There seems to be a sort of dead-time in regard to books about crosswords. After the flurry around the centenary in 2013, we have not really seen any books about them. But a publisher has now decided that it is time for another book and so we have Thinking Inside the Box by Adrienne Raphel. Its subtitle is Adventures with crosswords and the puzzling people who can’t live without them.
That pretty well indicates the outward-facing nature of the book, which is fair enough. The target audience must include people who do not do crosswords and who might be tempted into the fold. The subtitle could still be a little less jokey, though.
It is also a book about the American crossword – in particular, the example in The New York Times. Will Shortz is the genius loci of the book and appears throughout. The cryptic puzzle does get a chapter, although half of that is devoted to anecdotes from the early years when crosswords were seen as yet another example of moral turpitude oozing across the Atlantic. Raphel quotes several UK papers on the perceived threat, but since she had already established that US newspapers could express moral indignation before capitulating she could have got by with fewer examples.
While there is a reasonable view of the history of the cryptic (Mathers and Ximenes), she largely skirts around the current scene, and there is little on the current diversity between the broadsheets, nor very much on the barred puzzle types. One can imagine US cryptic aficionados feeling a little short-changed. There is, pleasingly, a brief reference to the APEX puzzle though you wouldn’t know it was still going. In the Acknowledgements (which are of the kind where the author seems to thank everyone they have ever met) the source of information is given as Geoff Chalkley.
But the core of the book is the developments in America. There are a few new stories around US crossword history, one of which leads into a useful debate about the gender imbalance in puzzles. Raphel takes us through her first attempt to set a puzzle (which she submits unsuccessfully to the NYT). There are exhortations for puzzles to be more topical and include more current popular culture, including a note about a weekly internet puzzle that can capture references in its clues that would be out-of-date if the puzzle had to grind through the publication process. I’m not entirely convinced that’s a good thing, if only because popular culture is a far more fragmented thing than its advocates think. I like to blend my helping of today’s journalism with think-pieces and with fiction both old and new, and the crossword should reflect that range.
Raphel’s range of reference is suitably broad (Wallace and Gromit, anyone? more alarmingly, how about an early Disney cartoon about crosswords with “interspecies sexual innuendo”?), and the final chapter on the world’s hardest crossword will not be what you expect (and all the better for that).
The book is written in a breezy journalistic style and is a rapid read. If you want a fresh view of the US crossword history that is also a refresher on the topic, go ahead.