Last Monday, the Times had three cryptic crosswords: the classic Thunderer, the gentler Quick Cryptic … and a surprise.
The third was set by Ben Schott for characters to solve in his novel Jeeves and the Leap of Faith. We have looked here before at how PG Wodehouse uses crossword clues in his stories, and even tried to solve some clues for which he supplies no answers.
This time, there is an entire grid; many of the entries relate to specific points in the story, but it assuredly works as a stand-alone puzzle. It is also accessible here and I recommend solving it before reading on – where I ask Schott about the experience of being a first-time setter.
Was this the first cryptic puzzle you set? And how much had you solved?
It was the first I set, but not solved. Years ago, I broke my ankle and was quite literally laid up, so I taught myself the Telegraph puzzle by comparing one day’s answers with the previous day’s clues until I got … quite good at it. But spending two weeks toiling away at one puzzle: does that make me a cryptic crossword setter?
Absolutely not. It is being able to create dozens of the things a year and maintain a rhythm: that’s talent.
Almost every setter does the same thing on their first puzzle, which is making the clues too hard. Did you?
The Times crossword editor Richard Rogan helped me out, especially on words that I was stuck finding a clue for: I remember MAUVE and IONA. But I actually thought that Richard made it a little harder. He would make a suggestion, and I would, say “Are you sure?” and he would reply, “No, no; this is fair”.
Interesting. Now, sometimes a word may appeal to a setter more because it has certain letters in certain spaces than because it’s a lovely word. Is that what happened with NICTATE?
Oh, no, I actually really like NICTATE. The ones I’m less delighted with are STARFRUIT and ESTATED. But NICTATE I like.
And I guess when Wodehouse included multiple clues in a story, like in Something Fishy, he never had to put them into a grid. Is there any overlap between the challenges of writing dialogue for Wodehouse characters and writing cryptic clues?
I had three reasons for including a crossword in the story. There was a crossword craze in the early 30s, so it felt like something that Bertie might be into.
Another is that writing Wodehouse is like writing 100 clues a day because when something clicks, it feels authentic. A good cryptic clue has a double-lock and when that clicks open, you know you’re right.
But every single word is an opportunity to stumble or to soar.
And the third reason?
Wodehouse’s own love of crosswords. Edward Cazalet told me that you’d see him writing furiously with a pen: you’d think he was writing a letter but it would turn out he was solving a crossword at great speed.
And I assume the inclusion of the word PLUMMET is an Easter egg for fans of Wodehouse, AKA Plum?
Absolutely. “Met Plum” is what, as a writer, I’ve felt I’ve done: met him halfway in the void. I can’t tell you the honour I feel. In that word, I wanted to tip a hat to the Master.
Postscript: the latest in our series of Healing Music Recorded in 2020 to Accompany a Solve or Even Listen to: a recording I’m sure Bertie would enjoy.