As I wrote yesterday, I’m mystified why more American word aficianados don’t fall in love with British-style cryptic crosswords. It may be a lack of familiarity. On a somewhat irregular schedule The New York Times does a “cryptic” as its second Sunday puzzle, but it’s so easy and badly composed that it wouldn’t make a fan out of anyone. The web, of course, opens up a whole new territory for Americans. I can claim a modicum of timeliness with my planned series because The Guardian website had a change of policy at the beginning of the month, and its puzzles — non pareil, in my opinion — can now be accessed for free.
What makes cryptics so compelling? In the hands of a good setter (the person who creates the crossword), cryptics are a test of your ingenuity with words, your general (and sometimes abstruse) knowledge and your linguistic agility. The best British puzzles adhere to the standards established decades ago by D S Macnutt, who set absolutely devilish puzzles for The Observer under the pseudonym Ximenes. His book, The Art of the Crossword, establishes the rules of good sportsmanship in cruciverbalism. Boiled to essentials, Ximenes’ cardinal rule is that the clue must make sense and not contain superfluous elements (both notions are regularly violated in the NYT cryptic). As I explain how to solve a cryptic in future installments, the importance of elegant clue construction will, I hope, become clear.
One caution for American readers. Solving Guardian (or Times — of London — or Telegraph) crosswords requires a modicum of knowledge about specifically British things. Clues that assume you know places in London are common, as are clues that require a passing knowledge of cricket terminology. In thinking about writing my guide, I’ve wondered whether this is a crippling fault. After all, I lived in England for over 25 years and was able to pick up that knowledge over time. For the adventurous, I don’t think it should be a disqualification. I’ve found, since I moved back to the US three years ago, that The New York Times assumes the same familiarity with things American. I regularly have to fill in for my wife OTT (NY Giants baseball player) or ORR (Boston Bruins hockey player) or — from today’s NYT puzzle — STARR (Green Bay Packers QB). And that’s just the sports clues. There’s clearly a national bias that’s only to be expected in crosswords. Deal with it.