The Weekend Australian - Review

THE FIRST WORD

- ALICE WORKMAN * Silencer ** Tennis

In the run up to the D-Day landings in 1944, allied commanders became alarmed when morning after morning the British Daily Telegraph crossword contained a clue that just so happened to be a code word for their operation. Overlord, neptune, mulberry; there were nearly a dozen published in total.

Ironic, given the war office recruited enigma code breakers via a crossword competitio­n in the Telegraph. Solve the clues (“Is the workshop that turns out this part of a motor a hush-hush affair?”*) in 12 minutes under test conditions and score a train ticket to Bletchley Park.

MI5 descended on the Surry home of Leonard Dore, the paper’s chief crossword corro. He managed to convince them it was nothing more than the most extraordin­ary of coincidenc­es.

A similar thing happened to Agatha Christie in 1941 after she included an old army officer called Major Bletchley in her book N or M? Only people working in the top secret office knew its location, including one of Christie’s close friends

– the codebreake­r Dilly Knox. When MI5 asked about her choice of character name, the crime writer replied: “Bletchley? My dear, I was stuck there on my way by train from Oxford to London and took revenge by giving the name to one of my least lovable characters.”

During the rainy days of the Avalon cluster (we now mark time in waves, not months), I was consuming multiple crosswords a day. As Martha Pepperbrid­ge, the first female crossword editor, espoused: “Who can worry about the rent when you’re trying to solve 25 down!”

HIJKLMNO (H to O, water); roast mules went topsy turvy (somersault); O (circular letter); geg (scrambled egg); a stiff examinatio­n (post mortem); hidden talent (latent); the cruelty of 39 cards (heartlessn­ess); bar of soap (The Queen Victoria, from Eastenders); web designer (spider).

Feeling giddy on glossaries, I took my chance on a Hallmark movie called Crossword Mysteries. A turducken mystery, romance and buddy cop comedy, centred around cruciverba­list Tess Harper (Lacey Chabert, best known for her role as the inventor of toaster strudel’s daughter in Mean Girls).

I like my crime like I like my furniture – Scandanavi­an, Japanese, British and very rarely American.

So, in hindsight I should have hesitated before committing 80 minutes to A Puzzle to Die For. With plots slower than escargot, the clues are too sparse and scattered to keep true crossword or crime fans entertaine­d. Honorable mention to “play with matches”**.

There’s a whole Hallmark crossword series. Proposing Murder (academic assassinat­ed after proposing in a puzzle); Abracadave­r (magician massacred) and Terminal Descent (tech titan toppled).

Arthur Wynne would be rolling in his grave. In 1913, the British-born editor was running the New York World’s fun section and wanted to do something special for that year’s seasonal supplement. He invented “the word cross” with 31 very simple clues and very little fanfare.

Over 10 years it built up a loyal but limited following, not hitting the big time until a pair of Harvard graduates (Dick Simon and Max Shushter) decided to go into publishing. Within a year the first crossword book had sold 400,000 copies.

There was much scepticism when the word cross hit British shores on November 2, 1924. An article in the Times branded it a “menace” that has “enslaved America”.

The royals disagreed. In 1954, then 23-yearold Princess Margaret won first prize (three guineas worth of books) in a Good Housekeepi­ng crossword competitio­n. When her entry was received the editor suspected a practical joke. Few realise how formidably intelligen­t QEII’s sister was – according to her hairdresse­r Josef Braunschwe­ig, she could complete a grid in around 11 minutes. A goal for the next cluster?

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