keeping Oliver both entertained and inspired through his inventive wordplay.
As viewers, we don’t spend a huge amount of time with Aristotle, but by the time we do meet him, we’re nearly as excited as Oliver. He remains something of a mystery, so I think The Fill is a fine rank for him.
[Image courtesy of Hallmark.]
Tess Harper, Crossword Mysteries (TV movies)
Tess is a famous constructor with her own puzzle appearing in The Sentinel, one of New York’s biggest newspapers. But, like many constructors, she also spends an inordinate amount of time trying to solve murders. This cannot help but cut into your editing time. (In fact, it was a plot point in the first film that Tess was ignoring her duties as organizer of a crossword tournament to play crime-solver.)
As for Tess’s puzzles, we’ve only seen a few of her works in action, and when she’s not trying to fit an 8-letter word into a mostly-filled grid (literally, it’s the only word left to fill), she’s making wedding proposal puzzles where the theme word placement makes no sense whatsoever.
We know she has some cluing skills, and a penchant for applying puzzle knowledge to the real world, but she also doesn’t seem to take the job seriously. (I mean, she supposedly takes weeks of magic classes as “research” for a puzzle. Is she a con artist?)
I can’t place her in the Down, but I can’t place her in the Across either.
[Image courtesy of Parnell Hall.]
Cora Felton, The Puzzle Lady mysteries (Parnell Hall)
This one is an odd one, because Cora Felton is a syndicated crossword constructor and known as The Puzzle Lady, but is actually conning people. She has no crossword chops, and her niece Sherry is actually the puzzly brain in the operation.
Cora, however, does have a knack for solving crimes, and her nosy nature ensures there’s no shortage of those to solve. Unfortunately, given her reputation, those crimes often have some sort of puzzle element, which causes no end of shenanigans.
No matter her crime-solving skills, though, I can’t help but place her here, because she’s the Puzzle Lady in name only. (Sherry, meanwhile, clearly belongs higher up on the list.)
[Image courtesy of The Grand Forks Herald.]
Mary Horowitz, All About Steve
This was actually the hardest entry to place, if you can believe it. Sandra Bullock’s Mary is a word-obsessed quirky person who makes her living as a crossword constructor. If she was at the ACPT, she wouldn’t stick out a bit.
But since this is a Hollywood movie, it means she’s a borderline disaster who is a burden on everyone around her and must be set up on blind dates to free her parents from her very presence.
But what about her crossword skills?
This was actually the hardest entry to place, because Mary’s apparently competent enough at crosswords that she can afford her own place on a cruciverbalist’s salary, which is impressive. But apparently she’s not competent enough to know that dedicating an entire puzzle to a man she went on one date with would get her canned from said cushy crossword gig.
So, she must be good at crosswords, but she’s also demonstrably bad at them.
But for giving constructors everywhere a bad name — and earning a Razzie award while doing so — she ends up in The Down.
Did I miss any fictional constructors that are favorites of yours, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers? Let me know in the comments section below. I’d love to hear from you!
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