In his latest Give Me a Clue column, Nimrod noted that there have been grumbles. Wordy preambles and clue gimmickry presumably making would-be solvers think twice before they’ve jumped the first hurdle. Can the blogging sites help further? Well, hopefully, if only to demonstrate that the most ordinary solver, of which I am mostly definitely one, with a little patience and time can get to grips with things Inquisitorial.

The first thing to note is that the Inquisitor is just a crossword. One that is a step up in difficulty certainly from daily barred cryptics or Azed’s plain barred puzzles, but the same beast. We have clues, and (usually) numbers in the grid indicating where the answers should go. There tend to be more checking letters than you would get in your daily cryptic, which can make filling them easier. There are also, of course, far more obscure words on offer by way of compensation.

The Solver’s Armoury

This leads rather nicely to the solver’s biggest help in this game – the dictionary. The main two used by the Inquisitor are Chambers and the Oxford Dictionary of English. Any others will be explicitly mentioned in the preamble.

Perhaps out of force of habit from years of solving Azed, or maybe because it gets mentioned more often, I use the Chambers Dictionary, otherwise known as the Big Red Book, because the printed version is, indeed, big, and red. A veritable delight of the weird and wonderful, with the odd bit of humour thrown in for good measure. Sadly now edited out, mullet used to be famously defined as a “haircut short at the front, long at the back and ridiculous all over”. What it will allow you to do is check that the answer you’ve carefully constructed from wordplay is in fact the real deal and not a figment of your fevered (and possibly desperate) imagination. For those of us fascinated by words, the likes of DOVEKIE from a puzzle by Phi before Christmas, or IN CUERPO from Botox’s recent offering are worth the price of admission alone.

Now that we’re well and truly in the 21st Century, for many solvers the book is not one big and red, but a very handy, and extremely reasonably priced app on your smartphone, tablet or Chromebook.

Other dictionaries, notably Collins, are sometimes referenced in the preamble. One of my more useful tips is that there is a free version online here. Some answers (usually proper names) will require a trip to that fount of all knowledge, Google. The presence of either is often a sign that something is afoot in that part of the grid, where the setter for thematic purposes has been forced to shoehorn in a particular sequence of letters.

But there, I’ve mentioned it. The preamble.

The Preamble

Sometimes short, sometimes long, the cause it would appear occasionally of a preemptive throwing in of the towel. Which would be a pity given the delights to follow, though I may sympathise sometimes, staring with groggy eyes Saturday morning at a particularly intractable example.

dont-panic

Words as wise now as they always were. Because, while the preamble may sometimes look confusing at first glance, you don’t need to understand most of it to get started. As the solve proceeds, and you get a feel for what’s going on with the answers, and indeed the clues, it will all begin to make a lot more sense.

Let’s take Vismut’s mind-blowing preamble from Calculations of a few weeks back. We have a full five paragraphs worth, most of which is concerned with what to do with the extra (superfluous) letters found in most of the clues. None of which the solver needed to be concerned with until they’d actually identified said letters.

As an aid-memoire (and I usually need one at the weekend), I jot this kind of thing above the grid.

This established, and the rest pushed firmly to the back of your mind, the grid fill usually fills in the gaps. The extra letters? They did indeed spell out calculations that made a lot more sense of that preamble. Thematic elements? With the unchecked letters generously supplied by the preamble to fill in the gaps, tips for some handy online searches for mere mortals such as myself.

Let’s look at a far shorter example, from Nutmeg’s Unpopular Shift of a few weeks back. “The unclued 6-word slogan in the silvered cells could apply to the completed grid. Clue enumerations refer to grid entries.”

First thing – thematic unclued entries. A big plus, because with a few checking letters they’re often crackable, and reveal the theme.

“Clue enumerations refer to grid entries”. This meant that the answer gleaned from the clue would need something doing to it before entry. Lengthened, perhaps, or shortened possibly. The latter it transpired, STATUESQUE evidently being too long for the space provided. As were FRIGATES, THURIFER, and so on. The checking letters confirming that what we were missing in the grid were the days of the week hidden in each, and thus our theme.

Shorter again was Chalicea’s preamble, which just told us that we had to highlight something, as if to demonstrate the variety on offer for solvers of all abilities.

Another useful tip: if in doubt when looking for thematic material, or things to highlight, check out the diagonal.

Chalicea’s offering was also free in the clue department of gimmicks, that further complication the barred-grid puzzle throws our way.

Gimmicks

Gimmicks in the clues come in all shapes and sizes. Letters not required in clues, wordplay lacking letters and misprints in definitions are some of the more common examples.

dont-panic

Again.

