Caroline: Classic detective fiction has rules. Codified as the genre grew in popularity in the 1920s and early 30s, these conventions mostly feed into the idea of “fair play” between author and reader. The art of writing a good murder mystery, then, is sticking to this framework while also subverting it. There’s a great skill to putting the secret out in the open and at the same time manipulating the reader into never looking at it long enough to guess the answer.
But whodunnits are not the only form of entertainment from this time that rely on clues, misdirection and twists to bewitch and delight. Another kind of mystery entirely grew out of the so called “puzzle craze” of the early twentieth century, and there’s a surprising amount of intersection and dialogue between the two. Both have their rules, their traditions, their famous creators, and their devoted fans.
Grab your pencils and put on your thinking caps, because today we’re going to solve some crosswords.
Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.
The first crossword was published because it was almost Christmas and a newspaper editor had run out of ideas. It was 1913 and Arthur Wynne, the journalist in charge of the New York World’s weekly colour supplement titled FUN, had more space available than he had words to fill it with. The order had recently come down from management that the paper should be including more puzzles and games, so Wynne decided to make one up to fill his extra space. He created a diamond shaped grid of squares accompanied by a list of riddles that corresponded to the numbered rows and columns.
As the reader filled in the answers, the intersections provided letters that could help solve other clues. That first time, on 21 December 1913, it appeared under the title of “Fun’s Word-Cross Puzzle”. Two weeks later, a printing error reversed those two key words and it became “Fun’s Cross-Word Puzzle”. The name stuck and it was an instant hit. After seven weekly puzzles had appeared, readers even started sending in ones that they had constructed themselves, and two years in Wynne was complaining that “the present supply will last until the second week in December, 2100.”. That quick puzzle that he had dashed off last minute became an institution and quickly gathered thousands of fans.
The crossword was a peculiarly trans-Atlantic invention. Arthur Wynne was born and brought up in Liverpool, the port city in the north west of England where I live, but emigrated to Pittsburgh in the United States when he was 19. Newspapers were in his blood — his father had been the editor of the Liverpool Mercury, and Wynne started out on the Pittsburgh Press before he transferred to the New York World. Although he is remembered fondly now as the originator of these puzzles, he didn’t create them in a vacuum. Going back to the nineteenth century, word games such as acrostics had been a popular element of newspapers and magazines, and the early Fun Crosswords have a lot in common with the “riddle boxes” popular in British children’s magazines when Wynne was growing up. And 23 years before Wynne in 1890, an Italian journalist called Giuseppe Airoldi had published a puzzle he called the parole incrociate or “crossed words” in a Milan magazine. This was a four by four grid where each row and column was the solution to an accompanying definition. The Italian reading public weren’t especially keen on it, so it didn’t take off. It was the puzzle-hungry readership of the New York World, a couple of decades later, that really set the crossword puzzle in motion, and it quickly caught on in Britain too, with the first crossword puzzle appearing in Pearson’s magazine in 1922. American and British crosswords are different, though, it should be noted. The former is often based on general knowledge and definitions, while the so called “cryptic” style popular in the UK is built on wordplay, puns, anagrams and the like. The first cryptic crossword was published in the Observer in 1926, and the setter Torquemada is generally credited with originating the form.
But what does any of this have to do with murder mysteries? Well, these two forms of puzzle — the crossword and the classic fair play whodunnit — were exploding in popularity at the same time and this collective passion had a common source in the so called “puzzle craze” of the period immediately following the First World War. I’ve talked before on the show about the “convalescent” qualities of whodunnits and how people exhausted and traumatised by years of conflict found comfort in this genre, and the same dynamic was at play with all kinds of distracting, puzzle based entertainment. Jigsaws, treasures hunts and parlour games all surged in popularity and the crossword was right up there too. The critic Alison Light has described the effect of murder mysteries in this post war period as “the mental equivalent of pottering”, and the same could be said of word puzzles. Even the genre’s detractors saw the similarities — in his famous 1945 New Yorker essay “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?”, the critic Edmund Wilson says that “the reading of detective stories is simply a kind of vice that, for silliness and minor harmfulness, ranks somewhere between smoking and crossword puzzles”. People love whodunnits and crosswords alike because they’re absorbing and distracting but not disruptive.
