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Listener No. 4678, Bleak Expectations: A Setter’s Blog by Mira

Posted by Listen With Others on 17 Oct 2021

Five years ago — more than 40 years after I’d begun solving the sort of puzzles that required recourse to Chambers — I felt privileged to form half of the setting team (along with David Harry) that comprised Dragon, whose puzzle ‘PD’ (Listener No. 4385) graced the Times and was my first ever contribution to a published crossword in a national newspaper. The idea behind the puzzle was all David’s though, he wrote the Across (Printer’s Devilry) clues while I was responsible for the thematic Downs.

Thus encouraged, I began to consider a venture of my own making and spent quite a while on a project that, following test-solving, never actually made it as far as submission, chiefly because the theme had appeared previously. So I started again, this time checking Dave’s Crossword Database in advance, in case a similar idea had been used elsewhere. I honestly can’t remember what made me suddenly think of the iconic scene from Goldfinger but once I hit upon it I knew exactly what the title was going to be — and how I might use Dickens as a red herring here and there in the clues. The puzzle has now finally appeared, but not before two major hiccups on the way, which are detailed below.

To compile the grid and entries I used Qxw and only had a couple of specific requirements:

  1. For the total number of clues to be sufficient to allow the selected quotation to be spelled out (with a few to spare to indicate LASER); and
  2. For the grid-fill to choose only entries that excluded B, O, N & D other than in the small area where I needed those letters to appear.

It was pleasing that I could form the ‘matchstick’ Bond spreadeagled in the grid with exactly three occurrences each of B, O, N & D.

Writing the clues took me quite a while as I am always concerned that surface readings of clues matter and it’s even trickier with Misprints where one is attempting a smooth surface reading while also requiring the corrected wording to make some sort of sense as well as the corrections themselves spelling out specific letters.

In my keenness to slightly up the level of difficulty and to keep it from being ‘just another Misprints’ puzzle, I endeavoured to subtly indicate the Bond theme by coding the quotation with a simple Caesar-shift of seven places every third letter (i.e. 007) the result of which meant that the misprint corrections spelled out:

DOFOULXPLCTTETVTASKNVMRPEXWECAYOBTOKIE

After decoding and supplying punctuation (and adding the missing word) this produces:

DO YOU EXPECT ME TO TALK? NO MR (BOND) I EXPECT YOU TO DIE

Following the puzzle’s submission to the Listener editors, it joined the long queue then awaiting test-solving. Shane eventually contacted me to say that he’d solved all the clues but despite the preamble indicating ‘a simple thematic code’ unfortunately he could not make sense of the disguised quotation and would have to reject the puzzle. I then realised I had perhaps gone too far with my disguise so immediately offered to rewrite the offending clues so the message was spelled out en clair … and this was deemed acceptable, assuming Roger was also happy with the puzzle. Not long afterwards I was extremely pleased to hear that the puzzle had been accepted for publication, albeit with the usual corrections and suggestions from the editors. Roger in particular was keen that we pushed the Dickens red herring as far as we could, so several other clues were then adapted to fit that requirement.

I had hoped that the puzzle might see the light of day in time to coincide with Sir Sean Connery’s 90th birthday on 25th August 2020 but the August numerical puzzle and another date-specific puzzle already scheduled meant that its publication was put back to 7th November, that was no problem as far as I was concerned. However disaster struck on Saturday 31st October when I heard on the radio that Sir Sean Connery had just sadly passed away. I immediately emailed Roger and we could see that it was not going to look good if we went ahead with publication the following weekend knowing what had happened — and in particular bearing mind the sentiments expressed in the quotation.

A replacement puzzle was hastily inserted and I had to try to explain to a few friends I’d already alerted about my puzzle appearing why it had suddenly been dropped, without giving the game away. Time passed and so did the date of the premiere of No Time to Die (a handy peg on which to hang the puzzle) until eventually Bond’s awkward dilemma got nationwide exposure again in September 2021. I hope that some of you thought it was worth the wait anyway. I would reiterate my grateful thanks to David Harry for his encouragement when I was thinking of embarking on a solo project… and also to Roger and Shane of course for their assistance in getting it over the line.

Thanks for reading.

Mira (Robert Whale)

One Response to “Listener No. 4678, Bleak Expectations: A Setter’s Blog by Mira”

  1. Alan B said

    I always read the setters’ blogs of puzzles that I have enjoyed solving, and I found this one to be of great interest. The clues were excellent, and the time I spent solving them brought its own reward. I’m no Bond fan, but I have seen two or three of the films, including Goldfinger. I can safely say that if the editorial change to make the message read en clair had not been made I would have been stuck. As it was, I recognised the first part of the message, and I then only had to find the items in the grid. Fortunately, I never assumed the theme would be Dickensian, despite the title and the five names I plucked out of the clues – I just waited to see what turned up at every stage. I remembered the quote and the scene and didn’t have to look them up!

    The neat way in which the two highlighted items were depicted was a bonus to enjoy after solving – and still to enjoy, because I have now seen for the first time that the four letters of BOND were in equal proportion in that figure.

    Congratulations to the setter for a quality puzzle that was much enjoyed.

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