21. Puzzling Thoughts…

about favorite clues. A couple of recent posts here got me thinking about my favorite crossword clue that I’ve written. Not the best or funniest or cleverest, just my favorite. This is the clue: Extinct Namibian shrub genus: Var.

Pretty bad, isn’t it? But there’s a reason for that. There are also a few interesting incidents surrounding the puzzle in which it appeared (NYT, January 15, 2004). You can try the puzzle if you’d like [CLICK HERE for a PDF] or just read on. Sorry, Across Lite won’t work for it.

The theme entry running through the puzzle was: CAN YOU FIND TEN THINGS WRONG WITH THIS PUZLE. The word “PUZLE” was one of the mistakes. The Namibian shrub clue was another, the mistake being that it had no accompanying answer in the grid. What better chance could there be for writing the lousiest, dumbest clue one could think of?

Perhaps the most surprising thing to me about this puzzle was the wide range of reactions to it. A few people deemed it one of their favorites, while others felt quite the opposite. One person, who threw it out half-finished, told me, “There are some things you just shouldn’t do with a crossword puzzle!” And that was a friend!

The oddest incident surrounding the puzzle was a series of phone calls I received from my sister-in-law the morning it appeared. Through a friend, she’d gotten a part as an extra in Jonathan Demme’s “The Manchurian Candidate” and was hanging out during a lull in the shooting with four secret service agent actors — who were trying to solve the puzzle! They knew something odd was going on with it but couldn’t quite figure out what. My sister-in-law asked to see it and saw my byline on it. “My brother-in-law wrote that puzzle! I’ll call him,” she told them. She did, and after a series of calls over the next hour, they completed the puzzle. (Alas, she ended up on the cutting room floor, nowhere to be seen in the movie.)

Just one last incident I’ll mention, and then I’ll let you go. It concerns the puzzle’s appearance in The New York Times’s European sister publication, the International Herald Tribune. One eagle-eyed assistant on their staff noticed that Will Shortz’s name was misspelled “Will Shorts” (one of the 10 mistakes) — and corrected it! I can only imagine what solvers there thought of the puzzle, hunting for a 10th mistake that didn’t exist.

PDF answer: [CLICK HERE]


12 Responses to 21. Puzzling Thoughts…

  1. Rhu/nmHz says:

    Count me as one of those who think “Ten Things” was the best puzzle ever, knocking the Election Day ’96 puzzle down to second place.

  2. Jon88 says:

    Surely this puzzle has been reprinted by SMP by now (though not in a book proofread by me). Since there’s no editor’s byline on those pages, what did they do?

  3. Patrick Merrell says:

    It was reprinted, I think about a year ago, by St. Martin’s Press. Since there is a large puzzle number on each page, it was decided to turn that upside down. It ended up being puzzle #96…

    …not. :-)

  4. John Farmer says:

    Every day there’s a new puzzle, but some days are special. This one was an EVENT! I remember that Thursday when it was published. In the days of the spoiler rule, we had to wait till noon to talk about a puzzle and at twelve o’clock there was a rush to post the list of “mistakes” and see what others had to say. I was quite surprised to find that a few people were underwhelmed, but the vast majority enjoyed it very much. It’s wonderfully creative, a true classic, and one of my favorites.

  5. Eric Berlin says:

    I remember exactly where I was when I solved this puzzle: On the Amtrak train headed to Boston, en route to the Mystery Hunt. I remember thinking that crossword was a perfect warm-up to the weekend of puzzles ahead.

  6. Don Monson says:

    Seems to me there is another mistake. It’s in the Across Lite version of the answer on the NYT puzzle page. I was scratching my head for several minutes on this one until I discovered that the answer on Pat’s PDF is correct.

  7. Patrick Merrell says:

    Don, I’m assuming the “mistake” you mention is SPOILS/SWEE in my pdf vs. SPOILT/TWEE in the original NYT answer.

    There was no pdf available for this puzzle when I went to post it on my blog, so I created one from my original files. Seeing SPOILT/TWEE in the grid, I wondered why I’d used that pair — and so changed it! (It’s not historically accurate, but I prefer it now.)

  8. James Boster says:

    Your list of mistakes does not include the best of all of them, across clue 44 Common ratio; answer PI.

    Since П (PI) is the prototypical irrational number — a number that cannot be expressed as a ratio of integers — I think it is the only semantic mistake in the puzzle.

    There is an interesting problem posed by a puzzle that deliberately includes mistakes; there may be other solutions that introduce other mistakes. For example, my one deviation from your solution was to write “SANCTUA” (sanctuary without the last two letters) as the answer to 1 down [retreat] instead of “SANCTUM”, giving “AY” instead of “MY” as an answer to 34 across [“Gosh!”] If the writer of a puzzle introduces the possibility of mistakes in a puzzle, does s/he retain sole authority about which mistakes are the “correct” ones?

    Bravo! A wonderful puzzle.

  9. Eric V. Smith says:

    Well, PI is the ratio of the circumference to the radius, so I think “Common ratio” is a perfect clue. Although PI is in fact not expressible as the ratio of real numbers. It’s great all around!

  10. Möbius Dick says:

    I cling to the paradox that the 10th thing wrong is that there are only 9 things wrong.

  11. Patrick Merrell says:

    I can live with that, being a fan of paradoxes … and also clinging to the idea that a puzzle is the solver’s, to interpret any which way that works for them.

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