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Listner 4187, Prize and Prize-Winner: A Setter’s Blog by Dysart

Posted by dyste on 21 May 2012

A number of solvers have commented that Murakami was a new name to them. Three years ago I hadn’t heard of Haruki Murakami either, then a friend lent me Kafka on the Shore and I was hooked, following it up fairly shortly after with The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Kafka on the Shore was an irresistable gift to a crossword-setter, with its potential for a well-prepared trap. Thanks, Murakami, for a good read and a promising crossword theme.
Many of the titles in the Murakami oevre are susceptible to cryptic interpretation (perhaps too many from a solver’s point of view), so I was keen for the grid to represent some of these. As a starting point I had to have HARUKI MURAKAMI and FRANZ KAFKA hidden inthe grid. I wanted KAFKA to stand out more than MURAKAMI, but as the latter might not be known to many solvers I couldn’t hide him too obscurely, so a diagonal was the obvious choice, thus dictating the size of grid. Fairly early on I decided to include the birthplace, KYOTO, in the grid, mainly because I needed some way of eventually steering solvers away from Franz Kafka as the key author. No PRAGUE, ergo not KAFKA. I confess that the Czech, PRAHA did not occur to me so it was fortunate that it didn’t appear by accident in the grid. The placing of KYOTO was deliberate as I intended it as a sort of pointer to the author (an early version of the preamble contained a somewhat cryptic indication of this, which later succumbed to Occam’s Razor).
When it came to a choice of other titles to represent in the grid it was important to eschew dependence on the internet for the solution (to meet editor approval) so I used only those listed amongst the ‘other titles’ lists to be found in my own copies of Murakami works. In the end I narrowed the choice down to Dance, Dance, Dance, Norwegian Wood and The Elephant Vanishes. Remembering an earlier Listener puzzle (or was it a Magpie puzzle?) where the clue number was significant, I chose clue number 3 for DANCES. An early grid had 3 DANCES, NOROAK, a JUMBO to be deleted, KAFKA above SHORE, but no FRANZ, which I was keen to retain if possible. Solvers might consider K A F K A in succession to be coincidence, whereas F R A N Z K A F K A would be an unlikely coincidence, and would therefore detain solvers in the blind alley for longer (apologies for my cruelty).

An early grid

Unfortunately in the end, with all the other constraints, I could not get a satisfactory grid using DANCES . Either DANCES or JUMBO or FRANZ had to go. I didn’t want to sacrifice JUMBO (that was to be the sover’s job ultimately) or FRANZ, so settled for an example of a dance, which is why I ended up with the less satisfactory REELS. At one point I experimented with LITTORAL adjoining KAFKA, but finally opted for the literal SHORE. I also briefly toyed with the notion of some sort of reference to The Beatles, whose song provided the title of Norwegian Wood, but I already had all the thematic material I could cope with.
My reject folder included over 80 grids (thank God for Sympathy) so this was definitely one of the hardest grids for me to construct. I was keen to retain symmetry but things would have been far easier without it, and I might have been able to construct a grid in which the deletion of JUMBO left real words, so perhaps it was a mistake to resist asymmetry.
I won’t say much about the clue-writing except to say that I hate writing clues for specialist terms like LYTTA – I always find it difficult to marry definition and wordplay in a plausible surface. Many solvers failed to understand the clue to ANANA; it was a lucky chance that I looked up BANANA in Chambers, hoping for something useful to exploit, and discovered at the end of the entries, ‘top banana’, a phrase that was unfamiliar to me but cryptically very useful .
The preamble underwent several revisions. The main issue was to provide enough information to enable solvers to be free of any doubt once they had the titles. I was happy to set an elephant trap regarding the thematic author(s), but I wanted the endgame to be totally fair. The trouble with cryptic representations is that they are not always clear-cut. Additionally, other relevant works might appear in the grid unintentionally. I checked that D wasn’t followed by ARK (After Dark) but could I be sure that someone wasn’t going to find a jumble in some shape or form of the letters SHEEPCHASE (A Wild Sheep Chase)? This is why I ended up being very specific about cell arrangements and title word-lengths in the preamble. The test-solve preamble made no mention of rectangular arrangements, which I added later for further clarity. Numbers were not omitted from the test-solve version, but  one of the testers, Terry Clarke (Ozzie), suggested omitting numbers from the grid and requiring solvers to enter one key number; I took this up because it eliminated any doubt there might have been about REELS as a substitute for DANCES, especially as the distracting STEPS appears in the bottom right-hand corner of the grid.

Dysart, 20th May, 2102

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