If you can solve a standard cryptic clue, then you’re already well-armed to deal with the above. All that is needed is an eye kept on the detail (I’m a sloppy solver, and often fail in this department), and a suspicious mind. The latter I’m definitely in possession of.

Let’s look at some examples from Skylark’s wonderful Francophile of a few weeks back. The preamble told us that “Every clue but one contains an extra letter which should be removed before solving”, and that the other contained a surplus word.

Skylark, evidently taking pity on the lesser solvers among us (ie. me), began at the first across with a construction most of us will have come across before. “Hounds dropping Barton’s birds (6)”, BEAGLES -> EAGLES, via a B dropped. Except that “Barton”, which the BRB tells us is a farmyard, isn’t abbreviated to B. A glance at the entry for “b” in the same tome does, however, reveal that Baron is, giving T as our first extra letter.

Things got a little stickier from that point on, the clues being somewhat satisfyingly chewy, but the principle holds.

Further along we had the surplus word. “Australian fish confused Roman Britain adopting recipe (6)”. Most solvers will have taken one look at “confused”, and thought anagram. Many will have spotted “recipe” and decided that R was part of the anagram fodder. Roman + R is indeed an anagram of MARRON, which the BRB again tells us is an Australian freshwater fish. No prizes then for working out that we needed to kick “Britain” into touch.

But what if, like myself frequently, you end up with a full grid, but an incomplete set of superfluous / missing / gleaned set of letters due to failings on the parsing front? After all, with all those generous checking letters afforded by the barred-grid format, answers frequently reveal themselves.

This is where the endgame will often come to the rescue, because we haven’t been collating them for the sake of it. Message revealed via extra letters? Even the likes of TH?S I? A M?S?AG? will be sufficient to work out what the letters should have been, and reverse engineer the wordplay should you be lacking an answer / curious / diligent. I’m definitely not the latter, and frequently lazy, so I sometimes take a punt.

What I will always do, though, is write in pencil. Not only because you’re going to make mistakes – lots of them. But because clashes / multiple letters in cells later to be resolved / taking a punt at grid entries for carte blanche puzzles are all par for the course. Thinking I had to cold solve most of the clues often left me paralysed with the latter. All those possibilities. No checking letters. Now I just go for it when I’ve got enough. You will often find that the setter will be trying to lead you gently in the right direction. If you’ve got it wrong, you didn’t pencil in those entries too firmly, did you?

The Endgame

Letters changed, items highlighted, perimeters completed, endgames come in all shapes and sizes. What they frequently do, though, is save the poor solver’s bacon. Not sure about that one pesky answer, or worse, can’t solve it at all? The number of times a hidden name or quotation has come to the rescue I wouldn’t like to count. You don’t often get such generous help in a daily cryptic.

And talking of generous help.

Further Tools for the Struggling Solver

Here are some useful tools, should you wish to employ them. Some I am sure regard this sort of thing as “cheating”. Firstly, this isn’t an exam and therefore we’re making up our own rules of conduct. Secondly, when badly stuck I would argue it’s better to proceed in one form or another and hopefully learn something along the way. I’m sure all of us, when starting out at this cryptic lark, employed “crutches” we gradually discarded as we improved. Thirdly, I’m not proud.

Firstly, the solving blogs. If you’re prepared to wait, are still solving, or just if you want to see where and why you got stuck / went wrong. Fifteensquared publish a detailed, and always excellent blog on the date given beside the puzzle in the paper, containing parsing of all the clues, and details of how the endgame should be cracked. I also pen a “how I solved this week’s Inquisitor” sort of thing, should you be interested in how I went about things.

For anagrams: The Chambers app (and online Word Wizard) is good for anything that’s in the BRB. Andy’s Anagram Solver is great for that and much more.

Really, really stuck? Quinapalus has a pattern matching engine, which handles multiple words, and will cope with misprints too. There is also lots of other fun stuff on the site that’s worth exploring.

Including, should you be particularly stuck on “misprints in definitions”, that common barred-grid device, a handy tool that will list all said misprints.

Odd Scottish words? Look no further.

Last but not least, the humble spreadsheet. Experimenting with highlighting in a finished grid is a lot easier if you can just change the colour of a cell to see if shapes emerge (we’re often asked to paint a picture of something, even if my artistic skills aren’t always up to the job). No disrespect to the quality of the paper the i is printed on, but it can only take so many attacks with the eraser.

And I’m sure there are many more I’m blissfully unaware of / haven’t needed to date.

In Conclusion

All of which is more than I planned to write on the subject, and I suspect barely scratches the surface of this weird and wonderful cruciverbal world we inhabit. I hope though that it has helped. If you have any further handy tips, then please do add them in the comments.