I feel like I should issue a disclaimer at this point. I am not good at crosswords, especially the cryptic ones that really passionate fans of these puzzles adore, and I’ve never devoted any time to learning their ways. I’m not sure why — I’ll happily spend hours and days thinking about the nuances a 1920s murder mystery, but when confronted with a crossword clue like “One may take issue with rising fish stocks”, nine letters, my brain just glazes over.
In order to understand the connection between crosswords and crime fiction more deeply, then, I needed to call in an expert.
Hamish: There is a particular type of crossword clue for that one where, um, the, the solution is actually hidden in the in the clue itself. Here’s one I wrote a while back. “Put an end to staying in hotel, I’m in a tent”, and if you look at the words “hotel, I’m in a tent”, Ignore the H O T of hotel and then you’ve got. E L I M I N a T E N T for tents at the end of it. And that spells eliminate, but it’s actually in “hotel, I’m in a tent”. So it’s staying in hotel, I’m in a tent and it means put an end to. So in that, in that case, the solution is literally staring you in the face. If you care to read the clue in the right way.
Caroline: This is Hamish Symington, a plant science phd student and cryptic crossword enthusiast. I’m afraid even after this excellent explanation the solution to that particular clue is still not staring me in the face. But that’s just me — there’s nobody better to guide us through this cryptic world: Hamish sets crosswords for the Guardian and elsewhere under the pseudonym “Soup”, and he even takes commissions to create custom puzzles for birthdays and other special occasions.
I knew in principle that cryptic crosswords and crime novels shared many features, but it wasn’t until I talked to Hamish that I realised quite how much they have in common. For starters, crosswords have rules that setters are supposed to follow, very much in the way that the writers of classic whodunnits were too.
Hamish: A clue should contain two things. It should contain the definition and it should contain wordplay to give you the answer to that definition and nothing else. And that is a really difficult thing to stick to. There are some times where you want to include a few extra words, just because it would really make the surface of the clue look like something else, but it doesn’t contribute to the actual meaning of the clue. It’s extra cruft, which you’re putting in just to make it look good. That is not allowed.
Caroline: And then there’s the dynamic between the setter and the solver, and the way that clues have to be both transparent and opaque at the same time.
Hamish: This is the joy of cryptic puzzle, as opposed to general knowledge or something like that. The clue that is split into two parts, you have the definition, which is a synonym of the word which you are looking for, then there’s wordplay. And the wordplay is really, really clever because it gives you the puzzle of how to get to the solution while looking like it means something completely different. And that is the art of the setter is making it look like something completely different.
Caroline: And then there’s the fact that setters write under pseudonyms.
Hamish: Everyone has a pseudonym. They don’t publish under their real names, I’m not entirely sure why this came about, but it’s how it always is. So Araucaria was the monkey puzzler, he was always called the little monkey when he was little, apparently. So they kind of make sense. Araucaria is the monkey puzzle tree.
Caroline: Araucaria was the pseudonym of the Reverend John Galbraith Graham, who was a popular cryptic crossword compiler for the Guardian from 1958 until his death in 2013. He was a crosswording mentor of sorts to Hamish, who also succeeded Araucaria as the editor of 1 Across magazine. Setters like this who publish puzzles over many decades develop a certain style and way of doing things that fans recognise, just as a favourite author might have a distinctive flair or a recurring character.
Hamish: [20:26] I can’t workout how to explain it you just, you just get to know the setter. Um, Some setters are witty, some like Shakespearian characters more than others. There’s a setter called Boatman who will always include the word “boatman“ in one of the clues. That could mean sailor or tar or A.B. for Able Seaman or it could mean I or me for the setter. There’s a setter called Paul who is often a bit more smutty. So you’ll probably get a bum joke in every one of his crosswords. There are some whose puzzles you just look at in complete awe. There’s a setter called Brendan, who is amazing. He set a puzzle in which nowhere in the grid was that the letter E, which is the most common letter setting that as a grid is actually relatively straightforward, but nowhere in the clues was the letter E either. And that sort of stuff is amazing. Araucaria had his own style. He was very much anything goes as long as it’s fair. There are rules, which you have to follow. He didn’t always follow the rules, but he knew what he was doing when he was breaking them. And you could tell that from the clues, you would always think that the clue was fair.
