Some years ago I read a list of ‘Things to get you free of writer’s block’ – and there, partway down, was “Write crossword clues”. Let’s ignore the obvious thought that occurred to me (‘What do you do if you’re having difficulty writing crossword clues?’), as it’s probably a minority interest, and consider possible consequences. Do some of these clues work their way into the fabric of the writer’s work once the block has eased?
Certainly Martin Amis had some very elegant and well-constructed cryptic clues in Lionel Asbo, but further afield I’m not so sure. Yesterday at a second-hand sale in Heretaunga I came across a DVD entitled The Iceman Cometh (actually, though implausibly, a Chinese martial arts movie, with distinctly non-gelid cover images, though probably a bit zippier than the original), which reminded me of Michael Dibdin.
Dibdin’s Italian books, featuring Aurelio Zen, are little gems: dry, witty, with a resigned acceptance that you need to keep fighting everyday corruption even if you never quite win. He wrote other books in between them, one being Dirty Tricks. This has an Oxford-based anti-hero, amoral and unlikeable, whose titular dirty tricks eventually attract the attention of the local constabulary, to wit, the crossword-loving Inspector Moss.
Yes, not subtle. Worse to come. Moss discusses one clue in particular:
The iceman buyeth not his round (5)
We can thank Eugene O’Neill for that odd ‘buyeth’, of course, but what of the rest? Fortunately Moss elaborates: the iceman is Mr Ice, and he isn’t paying, so the answer is something else that doesn’t pay, namely CRIME, which happens to be an anagram of Mr Ice. (Gosh, a detective driving home a ‘Crime doesn’t pay’ message. If you want to imagine “Yes, not subtle” repeated here, feel free.)
So, no definition, no anagram indicator, no real structure. It’s not that it’s not inventive or amusing (though it is a bit laboured), but it does make you wonder how much research Dibdin did. (It’s akin to wondering whether book-jacket designers ever really notice that crosswords are generally symmetrical.). And once you start wondering about the research done in a field of which you know something, then you also start wondering about the fields where you take things on trust.
No, I didn’t buy the DVD.
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