It might be a sign of the digital times, or an indicator of economic gloom, but working in a secondhand bookshop can be slow. We have many techniques for passing the hours: Theatre-Direction Bingo (works especially well on a Saturday night in the West End), Weirdest Book Title competitions and sneaky behind-the-cash-desk chess to name a few. This week my colleague Jan discovered a book called Torquemada’s 112 Best Crossword Puzzles on a dusty shelf in the basement, a collection of cryptic crosswords with literary themes published in 1942. Rashly confident of our book-geek credentials, we tackled one.
Eight hours of strained, silent effort later, we’d managed half the clues, three of which we got wrong. Cryptic crosswords aren’t one of my strengths at the best of times, and apparently in 1942 their setters expected their readers to have a full-on literary and classical education, preferably at somewhere like Eton. To give you a taste of the kind of clues this Torquemada chap revelled in, give this one a go—it’s one of the easier ones: “Creeper formed of Edmund and his son Charles.” (*Skip to the end for the answer.)
By the end of the day, we were cursing Torquemada and his literary machinations. A quick scan through the introduction to the book revealed that we’d stumbled across a piece of crossword history.
Torquemada was the daddy of crossword setters, and the inventor of the cryptic puzzle. Otherwise known as Edward Powys Mathers, he was a scholar, linguist and lover of puzzles and games who enjoyed setting complex verbal brainteasers for his friends and family over dinner to avoid small-talk. (Sounds like a riot.) In the 1920s a crossword craze was sweeping the nation (the first crossword had only appeared in 1913), but Powys Mathers found the straightforward dictionary-definition clues boring, and created the first cryptic puzzle in 1924. He went on to set cryptics for the Saturday Westminster and the Observer for the next 15 years.
A voracious reader with an impressive memory, Torquemada favoured literary clues, using quotations from poetry, plays and the classics. He was fantastically creative with his puzzles. Many were written in perfectly constructed verse, or delivered mini-narratives to their solvers. My favourite in 112 Crosswords is the puzzle where the clues are knock-knock jokes.
Torquemada also created other forms of literary brain-teaser. One of his triumphs was a hundred-page novel, included in the 1934 Torquemada Puzzle Book, in which all 100 pages were presented in the wrong order. While each followed on grammatically correctly from the last, the story was nonsensical until rearranged into the right order. A prize was offered for solutions, although only three people ever cracked the puzzle to claim it.
Back in the bookshop, to distract ourselves from our woeful performance with the literary cryptic, we tried to list other books that are also puzzles. There’s artist Kit Williams’s Masquerade from 1979, in which a series of beautifully intricate paintings and a fairytale story hold clues to the whereabouts of a real treasure, a jewelled golden hare which Williams buried somewhere in the English countryside. (The sad story of William’s reluctant celebrity status and the betrayal by an ex-girlfriend which led to the treasure being found by frauds, is worth reading up on.)
Then there’s Alice Through the Looking Glass: Lewis Carroll’s wonderfully disturbing and dream-like classic can be played as a chess problem; there’s even a diagram of it at the start of the book, titled “White Pawn (Alice) to play, and win in eleven moves.”
Of course, literature and puzzles have a long and intimate history. Detective stories are the obvious example, and it’s surely no coincidence that Torquemada himself was an addict of classic detective fiction, reviewing masses of it for The Observer. As a young man, he apparently had two ambitions: to create the perfect epigram, and to be a great detective – for him, the tricks and elegant jokes of language went hand-in-hand with the enjoyment of a narrative puzzle with a murder at its heart. The locked room mystery, perhaps the purest form of detective story, is a challenge to the reader to solve a puzzle – how, given a set of apparently unconnected clues, could a seemingly impossible crime have been committed? The best of this genre, like Chesterton’s Father Brown stories, are elegant mini-puzzles, where all the elements necessary for a solution are laid out for the reader to make sense of if they can, before the detective reveals the truth at the end in an act of mind-bending logic. (The links are there with more recent fictional detectives too – Inspector Morse loves a good cryptic crossword, and they pop up in the plots of more than one of his cases.)
The idea that literature hides a secret which the reader must work to reveal was especially popular with postmodernist writers. The work of Jorge Luis Borges was an early influence on them – his stories are like beautiful puzzle-boxes – intriguing, full of mazes, dreams and riddles, with secrets sliding around below the surface, waiting to be discovered. His story Death and the Compass is a great example of his use of the conventions of the detective story to examine metaphysical issues.
Another early postmodernist, Vladimir Nabokov (also an obsessive fan of chess problems), liked his readers to work for their reward, insisting that the best literature was intricately plotted and complex in style and structure. When teaching Joyce’s Ulysses (which itself, in Joyce’s words, contains “so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant”), Nabokov insisted his students plotted the movement of the characters around Dublin on a map.
Nabokov’s masterpiece Pale Fire is both a puzzle and a mystery story, of sorts. It takes the form of a narrative poem by a character called John Shade, with foreword, commentary and footnotes by his self-appointed editor Charles Kinbote. But if the reader interprets the indirect clues in the commentary, a story of death, delusion, fraud and double identity is revealed. Nabokov said that the novel was ‘full of plums that I keep hoping somebody will find.’
The post-modernists used the fictional puzzle to explore the idea of literature and language as a web of clues, signs and meanings, where the revelation at the centre of the maze is often the potential absence of any meaning at all. Perhaps it’s significant that the beginnings of this literary theme coincided with the growth of the cryptic crossword.
It’s a sad footnote to the story of Edward Powys Mathers that he himself harboured literary ambitions beyond the clues of his crosswords. He published several critically-acclaimed translations of Asian poetry, but a lifelong struggle with poor health held him back from fulfilling his ambitions as a serious literary writer, a failing which haunted him until his death in 1939 at the age of 47. Having experienced the linguistically beautiful and challenging construction of his cryptic crosswords, it makes me wonder what torturous literary masterpieces he might have produced had he been given the chance.
*For the answer to the clue, you need to know of the famous 19th-century father and son actors, the Keans, which when rearranged gives the creeper of the answer, “snake”.