Difficulty rating (out of five): 🌟

A relatively straightforward Independent on Sunday reprint today from Poins. We have a little oddity at 22d, where CRAW for stomach will have unfamiliar to many, and a bit of an odd clue at 17d that I will admit to only managing to solve from checking letters at the close Wordle style, but the rest went in with little ado. Enjoyable while it lasted. Has Thursday become the “easy” spot in the i?

COD? I especially liked 5d – “For Joy it’s misery not coming back to split even the smallest amount with Miles (7)”.

All the answers and parsing of the clues can be found in Fifteensquared’s blog from March 2018:

https://www.fifteensquared.net/2018/03/25/independent-on-sunday-1465-poins/

Solvers concerned about impossible preambles or gimmicky clues would have been relieved this week, you hope, to find that both were lacking in a clear and lucid preamble, and clues that had only a surfeit of single letters, as is par for the course in this game, and in one case a word.

They would, though, have found clues that were suitably Inquisitorial. The first across proved to be a gentle introduction, (B)EAGLE, a construction most solvers will have met before, but it did give us the chance to get used to this extra letter lark, the T in “Barton” being evidently superfluous when it came to kicking that pesky B into touch.

From then on progress would be slow, but steady-ish, apart from RE-EMIT at the close which a temporary brain-freeze seems to have rendered harder than was strictly necessary. I will mention in mitigation the combined distractions of the coming horror of the return to work, an impending cinema trip which had reduced the available solving time somewhat, and the return to school for the youngest with the added spice of a last minute uniform hunt. Did I mention that I don’t sleep too well these days?

Or that my second answer in was the one with the extra word – Britain?

The quote duly revealed – the above apparently being THE LAND OF EMBARRASSMENT AND BREAKFAST. Attributed with thanks to Google to Julian BARNES, he of the central diagonal.

And the titles in the border.

Which was all accomplished as nicely as you would like, bringing Ladies’ Month to a very satisfactory close. And my Easter holiday, as it happens. So back into the fray after a surprisingly restful and enjoyable respite.

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Difficulty rating (out of five): 🌟

Our theme this Tuesday concerns a former inhabitant of 16ac. I will admit that I spotted only the one other reference, at 31/32, and had to confirm via Fifteensquared what was only a vague inkling of an idea of what was going on.

Despite a number of potential obscurities in the grid, this was about as easy as they get in the i, with the difficulties pretty fairly clued. Admittedly, it would have helped to be of a certain age to realise which particular Rogers was being referenced at 4d, but with all the checking letters in place there was little doubt, albeit this was my LOI. Elsewhere I don’t believe I’ve seen MRS used in wordplay before as it was at 17d, which either means that other setters haven’t cottoned on / don’t need it, or that my memory is as appalling as ever.

A number went in unparsed – notably at NOMAD where “Matt’s heading” threw me, probably deliberately so, but as I fairly flew threw the grid this was perhaps too a matter of speed over diligence.

COD? For me it has to be 4d, not only for the sci-fi reference, but for the fantastic new word learnt – “Jack – how can I put this? – Rogers sheep in Australia (7)”.

All the answers and parsing of the clues can be found in Fifteensquared’s blog from March 2018:

https://www.fifteensquared.net/2018/03/20/independent-9807-by-knut/

Difficulty rating (out of five): 🌟

It’s a dull, damp Bank Holiday weekend Sunday, as expected, so what better way to brighten up your day than with that cheeky chappie Hoskins. Light and fluffy, a little bit blue in places, and as enjoyable as you would like. It’s just a pity this won’t be seen more widely, hidden away as it is on the i‘s app. The misdirection of “Whistler’s mother” raised a smile, the “pile” a sympathetic grimace, and the quibbles over 19d on the other side puzzlement, as the plural looks fine to me, and not uncommon. A good start to a Sunday that I’m hopeful will clear so that I can get out and about.

COD? I liked 12ac in particular – “Clue in Bow and the dog who might solve it? (6,3)”.

All the answers and parsing of the clues can be found in Fifteensquared’s blog from January 2018:

https://www.fifteensquared.net/2018/01/29/independent-9764-hoskins/

Difficulty rating (out of five): 🌟🌟

How long did it take you to notice? To my shame, I was about three-quarters of the way through before I spotted the paired answers so carefully positioned in the grid. My excuse, as it is so often, is that I was fairly skipping through the grid with half a ear on other things, and thoroughly enjoying the solve to boot. A number I struggled with the parsing of – notably what sense was associated with the condition at 14ac, and what to do with “dictator” at 22d, where I was fooled completely. As the answers were so forthcoming though, apart from a tempting “laryngitis” for the first, half-understanding a number of things wasn’t much of a stumbling block.

