Being a Guide to the Dark Arts…

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.


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 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.



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.

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