I Got the Crossword Puzzle Half Complete*

CrosswordsCrossword puzzles are a very popular form of entertainment. For some people, it’s the easy four-to-eight clue television crossword. Others prefer more challenging crosswords. And of course, there are folks who can do the Times crossword puzzle in ink. Crosswords have become such a part of people’s ‘down time’ that it’s hard to believe they’re only 100 years old. So in honour of the 100th anniversary of the crossword puzzle, I thought it’d be fun to take a look at just a few examples of how crosswords have found their way into crime fiction.

In Agatha Christie’s Curtain, Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings meet again at Styles Court, which Poirot fans will know is the scene of their first case together. This time Poirot’s health is failing and he wants Hastings to be his ‘eyes and ears’ to help catch a killer. Styles Court has been turned into a Guest House and Poirot believes that one of the guests, known only as X, is a dangerous killer who’s already struck more than once. Hastings begins to look into the case but then there’s another murder and it seems that X has struck again. While this case is going on, Hastings is struggling with something else:  the Times crossword. He’s stuck on one of the clues, the answer to which is Iago. Interestingly enough, the answer is supposed to have five letters; Iago has only four. No matter; it’s an important aspect of the mystery, and I’m certainly in no position to criticise Christie about such details…

Fans of Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse series will know that Morse is an avid fan of crossword puzzles, and they show up more than once in the novels. For instance, in The Daughters of Cain, Morse and Sergeant Lewis investigate two murders. One is the killing of Felix McClure, former Ancient History don at Oxford. The other is the murder of McClure’s former scout Ted Brooks. As you might guess, the two deaths are related, but not in the way you might think. One of the people who figure in this case is a prostitute who goes by the name of Eleanor ‘Ellie’ Smith. She and Morse strike up a kind of friendship which, under other circumstances, might have been more. But she is a suspect in a murder investigation that Morse is conducting, so both of them know that any kind of relationship between them would be at the very least extremely complicated. That doesn’t mean they don’t care for each other though, and towards of the end of the novel, Ellie gives him a silver hip flask. And as it happens, hip-flask is the one crossword puzzle answer Morse has been searching for; the clue is Kick in the pants? and Morse finds it quite frustrating to be missing that one answer. If you’re a crossword puzzle fan, you know that frustration.

Ruth Rendell takes a darker look at crosswords in One Across, Two Down. Stanley Manning is a fuel pump attendant who’s never really got on in life professionally. It doesn’t help matters that he’s got a prison record too. He and his wife Vera live with Vera’s mother Maude, who despises her son-in-law. The feeling is, as you might imagine, mutual. Stanley’s very much looking forward to the considerable inheritance Vera will get when Maude dies, but for the moment he’s biding his time. His main leisure activity is crossword puzzles and he gets an immense satisfaction from solving the daily puzzle in the Telegraph. But even the pleasure of crossword puzzles isn’t enough to prevent matters between Stanley and Maude from coming to a head. He decides on a plan of action but as Ruth Rendell fans will guess, things don’t work out the way he intends. These characters aren’t exactly likeable, but you can’t help understanding Stanley’s love of crosswords…

Lilian Jackson Braun’s Cat Who… series features newspaper columnist James ‘Qwill’ Qwilleran. He’s a lover of words so he finds crossword puzzle clues rather easy. In The Cat Who Saw Red, for instance, Qwill’s editor has asked him to write a new gourmet column for The Daily Fluxion. One of his first stops will be the home of Robert Maus, an attorney who’s also a renowned chef and gourmet. He’s the leader of a group called The Gourmet Club, and Qwill gets an invitation to dinner at ‘The Maus Haus’ through a friend. One of the people he meets there is Charlotte Roop, a crossword puzzle fan who’s most pleased to meet a ‘newspaper person.’


‘She drew a crossword puzzle from the outer pocket of her enormous handbag. ‘Do you know a five-letter word for love that begins with a?’
‘Try a-g-a-p-e,’ Qwilleran suggested.
Miss Roop frowned. ‘Agape?’
‘It’s a Greek word, pronounced ag-a-pe.’
‘Oh my!’ she said, ‘You are brilliant!’ Delightedly she penciled the word in the vertical squares.


Of course, crosswords are soon forgotten when one of the members of the Gourmet Club, who just happens to be an old flame of Qwill’s, disappears…

There’s even a mystery series that features crossword puzzles. Parnell Hall’s  Puzzle Lady series features Cora Felton, a grandmotherly-looking type who’s really anything but. She’s fond of her gin, fond of going out, and she’s a skilled amateur sleuth. But she ‘looks the type,’ so her picture and name are featured on the daily ‘Puzzle Lady’ crossword puzzle that’s syndicated in a large number of newspapers. The real brains, if you will, behind the puzzles is Cora’s niece Sherry Carter. Sherry doesn’t mind being out of the limelight; in fact she prefers it that way. It’s an interesting premise for a series, and it shows just how popular crossword puzzles are.

OK, cruciverbalists, let’s get our pencils and wits sharpened. But before we tackle that next puzzle, let me invite you to visit Chess, Comics, Crosswords, Books, Music, Cinema. It’s a fantastic resource for popular culture, including crosswords. G’wan – you’ll be glad you did! I’ll save the puzzle for you.



