Listen With Others

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Listener No 4606, Isolated in May: A Setter’s Blog by Dysart

Posted by Listen With Others on 31 May 2020

The crossword was the outcome of two aspirations being realized in one puzzle. For some time I’d wanted to do a puzzle based on a crime story. There have been some outstanding puzzles on Sherlock Holmes stories and other examples of the genre, so I needed to find an example that had not been treated before. The other idea that had preoccupied me for some time was a puzzle in which the endgame involves some movements in the grid. There have been many such examples and they always go down well with solvers. I still remember Kea’s Safe-cracking from long ago, and more recently Elgin’s Lady Killers puzzle.

At some point Roald Dahl’s Lamb to the Slaughter came to mind, and I realized that this would satisfy both aspirations. The story is short, so it wouldn’t take solvers long to get the essential details. The grid would show the lamb in the freezer, later removed and fed to the policemen, and Patrick and Mary. The carpet was a later detail that resulted from one of my computer software’s autofills. The thirteen letters of POLICEMEN & LAMB made it a standard grid.

I wanted real words remaining in the grid after Patrick is felled and the lamb is distributed. This made the grid very tough to construct, and I ended up abandoning symmetry to avoid many short entries. The left-hand grid below shows the final grid after adjustments, though solvers were presented with a numbered unbarred grid (so that FREEZER with LAMB in it wasn’t obscured by bars). Since the endgame involved moving letters around, the obvious clue gimmick to provide the narrative source was a letter move within clues. It turned out to be one of the hardest gimmicks I’ve ever tackled, and I spent many hours trying to get smooth surfaces and well-hidden letters. As far as possible I tried to ensure that each clue had at least two potential candidates for movement. A danger of this gimmick is that if there are too many clues with only one possible choice solvers may scan the clues and get the message before solving them. Finally it was ready to be tested. The only hiccup in the testing was that two testers were tempted to delete PATRICK altogether, leaving a real word at the end of the penultimate row, OUTRAN (though this left too many empty cells) CAB-RANK in the later grid eliminated the potential trap.

I wasn’t able to submit the puzzle to the Listener as I had two in the pipeline already, so I sat on it. During that time my failure to get a symmetric grid irked me somewhat. I’m not against an asymmetric grid if it’s essential to the realization of a theme, but I felt I hadn’t explored all options. Five months later I started messing around with grids again. Two discoveries made symmetry possible: the first was a 13-letter carpet to replace AXMINSTER, which meant I could place POLICEMEN with LAMB distributed therein on the top row; the second was DOWNPATRICK, which balanced the eleven letters of FREEZER and LAMB in column 1. Felicitously it was doubly thematic as it represented an instruction to fell the victim. Additional benefits of the new grid were a more even distribution of LAMB among the policemen, and a barred grid. The first tester of the original puzzle, Wan, helpfully suggested a two-stage movement of LAMB to echo the narrative. First it should be used to whack poor Patrick on the head, then fed to the policemen. Engineering the first stage so as to leave new words was tricky. There are few options for the N/B/– alterations in row 5, mostly four-letter words, but I was able to avoid the latter by using the only five-letter option I could find, DEMON/DEMOB/DEMO. After this further grid revision, I was unable to hide MARY in a straight line in the grid, so resorted to the LAND-MARY change in the endgame. In retrospect, perhaps it might have been better to have had MARY as an unclued entry. Then another set of clues to write (a task I enjoy as it can be the most interesting and creative part of the setting process) and some further testing. Finally it was ready to send to the editors.

The main problem for the editors was a lengthy preamble, making the puzzle impossible to squeeze into the available space. I’m very grateful to Roger Phillips for his skilful trimming of the preamble without losing any of the clarity, and for his judicious tweaking of some clues to make them one-liners, yet still preserving the essence of the clue. He also suggested changing the first word of the title, which already ended in ‘May’, to make it topical.


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