Spoilers for the Sunday-sized “THEMELESS 27” below — I suggest solving the puzzle for yourself before you read on.
“Themeless 27” (Devil Cross #67)
Evan Birnholz has been on a Sunday-sized puzzle kick lately, and this is his first themeless in a couple of months. Normally I’m not crazy about oversized themeless puzzles, because the extra size requires constructors to include some subpar fill, and the experience ends up being a slog. This puzzle is the exception to the rule — it’s very smooth (which is standard for Evan’s puzzles) and uses midlength fill to excellent effect.
There isn’t as much long stuff as you’d expect here — in fact, there are only four answers over 9 letters. But because the grid doesn’t have to contort itself to accommodate giant stacks, we end up with a lot of sizzle in the shorter answers. And it’s not like the grid is relying on a lot of 3-letter dreck — there are only 130 words here, which is extremely low for a Sunday. Also, the clues are devious in a number of places — it took me over an hour to solve this bad boy.
Ten minutes in, this was all I had, which is not an ideal way to start a puzzle! Like I said, there’s actually not that much small stuff to use as a gateway into the rest of the puzzle, and what is here is clued pretty hard (perennial gimmes EON and ERA, for instance, are both clued as 40A/83A: Big stretch, so it’s not immediately apparent which one you need — here, I’ve filled in EON but haven’t found the ERA clue yet). Interestingly, I managed to get NIP IT IN THE BUD (53D: Resolve a problem early on) with no crosses at all — BORON (101A: What my physicist cousin Jordan joked was the subject of the film “The Fifth Element” before he saw it) confirmed it for me (and made me very glad I have a Physics minor to go with my English degree…!).
Anyway, between NIP IT IN THE BUD and WALES (50D: Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwerndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch locale… a gimme clue if there ever was one), I worked out SMITHERS (66A: Toon with a purple bowtie), and made pretty steady progress until my grid looked like this…
That X in CALEXICO took a while to work out, but I eventually got it. At this point, my grid basically became a series of mini-puzzles, each of which took me a while to beat into shape. A big part of the problem was that I had never heard of the long symmetrical pair RUSSELL WESTBROOK or PROMISES, PROMISES. I knew from the clues (27A: Thunder achiever? and 93A: 1983 hit with the lyric “You can’t finish what you start / If this is love it breaks my heart”) that I was looking for an NBA player and a song, but I don’t follow basketball and I wasn’t even born yet in 1983, so neither one did me a lot of good. And since I couldn’t work out the long bridging answers, I had to find footholds in each individual area.
That NE corner in particular just kicked my ass for ages… I wanted ARLES for ARDEN (25A: Setting where Jaques declares that “All the world’s a stage” — great clue, by the way), AGENT for ACTOR (15A: Company man?), TIER for RANK (19D: Level), I hadn’t heard of LAURA Carmichael at 22A, I blanked on TUDOR (17D: Stuart predecessor)… it was rough.
Eventually I cracked it, and also worked through the stacked 9’s in the NW and SE. They’re solid but not spectacular — BEAST MODE is my favourite answer from them (102A: Nickname of NFL star Marshawn Lynch), followed by DOMINIQUE (23A: Gold medal-winning U.S. gymnast Dawes… or Moceanu), although the latter clue was no help at all to me. The fill gets a little rougher in these areas (TSP, LOGE, LOIRE, SADR, TROU), and I was wondering why until I noticed how much these areas flow into the neighbouring stuff. There are a lot of access points into all areas of this puzzle, so it’s hard to get completely stuck anywhere, which I really appreciate. Definitely worth a little glue.
I finally cracked that whole upper-left off the rather hard KATYDID (41A: Cricket relative), which gave me the great LIKE A BOSS at 31D, and ended up here:
And here I stayed, for about ten minutes as I just stared at each answer in turn. All the clues here are gettable, but I just couldn’t see the answers with what I had… 93D: Master follower? for PLAN, 88D: Ready for PRIME, 79A: Specifications on applications for DEADLINES… I needed about one more letter for all of them, and the answer that would have unlocked the whole section, HEDGE MAZE (clued alliteratively in reference to Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire with 70D: Setting of the third task of the Triwizard Tournament), wasn’t coming for me from that -GEM- pattern.
That classic crosswordese NENES (107A: They take flight in the Pacific) was finally the thing I managed to remember, and I was done a couple minutes later. Tough puzzle, but I was never stuck for so long that it stopped being fun.