*NOTE:  The title of this post is a line from Utopia’s Chapter and Verse.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Colin Dexter, Lilian Jackson Braun, Parnell Hall, Ruth Rendell

22 responses to “I Got the Crossword Puzzle Half Complete*

  1. I particularly like Dexter’s use of crosswords in his books (but then he actually sets real ones too) – I can only do fairly easy ones myself but I am full of admiration for those who are good at complex puzzles.

    • Sergio – As am I. I very much enjoy solving crosswords but I would be hopeless at setting them myself. I like Dexter’s use of crosswords too. He really does integrate them well doesn’t he?

  2. Parnell Hall’s crossword puzzle lady books are fun. Personally, I’d rather do almost anything else than crosswords. :d

    • Pat – Crosswords aren’t for everyone, I’ll admit. But for those who love them, there’s nothing more fun. And you’re right; those Puzzle Lady books really are fun.

  3. I have very fond memories of crossword puzzles. My father always had one he was working on, and when I went off to college, he would send me some that he cut out of the paper. I have always enjoyed crosswords, even though I am not great at them. I like the challenge.

    What about A Six-Letter Word for Death by Patricia Moyes? I know I read that but I remember nothing about it. I will have to re-read it.

    • Tracy – Oh, I’m glad you mentioned Patricia Moyes. I have to confess I’ve not read that particular novel, but from what I know of it, it’s a great example of what I had in mind when I wrote this post. And I know what you mean about fond crossword memories. I like crosswords too, and I’ve got a lot of memories of doing them as a young person.

  4. Margot: Thanks for mentioning Prashant. I enjoy reading his posts.

    I read one of the Puzzle Lady books. It was fun but did not capture me. I have not read another.

    While not a crossword puzzle Dan Brown does provide cryptic phrases to be deciphered in his books especially Lost Symbols.

    • Bill – I like Prashant’s posts too, and his comments on others’ blogs. As to the Puzzle Lady book, they’re not everyone’s first choice (but then, I know very few authors who are). I’m glad you at least thought that the novel was fun.
      You’re right too about Dan Brown. Not a lot of crossword puzzles but most definitely cryptic ones.

  5. kathy d.

    I love crossword puzzles, do the NY Times puzzles daily. But since they start out easy on Mondays and get harder each day, I confess to googling a few times on Saturdays,
    And try “demise” for a six-letter word for “death.”

    • Kathy – Demise is a very good six-letter word for ‘death.’ I like crossword puzzles too, and the New York Times puzzle is up there with the best of them. They do get progressively more difficult though, so I don’t blame for Googling by the time you get to Saturday…

  6. Great look a the subject Margot – I think you’ve mentioned all the ones I could have thought of, although I have memories of the Times crossword featuring in a different Patricia Moyes. But really, you have the topic criss-crossed….

  7. What a fun topic, Margot, especially for a cruciverbalist like me. I particularly like cryptic crosswords, though I rarely solve them. I think the process of thinking through cryptic clues helps me better plot my crime fiction.

    Do you think there might be a relationship between solving puzzles for fun and plotting crime fiction for a ‘living’?

    (I know you’ll understand my euphemistic meaning!)

    • Angela – Thank you – glad you enjoyed it. I think you have a well-taken point that cryptic clues and other ‘brain exercise’ like that helps us to think through plots (including our own!) better. There’s research too that supports solving crosswords and other puzzles as healthy mental activity.
      And yes, I understand all too well your euphemistic meaning! And I’ll bet there is a connection between an interest in puzzles and an interest in crime writing. I’ll bet Agatha Christie solved crosswords…

  8. Ms. Kinberg, I’m sorry I missed this post. Thank you very much for the kind mention of my blog as also the kind words from Bill. I appreciate your thoughtlessness. This is not the first time. I have been solving crosswords since childhood, from the time my father used to compile cryptic crosswords for one of the leading newspapers in India. We used to solve crosswords together.

    • Prashant – It’s my pleasure to recommend your excellent blog. And I’m glad you have fond memories of crosswords as well as an enjoyment of them now. I didn’t know your father created puzzles – that takes so much talent! I’m sure you enjoyed working them with him.

  9. Col

    Again, nothing from memory springing to mind. Agreed though on Prashant’s excellent blog.

  10. I can do medium cryptic crosswords but not the very difficult ones. In fact I once came second in The Telegraph’s crossword competition. Love the ones in Morse of course.

    • Sarah – You did? Oh, well done! I like crosswords very much, but don’t think I’m that good! And I love the ones in the Morse series too. Don’t they fit just perfectly??

  11. My apologies for being so late to the party this time, Margot, but I’d still like to mention two classic mysteries in which crosswords play a key role.

    The first – as already noted by others here – would be Patricia Moyes’ “A Six-Letter Word for Death.” The puzzle itself names friends and relatives of people who have died under suspicious circumstances. I also think she did write another one, involving the most peculiar Manciple (?) family in which crosswords were key. I love cryptic crosswords, by the way; the well-constructed ones can seem incomprehensible – until you solve one and realize the “twist” involved.

    The other book is Elizabeth Daly’s “Death and Letters,” in which a crossword sent to Henry Gamadge through the mail, turns out to be a desperate plea for help. As usual with Daly, not everything is as it seems…

    • Les – You’re welcome any time. And thanks for those great contributions. You’ve filled in some big gaps that I left. And I can completely understand why you love cryptic crosswords. They do require a certain kind of thinking, and they exercise the brain. And hey, you do love love those ‘locked room’ and ‘impossible mysteries…’

What's your view? I'd love to hear it.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s