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Listener 4674, Elusive Figures: A Setter’s Blog by Poat

Posted by Listen With Others on 19 Sep 2021

Like a lot of my puzzle ideas (and I do have more up my sleeve), Elusive Figures had a long gestation. It probably arose well before this 2015 Times article discussing Penrose’s relationship with Escher:

I was further prompted by Escher exhibitions in both Lisbon, which I visited in 2018 for Eurovision, and a few months later in my home town Melbourne (this one jointly with design company Nendo, but featuring many of the same pieces). A puzzle using Escher-like Penrose tiling is likely infeasible – unless you know different – but I could conceive of one based on the Penrose triangle aka tribar. Research showed that Oscar Reutersvärd had devised it independently, and fortuitously all three surnames would fit neatly around the 24-cell boundary of such a structure. To avoid the obvious, it made sense to extend into a parallelogram requiring three sections to be deleted, though this would be an unusually large grid (and I prudently checked with the editors before going too deep). Initially I wanted to involve Escher’s Relativity as well, his famous depiction of staircases traversed by humanoids with at least six perspectives, but ultimately only the entry method for answers was a nod to that.

Now it was a case of (1) filling the grid around the set parameters, and (2) writing the clues, ensuring a suitable message could be accommodated in a thematic way, i.e. by using those with triangular numbers. I also decided to exploit the diacritic marks (not technically an umlaut in Swedish) to signal one area for removal. The starting point was a couple of interlocking words containing Ä, but otherwise I needed much intricate trial and error before achieving a happy result. As for the clues, generally a slow process, other setters might be interested to know what I consult for inspiration:

  • Chambers phone app for close perusal of the definitions (alas my copy of the desktop software with its reverse lookup functionality is no longer working)
  • Bradford’s – my sole surviving physical resource, useful for finding surprising synonyms
  • for various addition, subtraction, substitution or composite clue types
  • The word wizard within Sympathy crossword-setting software (trial version available at
  • The extensive word-finding and manipulation tool Tea, bundled with Sympathy
  • – a comprehensive list of synonyms and nuances
  • – if I’m really stuck, I turn to this database of past clues from major US puzzles (often good for a nicely misleading turn of phrase) and some UK or Irish dailies (though the Irish Times clues can be hilariously unsound or full of surreal crosswordese). I get some nuggets here while always careful to avoid plagiarism, or can see what treatments should be avoided due to overuse.

I’ll also highlight as a resource that’s worth checking before you get too far into crafting a puzzle, the very useful tough cryptics database courtesy of Dave Hennings.

Final thanks to my original test solvers (Wan and Shark) who kindly pointed out what didn’t work and why, and to the Listener editors, all of whom improved the puzzle hugely. And here’s a depiction of some impossible dachshunds and their toys:


One Response to “Listener 4674, Elusive Figures: A Setter’s Blog by Poat”

  1. davey said

    thank you poat! i’m fairly new to the listener but this was one of my favourites yet. there’s something about the ones that involve erasing much of what you’ve just put in that appeals to me for some reason.

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