This time there’s a Beelzebub puzzle from 2008. I’ve also reneged on my statement last time, and rejigged the schedule to bring the 2014 Apex puzzle forward to the next update. Meanwhile, since I was last here I’ve had an exchange of e-mails with an American constructor of what are called variety cryptics, and what the British would called barred thematics – the Inquisitor, Enigmatic Variations, and The Listener are all examples. This has prompted some thoughts about their differences.
Roger Wolff has now self-published two books each of 45 variety cryptics under the common heading of Cryptic All-Stars, as well as a book entirely of his own variety puzzles – the links are here, here and here ($999.11 seems unusually precise, don’t you think?). The first All-Stars book appeared via Puzzazz, and when the second didn’t I chased up alternative routes to get it.
Roger enquired if I would be interested in setting a puzzle for him. I explained about the number of puzzles I currently produce, and also raised the issue of vocabulary. One of the most laudable features of US variety cryptics is their use of standard vocabulary – nothing that lurks in the shadowier corners of Chambers, and not that much that is merely in gloomy though less tenebrous areas. TENEBROUS might be a good border delimiter – my guess is that it would get noted in the preamble as ‘an unfamiliar word’, while TAGHAIRM, a few pages earlier, would never be allowed into the tent (a few pages later).
This is impressive. It is also very good for novices tentatively making the step from daily cryptics to barred grids. In general, I’d say most of the puzzles in Cryptic All-Stars sit at the top end of the broadsheet cryptic level – that isn’t a criticism , obviously (I’ve said in another post that I think producing a good, entertaining easy puzzle is harder than producing a hard puzzle).
The themes are generally nicely signposted (in any collection of 45 puzzles there will be one or two where you suck in through your teeth, and say: ‘Weelll…’) though you do have to remember Webster’s notions of spelling. The clues are also generally very friendly and quite zesty, and the solving experience for most is relatively brief but very good fun. For comparison, I regularly find myself merrily zipping through the 3-star cryptics in GAMES magazine, while being beached in a corner of a 2-star definition-style by something like the crossing of _ORK (‘50s baseball giant’) and _ICK (‘ZQTV news anchor’). You just hope it’s not D. (Any resemblance to baseball players, news anchors or even dorks, living or dead, is purely coincidental.)
Now, while there’s been quite a bit of discussion about the difference between ‘American-style’ (meaning fully-checked definition-only puzzles) and ‘British-style’ (meaning cryptics) there has been rather less about the difference between cryptics on opposite sides of the Atlantic. But while they share many approaches to wordplay and themes, the differences in overall vocabulary remain striking.
So here’s my half-penn’orth (happy for anyone to contribute in other currencies). I’ll start with the name of Edward Powys Mathers – aka Torquemada. Mathers comes from good literary stock – he had a reputation as a translator (1001 Nights from the French, for example – translating an Arabic original from its French translation into English does seem a tremendously literary endeavour, particularly post-Burton) and was thus well-versed in odd corners of the language. Indeed, those corners were rather less odd to him, I suspect; certainly the idea that the less-frequented corners of the dictionary were to be celebrated has persisted. And the promiscuity of the English language in drawing in material from the world over makes the dictionary a veritable polychiliagon. (Only part of that last word exists, btw.)
Look to America and the name of Stephen Sondheim rises into view (I see the Guardian editor has landed there this week as well), not necessarily as a pioneer, but certainly as a shaper of style. Sondheim, as his books on lyric-writing make plain, is heavily concerned with getting his message across. This doesn’t always mean absolute clarity (try following the various parallel parodies in ‘Please Hello!’ from Pacific Overtures – sometimes confusion is the required message). But the love of wordplay is focused to a more directly communicative end. It’s a clearer acquiescence in the idea that the setter is meant to be defeated. And if the tussle has been enjoyable, the exact timing of defeat is less material. Perhaps the Brits occasionally take things too seriously.
That doesn’t mean The Listener and other British puzzles don’t have American followers – they do. The interesting shortfall is the lack of traffic the other way. Solvers who occasionally manage an IQ but who otherwise stick to the blocked daily puzzles would find a good deal of fun here. If you happen to pick this up shortly after its publication, hie you over to the Wall Street Journal – this is a Cox and Rathvon cryptic week (they appear one in every four, so scrolling back through the puzzles on the link page – using the PREVIOUS link if need be – should throw up the most recent fairly soon). And, while loth to put up email addresses on a web-page, I’m happy to put anyone in touch with Roger – both to purchase the books (he has PDFs, much less than $999) and to keep you apprised of his next Kickstarter moves. These puzzles are worth getting to know.