COD? I liked “Not good – does things deviously” at 4d, but in particular “while receding from” at 19ac to indicate the reversal and removal of AS from the planet in question – “Rotation while receding from planet (4)”. Really, though, Serpent offers up so many great clues that you could pick loads.

All the answers and parsing of the clues can be found in Fifteensquared’s blog from March 2018:

http://www.fifteensquared.net/2018/03/13/independent-9801-serpent/

Difficulty rating (out of five): 🌟🌟

A relatively gentle outing from Radian today, on the theme of matters traffic related, which even solvers such as myself who have a 19ac when it comes to spotting such things I’m sure will have noticed. A steady grid-fill here with no issues encountered, beyond working out which Welshman to pick in 22d, the problem as ever for me being that I can probably think of more than many solvers. Enjoyable, and without anything controversial or amiss that I can spot.

COD? I’ll go with 8d – “Duck eating nothing moped (7)”.

All the answers and parsing of the clues can be found in Fifteensquared’s blog from March 2018:

https://www.fifteensquared.net/2018/03/06/independent-9795-radian/

A shorter preamble this week. An unclued slogan, and just the hint of a something a little different in the clues in the reference to “enumerations which refer to grid entries”.

The big question being what the latter referred to. My first FORAY into the grid wasn’t, no, 1ac, but Helen’s mother down in the far SE corner. This seeming likely to be LEDA, being Helen of Troy’s mother, with wordplay to match, this wasn’t of much help.

As were most of my next load of entries, it must be said, the grid filling at what could best be described as a rate of knots, and fewer obscurities than the same day’s Phi.

And that was when I stared at a likely STATUE, but couldn’t parse it.

And at about the same time, figured that the slogan was likely to be GIVE US BACK OUR ELEVEN DAYS, one inspired by the change of calendar back in the day. If you were about to miss your birthday, you can see why you might be peeved.

Which then led to STA(TUES)QUE, (THUR)IFER, and, indeed, eleven days that were missing in total from the finished grid. (FRI)GATES, my LOI, explained some confusion I’d wreaked upon myself in the SE corner where I started.

The only disappointment would have to be that, of the four days over the standard seven, only two were a weekend. The other two being hump-day and poet’s day, respectively, I suppose was some consolation.

And done, in the sun that is confounding forecasts with each day that passes. A gentle solve this week then, but an enjoyable one, in what as anticipated has been a good Ladies’ Month.

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Difficulty rating (out of five): 🌟🌟🌟

An interesting puzzle from Phi today that looked a little daunting at first glance – the first thing the solver was faced with were a couple of linked clues. But a little digging revealed that they weren’t quite so fearsome, being fairly common terms for things… Well, I won’t give away too much! A few oddities – the herb, and the theatre if you didn’t know it (thankfully there was an Inquisitor on the same theme a while back, so I did), and possibly the wordplay for SURE, but the rest was gettable with a little patience, and thoroughly enjoyable.

COD? I’ll got with 23ac – “Loudly in favour – is most energised after intervention by Independent (10)”.

All the answers and parsing of the clues can be found in Fifteensquared’s blog from March 2018:

https://www.fifteensquared.net/2018/03/09/independent-9798-phi/

No, not Four Wheels On My Wagon, but EIGHT GUNS ON A SPITFIRE, which is the calculation HAZEL HILL made, together with her father, regarding the armament required by the RAF to successfully take down an enemy fighter. You learn something new every week in the Inquisitor. It’s a pity that almost ninety years on we’re still concerned with the mechanics of killing, but such is the world it would appear we still live in.

Oh yes, that shape completed by the highlighting. It’s the plane, isn’t it?

Said highlighting was revealed via the most convoluted preamble we’ve had in a while, and maths from extra letters in the clues. The ones in reverse (32 MINUS 24) was pretty clear – 8. But the other one (6) I needed several goes at, coming something of a cropper given the lack of brackets and a rather rusty grasp of what bits should be done first. Knowing what we were aiming for, needless to say, got me home and dry, despite feeling somewhat under the weather following a fairly trying work jolly in the days preceding.

Thankfully, then, today’s grid-fill proved to be fairly gentle, though pleasingly testing in places, and enjoyable throughout. It was clear that Vismut was having fun with the extra letters, coming up with such delights as “Hat(e)s chickens” and “Maurist (M)other”.

Was I the only person, though, to end up at first with A LOVER rather than ALL OVER in their sums? Thought so.

A nice start then to what is the beginning of my Easter holiday. Now, if only we could get something other than sub-zero temperatures to accompany the admittedly lovely sunshine.

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