When The Nation announced an opening for cryptic crossword constructors, each of us had been solving cryptic crosswords for many years. Like many of the experienced solvers we know, we had largely lost interest in standard American black-square cryptics, such as the ones found in Games magazine and the occasional Sunday New York Times. Those puzzles have a limited audience: beginners find them impenetrable, but for more experienced solvers they are, frankly, rather boring. Most experienced solvers we know sooner or later migrated to so-called variety cryptics, such as the ones in Harper’s or The Enigma, or to British puzzles.
This state of affairs made us wonder whether applying for the job at The Nation made any sense. Would we want to create puzzles of a kind that we ourselves do not enjoy solving? But further reflection convinced us it would be worth a try. One of the things that swayed us was the example of Frank Lewis, who had a broad and loyal following that extended over many decades. In other words, he had achieved something unique among US constructors of black-square cryptics. What was his secret? Could it be the fact that his style was well outside the US cryptic mainstream?
The conventional wisdom among US cryptic constructors—and many of their fans—was that Lewis’s style was too freewheeling. For example, he was not very vigilant about matching the parts of speech in definition and answer. His diagrams often included consecutive unchecked letters, which is generally considered unfair. The two senses in his double definitions were often very close to each other, leading some solvers to coin the phrase “1.01 def” to describe those clues. He often resorted to non-cryptic punny definitions (what the British call “cryptic definitions”). Finally, his cryptic repertoire was very limited—he overused the same few anagram indicators, as well as Roman numerals and cardinal points.
The result was that many of his solvers spent time and energy excoriating him. And yet they kept coming back for more. Why? There are probably many different answers to this question, but here are some features of his puzzles that we enjoyed:
• He often used very long entries, including phrases and entire sentences, distributing them in multiple location in the diagram.
• He usually had lovely, humorous, and fresh insights into how to reinterpret those long entries, which led him to create entertaining clues.
• He drew from almost every field of knowledge, and sometimes used interesting unfamiliar words.
• He sometimes reversed the clue-answer relationship, for example by using a clue like “Earth despair (6,5)” for BROKEN HEART. The anagram indicator and fodder were in the answer, and the result was in the clue! Likewise, he sometimes used (duly indicated) homophones of words in the clue.
• He occasionally made references to The Nation’s politics.
• His clues were varied in length and style, and he sometimes completely surprised the solver with an unexpected and idiosyncratic twist to the usual routine.
Our plan was to take some of Frank’s whimsy and inventiveness and join it with the structural rigor we were accustomed to. As members of the National Puzzlers’ League and veterans of many kinds of puzzles, we are familiar with a wide range of approaches to wordplay. Perhaps we could combine all those ingredients to create a type of black-square puzzle that would be fun for us to construct, and for you to solve?
So we ended up applying for the job, and here we are. We have thoroughly enjoyed the experience so far—although given our advanced ages, we will not be able to match Frank’s prodigious sixty-year run.
PS: A Hard Nut to Crack
When constructing last week’s puzzle, we rejected this clue for PECAN:
California imprisoned nut (5)
(CA in PEN = California imprisoned.) We thought it was too difficult. What do you think? Please share your thoughts below, where you can also post comments about Frank Lewis, and questions, kudos, or complaints about last week’s puzzle or any previous puzzle.