In reviewing this book I should make two things plain:
1) As an established setter and solver, I’m not really the audience for this book
2) As an established setter and solver, I’m likely to be incredibly picky.
I’m going to start with the first sentence: ‘So the crossword was only 50 years old when I got hooked on it in the 1950s!’ Given that the book is emblazoned with 1913-2013, this jars arithmetically at the outset, and the pedant in me (and most cruciverbalists are more-or-less 100% pedant) says ‘not yet 50’ or ‘1960s, dammit!’. Meanwhile the opening ‘So…’ lends an aura of discovery quite at odds with the writer being the Times’ crossword editor. You rather expect that he would know that already.
Picky, you see. I mean, next I’ll be pointing out that Ambrose Bierce couldn’t have defined ‘egotism’ as ‘completing the New York Times crossword in ink’ as he’d died around WWI while the NYT crossword was born during WWII. An old chestnut, that, along the lines of Abraham Lincoln’s comment that 89% of web quotes are fake, and indicative of a need for firmer editing.
Editing might have toned down the helter-skelter style too. Halpern is a crackerjack speaker, but, as so often, this translates awkwardly to prose (an honourable exception to this rule was Sir Patrick Moore). It becomes as numbing as its opposite: the lectern speaker who ‘monotonously-drones-on-reading-[turn page here]-from-the-prepared-text’. But I doubt many will read the book straight through, so that’s a trivial point.
Let’s get this down: Halpern gets an awful lot right. The sections on clue types aimed at aspiring solvers are well up to the mark, and I don’t propose to say anything about them. (The brief provocative segment on ‘the Ximenean straitjacket’ can be addressed simply by noting that a straitjacket turned inside out remains a straitjacket.)
I was surprised at how much of his biography set chimes ringing with my own, and his chapter on assembling words for a themed grid is bang on. How many sheets of paper have I had with theme-word-length, theme-word-length, theme-word-length, ooh, look, two lengths the same, symmetry! And the way wordplay develops unbidden: only this morning, wondering why we should have ‘Vivaldi Gold’ potatoes in the larder led me to wonder whether there were other varieties out there (Borodin turnips?). It was only while pouring coffee that the subconscious coiled, sprang and clobbered me with ‘Wagner tubers’.
But disappointments are inevitable. I suspect it’s impossible to write such a book without a sense of ‘my friends pictured within’. As a result, there’s very little on the barred plain (Azed, Mephisto, Beelzebub), which just seems outside his bailiwick. In other places, he seems to rely on printed sources, so he misses the story of the Times final where Roy Dean’s record was unofficially broken by a member of the audience (and fails to confirm/deny a similar occurrence a few years later).
More significantly, the several hints of a discussion of the links between crosswords and music aren’t really developed, which is odd given the author’s background in music and maths (actually, there’s a tripartite thesis just waiting to fall off the bough here, if I may mix my metaphors a little). There’s a few ‘as we’ll see’s, and yet we really don’t see. Far be it from me to point out the existence of a setter with close to 200 musical cryptic crosswords under his belt (but I could have helped him with his Scunthorpe anecdote as well). I note, too, that his chapters on famous crossword fans do not lead with Bernstein, Sondheim or Willcocks (from the classical side) or Evan Parker (in jazz). So, a dropped catch there.
The final chapter looks at how the crossword is transitioning to the web, and is generally positive (a failure to consider the downsides may be the most worrying thing about it, in fact). It ends with an exhortation to visit a puzzle communities site – the address for which leads only to a password-protected page. Did I miss the slip of paper with a password tucked into the book? Is it something to do with the publication date (the online UK store I used had both ‘Publication Date: December 1’ and ‘In stock’ and fortunately went with the latter)? A rather bathetic end, though you should keep turning the pages for a final apt anagram.
Like I said, picky. There is absolutely no doubt that there is a lot of good stuff here, and several new stories. The style is breezy to the point of gale force (these analogies come to you from the windiest capital city in the world…) but eminently readable. Aside from the absence of a good plain barred puzzle (see Beelzebub, under My other puzzles), the range of puzzles included is representative. For a fuller view of current cruciverbal activity (and more puzzles!), you should supplement it with Jonathan Crowther’s A-Z of Crosswords.
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