Crossword blog: a really, really hard puzzle

Around these parts, we only occasionally mention the weekend puzzles without black squares; when we do, I usually advise that curious solvers should not be terror-stricken.

I’d be lying, wel, if I said that they didn’t sometimes throw up an absolute bear. Met the Listener, once every decade or so, a puzzle appears that is so baffling and deceptive that solvers get in touch with each other, tersely avoiding spoilers. “4677. Got anywhere?” “Ten days in and just the perimeter.” “Stick with it, I promise.”

The reason I attempt every Listener is that the first I tackled was one of these. Titled Author, and devised by the terrifying Sabre, it took me and a friend countless merrily baffled hours. It was our first encounter with a puzzle where an across clue might clash with a down; we could not have guessed that resolving the clashes would involve reading the Sherlock Holmes novel The Valley of Fear, learning from it a “book code”, and later applying that fictional code to a real-life book (Holmes again, in The Final Problem) to receive further instructions.

Sedertdien, I’ve been seeking the same thrill of repeated penny-drop hits clearing a fog of debilitating bewilderment. The solution has just been published – and that, my friends, is also a spoiler warning – for a Listener puzzle that has had us solvers recalling beloved bears past, like Mash’s audacious Carte Blanche With a Twist, where we had to imagine the grid was not a flat surface but a transparent “bottle” in a form that appears to be mathematically impossible.

This one was concocted by a familiar face in these pages, Enigmatist, and when my researches told me it was his first Listener since March 1993, I suspected something was up. Dit was. Another hint was the unhelpful grid, reproduced in full here. The rubric kindly informed me that in most clues the wordplay would differ from the entry, sometimes enormously.

So once I had worked out what might be a definition, I knew that the wordplay might not confirm it, I couldn’t be sure how many cells it would occupy and didn’t know where to put it. That probably sounds preposterous; it was.

I ended up working from more than one piece of paper. Here are some of them.

As I solved late into successive nights (others have told me they simply neglected their day jobs for days), working off intuition and fumes, I could imagine that I might soon move towards the endgame(s); the rubric had told me I would eventually be erasing most of the grid and adding “a ring”.

Enigmatist’s various pseudonyms make reference to Elgar. Might music somehow be involved, I wondered. Dit was, but not Wagner or Elgar. Names, not clued, started to suggest themselves in the columns:

But it couldn’t be.

Or could it? Thank God I had on in the background a documentary celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Spice Girls’ debut album to give me confidence. And so it proved. We were working to replicate its sleeve:

Two and a half weeks after starting, I hurled my entry in the postbox an hour before the last collection. I asked Enigmatist how he feels about the drain on the productivity of a subset of the nation. “As a solver,” he replies, “I feel that if the penny drop is in proportion to the time invested in the solving of a puzzle, then it’s worth it.” It was. The audacity of demanding such an effort for a surprising payoff put me in mind of my days at the quizshow Only Connect, when I tried to make sure that the final episode, while cerebrally exhausting, required contestants to know the Carry On films, sê, or Frozen.

Is there a joy, I wondered, in combining an exacting workout with subject matter regarded by some as trivial? “Indeed," hy sê. “It’s one of the thrills of editing Inquisitor,” the barred puzzle that appears in the i newspaper at the weekend, the next being one of Enigmatist’s own, as Nimrod.

I had other queries. I’ve noticed that near-impossible puzzles tend to have more approachable outings either side of them; hierdie, Enigmatist says, is deliberate: “That way, at least on one weekend out of two, lawns get mown, dogs get walked and families get spent some time with.” And much of that time-drain is down to a solver not being sure what he or she is being asked to do. I had noticed the potential EMMA pretty early, but leaped on the possibility that it might relate to the military slang “toc emma” and disappeared down a rabbit hole of archaic telecommunications codes for a spell.

Dit, Enigmatist assures me, was an inevitable artefact of all the ambiguity, and not deliberate: “I wanted to avoid unnecessary trap-setting. Gawd, the puzzle was hard enough.” That said, the test version didn’t even offer the sometimes helpful letter counts, and the rubric was “considerably shorter”. I’m glad I never saw that.

The expression other solvers have given me most often for the endgame is “jaw-dropping”. Even after seeing that the “_”s in the names above were to be completed with outsize renditions of S, P, Ek, C and E, there was another process, at the end of which I could see that those large letters could in turn be replaced with synonyms for “scary”, “sporty” and the others, leaving real words. “I must confess to a little disappointment (spot the litotes),” our setter tells us, “that the letters of SPICE prevented the definitions and the descriptions in the downs from appearing in sleeve order, but hey.”

But nothing, ek sê. At least his name was spelt correctly. In die 1993 puzzle, he ended up as the misprinted Engimatist. See you in 2049.

The Shipping Forecast Puzzle Book by Alan Connor, which is partly but not predominantly cryptic, can be ordered from the Guardian Bookshop.

Here is a collection of all our explainers, interviews and other helpful bits and bobs.

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