Caroline: That sounds rather familiar to the mystery fan, doesn’t it? A group of clever writers, often working under knowing pseudonyms, who play with the rules of a form that first became popular in the 1920s to baffle and delight their readers. The more I learned from Hamish, the more I began to see all of the parallels between the golden age of detective fiction and the world of cryptic crosswords. It was almost enough to make me want to try and solve one for myself. Almost.
After the break: what happens when you put the crosswords in the crime fiction?
Now, a brief intermission. They say that the pictures are better on radio, but sometimes it can be helpful to actually see what I’m talking about with your eyes rather than building the image in your mind alone. To this end, I want to recommend the podcast’s Instagram account to you — I’ve got really into sharing pictures of books and adaptations on there, as well as talking to listeners directly, and I’d love for you to join us. It’s @ShedunnitShow, and following the show there is also a good way to stay in touch with what’s coming up, because I share some behind the scenes stuff as well as sometimes running quizzes and giving away copies of my favourite murder mysteries. Last year, I “soft launched” some new merchandise on Instagram and it all sold out in the first day, so it’s a good way of staying in the loop about that sort of thing. Take part in the podcast in between episodes by following now — @ShedunnitShow on Instagram.
The practice of putting crosswords actually in crime stories goes almost all the way back to Arthur Wynne and that first “Word-Cross” in the New York World in 1913. After that puzzle series became so popular that the paper was inundated with reader submitted solutions and puzzles, Wynne was assigned a secretary to help him manage it. Margaret Petherbridge, a highly educated woman who had her own ambitions to become a writer, initially saw this as a dead end job, but found herself sucked into the world of the crossword regardless, especially after she realised how much of the mailbag for the page was readers complaining about Wynne’s shoddy setting and frequent mistakes. Once she had tried some of Wynne’s puzzles for herself and realised that they were technically unsolvable, she vowed to fix it. She took the whole thing in hand and put it on a more professional footing. She became a crossword enthusiast herself, and when she left the New York World, she was one of the editors of the first books of crosswords, which was published by Simon and Schuster in 1925. It was incredibly popular, with 350,000 copies selling in the first year, and booksellers and libraries reported a sudden decline in sales and borrowing, because everyone was just doing the crossword book instead. Petherbridge joined the New York Times in 1942 as its first puzzle editor, and was described by the New Yorker as “probably the most important person in the world of the crossword puzzle”.
But from our point of view, Margeret Petherbridge’s most significant contribution to the intersection of crime fiction and crosswords was a series of 21 short stories that were published by Mystery Book Magazine in the 1940s. They starred a sleuth called “Inspector Cross” and included a crossword puzzles that readers had to solve in order to fill in the gaps in the mystery story. This is a formal experiment that has been repeated down the twentieth century, demonstrating just how closely the puzzle and the puzzle mystery are intertwined. For instance, an author called Nero Blanc — actually a pseudonym for a husband and wife writing team — throughout the 2000s published a dozen instalments of a series called “the crossword mysteries”, which are whodunnits which come with downloadable crossword puzzles that the reader can fill in to augment the story.
Detective novelists have long dabbled with crosswords in their fiction, and puzzles can have narrative uses beyond this more literal method of “solve these clues to reveal elements of the story”. The Dorothy L. Sayers short story “The Fascinating Problem of Uncle Meleager’s Will”, published in the 1928 collection Lord Peter Views the Body, is an excellent example of this, where the crossword is for the characters to solve, not the reader — although Sayers did kindly include a grid and the correct answers in the back of the back of the book for anyone who wants to try. A friend of Lord Peter Wimsey’s sister is struggling to track down a rich uncle’s will, and the sleuth helps her to uncover that the answer lies in a set of riddles with answers that must be slotted into the tiled grid of an indoor fountain. I asked Hamish to take a look at these clues, and he reported that while this isn’t a true cryptic crossword — he described it as a riddle — they are well written and much better than the usual standard of puzzle to be found in fiction.
