11 NOVEMBER 2006, Page 50

Teasers lurking in the shadows

Sandy Balfour

A-Z OF CROSSWORDS: INSIGHTS INTO THE TOP SETTERS AND THEIR PUZZLES by Jonathan Crowther Collins, £17.99, pp. 342, ISBN 0007229232 ✆ £14.39 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655 The most interesting section of Jonathan Crowther’s new book is also the shortest. In the course of a well-considered introduction he provides a brief survey of the nine techniques most commonly used in cryptic crosswords — they will all be familiar to regular solvers — and then goes on to discuss his ten maxims for setting good clues. It is as good a description of crosswords as I have read. I shall not list his maxims here, but shall skip to where he remarks, ‘And always, always think of the solver’. The italics are his.

This is good advice, but it raises an interesting question: when solving a puzzle, should we think of the setter? Does it matter who has set the clue? Can we tell one setter from another? Crowther, better known to his fans as Azed in the Observer, appears to believe the answer is yes. His tenth and final maxim is ‘Don’t be too selfeffacing.’ Setters should ‘develop a style that is unmistakably their own, so that their personalities can be seen to shine through their clues’.

Nevertheless the second section of the book, and the longest, consists of a series of profiles of the 80 or so crossword setters who constitute the core of the profession in this country. In order to make the cut a setter had regularly to set puzzles for the British press. Crowther does not say whether they had to be any good, but I suspect this was also a criterion. Not many setters for the Express or the Mail get a look in, but readers of this publication will be pleased that five Spectator regulars (Columba, Doc, Dumpynose, Mass and Smokey) are present.

Sadly the profiles are mostly not very revealing. To pick one at random: we learn of Moodim only that she is relatively young, lives in a village south of Bristol, ‘works for the council’ (whatever that means), and that one of her cats has died. She lives with her partner and likes clues that raise a wry smile. Oh, and her name is Alix. Only occasionally do the profiles touch on questions that consider the possibilities of crosswords. But since all the setters agree that their task is to amuse and entertain, and since Crowther resolutely declines to analyse critically the work of others, saying only that he knows that some disagree with his maxims, the real interest in this section comes in finding how much crossover there is between various publications. Crowther calls the setters ‘shadowy figures’, but it seems clear that to a man (and the occasional woman) they are charming, well-educated and literate people. It is hard to find one who would not make a good neighbour.

And so to the third section of the book in which roughly half of the setters profiled are invited to submit a puzzle broadly representative of their work. Again Crowther stands back. He does not tell us what he thinks of any setter, nor whether he likes their work, nor why only 40 puzzles are included. Nor does he offer a view of whether a particular puzzle or any single clue is good, bad or indifferent. Of his own work he says, ‘I prefer to let my puzzles speak for themselves.’ He extends the same courtesy to his colleagues, but the reader — or now I suppose the solver — is left wondering, ‘What does Azed think?’ Since, in the introduction, he has offered firm views on what makes a good crossword, it would be interesting to see those views applied.

The puzzles, at least, are fun and interestingly varied. It is a truism of crosswords that any particular word will be clued in as many ways as there are setters. Some anagrams for example — may lend themselves to a particular approach, but even then the definition, the anagram indicator and the anagram itself will vary. Those for whom a daily puzzle in the newspaper is enough will probably not wish to work through all the puzzles in the book. But for those for whom the winter evenings loom long, this will be the ideal companion to a chair by the fire and a single malt. Even if we are left wanting more of Azed, and less of the rest.