Crossword 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.