Last year, Victor Barocas ran a Kickstarter for this project — it’s a series of serialized mystery stories featuring Ada Cross (say it out loud), the lead agent of the FBI’s Cruciverbal Crimes Division. The conceit is that Ada receives mysterious crossword puzzles in the mail, and the puzzles hint at who the killer is in a murder that her friends in DC Homicide are investigating.
There will be eight stories in the project, and each one is divided into six parts. Each week, Victor sends out part of the story with an accompanying puzzle, with both easy and hard clues as you prefer, and instructions on finding the meta answer. The fifth meta answer doubles as the key to revealing the killer, and then the following week you get the conclusion (with no puzzle).
The first story, “Ada Cross Sees Beyond”, wrapped up last week, and doubles as an origin story for the character and her supporting cast. The story itself is straightforward and a little silly, and the prose gets the job done, but isn’t anything special. The individual puzzles are well-constructed metas with the usual strained fill that meta puzzles tend to produce (though there is some good long fill that is unconnected to the metas, which is something I always like to see).
It’s not perfect. The hard versions of the puzzle have some fairly wild difficulty swings in them, and that combined with the occasionally wonky fill can be problematic. I don’t think I’ve actually solved a puzzle using the hard clues alone yet; typically, I get most of the way there, and then turn to the easy clues to untangle one especially knotty section and occasionally spot an error elsewhere in the puzzle on a tough cross. Also, most of the details of the murder investigation turn out to be irrelevant when the final solution is revealed — I’d been hoping for something that required you to go back and reread the early parts of the story, but that’s not the case.
Still, the whole thing comes together into something more than the sum of its parts. Not only am I enjoying these puzzles a lot, but they’ve turned out to be one of the highlights of my puzzle-solving week, which I wasn’t expecting. The writing isn’t high art, but it’s funny and charming, and the characters are quite pleasant to spend time around. Hayley Gold of Across & Down provides art to tie things together. And the interconnectivity of the metas adds a layer that improves the experience significantly (the individual metas are also very good).
If this sounds like something you’d enjoy, don’t read on; instead, you can sign up by e-mailing Victor at firstname.lastname@example.org to subscribe for the year. The second story starts tomorrow, and he’ll also end you the first batch of puzzles. The cost during last year’s Kickstarter was $28 for 40 puzzles and a total of 8 stories over the course of the year, and I assume that’s still the offer. Or if you prefer to wait, there’s a print collection coming next year (I paid $50 to get the electronic versions, plus a copy of the book upon publication).
It works out to 50 cents per puzzle plus $1 per story, which I would say is excellent value for what you get. I’m also hoping that now that the first story is complete, future stories will push the boundaries of the format a little more, and hopefully the difficulty curve on the hard clues will settle down (there is quite a bit of wordplay in both easy and hard versions, and the clues in general are well-written).
If you’re still on the fence, read on and I’ll explain the first story’s meta solutions so you can see if this something you’d enjoy. By the way, the meta instructions do vary between the easy and hard versions of the puzzles, with the easy version spelling out the steps explicitly. So if you’re looking for something to ease you into meta-solving, this is a good investment.
The setup for the first puzzle is that a clothing store owner named George Anderson has been killed, and the suspects are his sons, Mario, Mark, Marshall, Marty and Marvin. Unfortunately, all of them have airtight alibis, as becomes clear over the story’s installments. There are a lot of other details, but as noted above, they’re largely irrelevant to the solving process, so let’s get into the puzzles.
The first puzzle, #5. On Hand, asks for “something one might get at a carnival”. It’s basically a themeless with a bunch of circled squares. The squares are all triple-checked, and taken together they spell out HEART LINE, HEAD LINE, and LIFE LINE, in approximately the spots you’d find them on your hand. So the meta answer is a palm reading. Easy enough. The number in the title is acknowledged in the story but not explained; I assumed it was part of a larger, year-long meta that would develop over time.
The second puzzle, #8. You’re Hurting Me!, asks for a “1980 movie”, and has four theme answers (plus significantly cleaner fill; in hindsight, starting with a meta that required triple-checked squares might not have been the best idea). The theme answers are all dodgy — AFRICAN OIL, VISITING WEAR, IN NAVY PLANES and SAW NOTHING. The trick (and I didn’t see this at all until I looked at the easy version’s instructions) is that all of these are anagrams of U.S. states: CALIFORNIA, WEST VIRGINIA, PENNSYLVANIA and WASHINGTON. That hints at the film Altered States, starring William Hurt (hence the title).
My favourite meta of this initial batch is the slightly oversized #10. Four Wrongs Make a Right, which asks for a “movie character”. The theme answers are all wrong — OAKLAND LIONS should be OAKLAND RAIDERS, SHIRLEY CATHEDRAL is obviously SHIRLEY TEMPLE, the SECOND EXPEDITION is actually the SECOND CRUSADE, and the ANIMAL PHYLUM ought to be the ANIMAL KINGDOM. The four corrections are references to the four Indiana Jones movies, and thankfully Victor does indeed take a shot at the god-awful fourth film in the story.
If you’re faster than me, you might have seen what’s going on by now, but if not let’s move on to the intricate #6. Trouble Ahead, Trouble Behind. The puzzle asks for “a classic rock album” and provides eight starred theme answers . Each one has a screwed up clue; for example, SELF PITY is clued as “Some people tend to gallop in it”, so “gallop” needs to be turned into “wallow”. The same letter replaces both the start and end of one word in each theme clue, hence the title (which is also a Grateful Dead lyric, but a red herring for the meta). For TOFFEE, “Meaty bar contents” should be “Heath bar contents”, CREME FILLING has “Wren center” instead of “Oreo center”, and so on. Together, the new letters spell out the classic Who’s Next.
That brings us to the finale, Breaking Up Is Hard to Do, which has no number in its title. It asks for a “board game”, and Ben Tausig’s recent crossover stunt was still fresh in my mind, so it wasn’t exactly a shock when SHERMAN ANTI-TRUST ACT turned out to run through the puzzle in circled squares (executed much more smoothly this time thanks to the 19×13 grid). The act was used to break up two of the theme answers (STANDARD OIL and A T AND T) and almost broke up the last one too (MICROSOFT). In the grid, the act literally breaks up all three theme answers with letters that aren’t included in the answers; cleverly executed. Obviously, the point of the act is to prevent a company from forming a Monopoly, so there’s your theme answer.
In hindsight, the answer to the mystery (or as Victor calls it, the “penta”) is obvious, but I didn’t see it until I went back after solving the last puzzle (remember, I did these over a full month). Palm reading, Altered States and Indiana Jones all refer to squares on a Monopoly board, and the numbers in the titles are the dice rolls that a player needs to reach Reading Railroad (5), States Avenue (8) and Indiana Avenue (10) if they start on Go. Asking the question Who’s next? and using the roll of 6 in the fourth puzzle’s title gives us Marvin Anderson, the only suspect who would complete the pattern by letting the player land on Marvin Gardens.
Really lovely work, and going back through the puzzles for this review has got me excited for the second story. Highly recommended.