First things first — this puzzle is very good. It’s also really hard, at least if you’re like me and low-wordcount freestyle puzzles are your nemesis. There are only 64 words here, and it’s clued hard as hell. I ended up taking over an hour to solve it while I watched the Oilers beat the Flyers.
That’s not to say there aren’t a few gimmes in the grid. 4D: ___ noires could really only be BETES and 6D: Palme ___ has to be D’OR, so I thought I was going to have some traction in the NE, but it got me nowhere. So then I went and filled in NINETIES for 10D: Near misses, for a perfectionist (it’s A MINUSES, which seems obvious in retrospect but Alberta schools don’t use letter grades) and MAIN EVENT for 9D: Who’s on last (it’s CONCLUDER) and MORIARTY for 48A: “His Last Bow” was his last appearance (it’s DR WATSON — I was thinking of “The Final Solution”). You will not be shocked to learn that none of these wrong answers got me anywhere.
I finally got somewhere by filling in HALLE (31A: Anne’s predecessor as Catwoman, referring to the god-awful mid-00’s movie) and OLDE (39A: ___ English 800 (Miller brew), referring to the god-awful brand of 40’s), using those to pick up BANTERING (30D: Communicating in Sorkinese — timely given the release of Steve Jobs), and filling in the rest of the SW. Not too long after that, I realized my Sherlock Holmes mistake and cleared out the SE, including the lovely stack of SIDE EYE (51A: Look to criticize — I wanted NITPICK) and GAYDAR (53A: Cruiser’s intuition). Did I mention this puzzle is clued hard? Because wow!
Anyway, there I stayed, trying various combinations of words to break into the middle with no success. I finally plunked down WRITERS at the end of 21D: Joni Mitchell and her ilk (I’ve heard the name, but couldn’t get the first part of SONGWRITERS without some help from crosses), and that gave me enough to solve BINGO MARKER (33A: Dauber used in gameplay). That’s one of those answers, by the way, that seems totally obvious when you actually see it — like what else could it be? — and yet I was stuck on it for ages. From there, the rest of that gorgeous, wide-open centre more or less solved itself, with BIODEGRADES (30A: Feeds the bacteria) and UNREAD EMAIL (14D: Bold new arrival, maybe — that clue is mean!) sort of just appearing before my eyes.
By the way, this whole puzzle is wide-open and wonderful, but special praise for that centre — look at how smooth Kameron got it. What’s the worst thing, CENTENARIES? ARFED? There aren’t many constructors who could fill this grid so nicely.
The two north quadrants were by far the hardest for me. I actually filled in CISTERNS (16A: Fluid containers) and pulled it out because I couldn’t get any crosses to work, but DADBOD (1A: Fatherly figure, possibly the hardest clue in this entire puzzle) finally got me in. Love the clue on I SEE YOU, which had me stumped for ages (13A: “Invisibility cloaks don’t work in real life, ya dweeb”). I could see it ended in YOU, but nothing else.
The NE was easier to crack once I finally saw the patently obvious A MINUSES — I blame the fact that I spent so long trying to understand how 9D: Who’s on last could end in -UDER. By the way, CONCLUDER strikes me as a little dodgy there — it’s a word, I guess, but it’s not one I’ve ever heard in standard English. I like how the clue for BENITO (18A: “___ Cereno”: 1855 Melville novella about a slave uprising) is kind of giving me SIDE EYE there by deigning to include the “about a slave uprising” part. It’s all “C’mon, ‘1855 Melville novella’ isn’t enough for you, ya fucking dummy?”
Like any low-wordcount themeless, there are some questionable entries — RUS, ACNED, UNOS crossing ASIANA (that was the last thing I got), OYER, LYS — and a few neutral ones, but this is as smooth as these puzzles get, and the good stuff more than makes up for the bad. Great puzzle, and here’s hoping that at some point I manage to start solving these without needing a minute per clue!