The writer E.R. Punshon went one better than Sayers in 1934 and published a novel titled Crossword Mystery, which sees his sleuth Bobby Owen sent to provide protection to a jittery stockbroker whose brother has recently died in a seemingly innocent swimming accident. A crossword devised by one of the victims in this story provides pivotal clues that lead to the eventual solution, and again Punshon “played fair” by the reader by including the grid in the book so that everyone could have a go, again pointing to the similar skills required to solve a murder and a crossword puzzle. I couldn’t make any sense out of this one myself, and I have read others say that it is particularly hard, so I don’t feel too bad about that.
We find this same trope of a dead person leaving a crossword behind to illuminate their demise in Close Quarters, a novel by Michael Gilbert that was published in 1947 but demonstrates many of the characteristics of the previous decade’s whodunnits. It’s set in a cathedral close, with the various resident clergy rocked by a spate of poison pen letters that accuses one of their number of negligence. A crossword puzzle devised by a previous victim is eventually discovered, and in a memorable scene two characters solve it on the spot to reveal a vital clue that moves the plot towards its conclusion. In this way, the puzzle is being used as a kind of personal code, with the setter pitching it a level that they knew their friend and fellow enthusiast would be able to manage, but which wouldn’t be accessible to a curious stranger. Gilbert’s novel can be read a little like a check list for the major tropes of golden age detective fiction, with the closed circle of suspects confined within the walls of the cathedral close, some fascinating stuff around footprints and time of death, a major red herring and a dramatic denouement. The crossword is really just the final touch that confirms this novel as being very much of the golden age, despite it’s slightly later publication date.
The crossword, then, can both provide clues itself and also work as an expression of its setter’s or solver’s personality. This latter attribute is very much on display in a short story called “The Clue” by the Anglo Irish writer Lord Dunsany. This is a very brief piece which turns on the idea that an apparently perfect murder can be solved by unravelling the crossword that the killer filled in while waiting for their victim to arrive at the deadly rendezvous. The sleuth divines a lot about the solver by looking at which clues they went for first and which solutions they missed entirely — you can learn a lot about a person, it turns out, based on which obscure facts they know and which they don’t.
And lest you think that it is only golden age authors who dabbled in crossword based murders, I must just point out that Patricia Moyes published one in 1983 called Six Letter Word for Death. This one is rather more convoluted and leaves me yearning for the stark simplicity of a grid on the page, but since the the sleuth is initially tipped off to the murder by mysterious crossword clues that arrive anonymously by post, I think it has to be included in the crossword mystery canon.
After all that I’ve said, it should come as no surprise to you that mystery writers throughout the last 100 years have been among the foremost fans of crosswords. Whether it’s Ronald Knox having to give them up for Lent as a penance, or Colin Dexter naming all the characters in a Morse novel after his fellow regular competitors in a newspaper crossword competition, it’s clear that the skills involved in plotting a murder mystery and those required to solve a cryptic are very similar. And the tradition continues with today’s crime novelists — one of Hamish’s proudest custom crossword commissions was for Anthony Horowitz, who I’m told is a rare author who writes genuinely high calibre clues into his fiction.
I’ve always found crosswords intimidating — they seemed to have so many rules and conventions that I didn’t understand — but now that I know that they’re essentially just murder mysteries in grid form, I’m rather more inclined to give them a go. Whether it’s crime or cryptics, we’re all just searching for the solution, after all.
This episode of Shedunnit was written and narrated by me, Caroline Crampton, and edited by Euan MacAleece. My thanks to Hamish Symington, aka Soup, for sharing his crossword expertise with me — we actually spoke for a long time and he did his very best to make me understand how cryptic clues work, and members of the Shedunnit book club will be getting to hear that full interview soon as a bonus episode, sign up at shedunnitbookclub.com/join if you would also like to hear it. You can more information about this episode and links to all the books mentioned at shedunnitshow.com/crypticcrimes. I provide transcripts for every episode of the podcast too: find them at shedunnitshow.com/transcripts. Thanks for listening. I’ll be back soon with another episode.