This newsletter was sent to everyone on Jim’s email list (2,290) on Friday, February 25, 2022.
Cryptic crossword puzzles have never been much of a blip on my radar, until recently. I have been a crossword puzzle worker since I was a child, and I am addicted to the mini crossword published daily by the New York Times (record time: 38 seconds). But I tend to get angry when clues are too obscure or take me too far afield from my own knowledge.
I started paying attention to cryptic crossword puzzles not too long ago, however, when I started looking into the life of the late, great mystery writer Colin Dexter (see below). What I realized was that the cryptic crossword puzzle clues are deliberately obscure, and they challenge the solver of the puzzle to put together an answer that is in line with what is hidden by that obscurity. Dexter has written a book about how to solve cryptic crossword puzzles, and that book turned out to be a free download from Amazon (Cracking Cryptic Crosswords). I started reading the book, and it was both enlightening and annoying. Dexter outlines the different types of clues that are involved in these puzzles, but he says too often that once you understand them, they are easy to solve. That was the annoying part. I don’t find these things easy at all, at least not yet.
My knowledge of cryptic crosswords is at the veritable “toe in the water” stage. I do enjoy an intellectual challenge, and time will tell how long I stick with this one. One thing about cryptic crosswords is that those who try to solve them must put up with a great deal of frustration. So, my advice about cryptics so far is to let frustration be part of the fun.
I have also found an online site that offers a new “easy” cryptic crossword puzzle every day; SimplyDailyPuzzles. This site gives you a puzzle and then gives you the answers to the clues as soon as you click one of their buttons. It is a way to begin in case you were interested in doing that.
Whatever puzzles you are trying to crack this weekend, I hope you have a great time doing it.
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Colin Dexter: weaving cryptic crosswords into his mysteries
When Colin Dexter went on vacation with his family to Wales in 1970, he got bored, seriously bored.
Dexter had been a Classics teacher for most of his career, and of course, he was a reader. He had been reading a detective novel, but he put it down, dissatisfied.
He also had another hobby. He liked to work cryptic crosswords. Cryptic crosswords are extremely difficult for the uninitiated, but Dexter had been working them for years, and he enjoyed the intellectual challenge that they presented.
Neither of these things—his reading or his cryptic crosswords—satisfied him during that particular vacation. So, he started to think about the plot for a novel that he might write. He could do better than what he was reading, a thought not uncommon with the way that many authors got into writing.
He started sketching out an outline of what a story might be if there was a woman who was killed when she was hitchhiking. The detective in the case would be someone with several unique qualities in the annals of detective fiction.
He would be a bachelor, an intellectual, and, not surprisingly, a man who loved cryptic crosswords. He could be unpleasant and selfish, and he would be particularly hard on his sergeant, who recognized his talents in solving crimes and who was willing to put up with him.
The result was a detective chief inspector in the Thames Valley Constabulary. He was a man who loved poetry and loved Wagner. He was a detective who disliked looking at dead bodies.
His sergeant would be a working-class bloke and not a reader of books or a worker of crossword puzzles of any type. The sergeant would be a family man, taking those responsibilities very seriously.
And one other thing about the chief inspector: he was a drinker. Not an alcoholic. He didn’t have a problem with drinking. He didn’t get drunk. He just loved alcohol, and he would drink it at any time of the day or night. He often substituted alcohol, especially beer, for food.
Dexter’s creation, of course, was Chief Inspector Morse and his faithful Sergeant Lewis. The book that he was outlining in Wales became his first novel, Last Bus to Woodstock, and was published in 1975.
The Morse-Lewis duo was a new and imaginative take on Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson and Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings. The plots Dexter constructed were not unlike the cryptic crosswords that he enjoyed so much. They were complicated, full of clues and red herrings. Morse often got it wrong. He would jump to conclusions early in the case, and while Sergeant Lewis would try valiantly to open him up to other possibilities, Morse would remain doggedly dedicated to his conclusion—until toward the end of the story when he was proven wrong.
A dozen novels followed his first, and in 1987 actor John Thaw brought Morse to life brilliantly in a series of BBC television programs. That series was produced until 2000. Kevin Whately played Sergeant Lewis to perfection, and those two gathered fans for Dexter’s murder mystery series all over the world.
For his writing, Dexter won just about every award that could be given to mystery and crime writers. In 1997 he received the Diamond Dagger award from the Crime Writers’ Association of Britain. His status today ranks with Raymond Chandler, Agatha Christie, and Arthur Conan Doyle.
Dexter was born in Lincolnshire in 1930, and by 1953 he had completed his military service and earned a bachelor’s degree in Classics at Cambridge. He became a teacher of Classics at the grammar school level, but his increasing deafness forced him into retirement in 1966. From then on, he was an official for an organization that set exams for secondary schools. In 1988 he retired and began writing full-time.
His Morse creation became so popular that it inspired a spinoff series, one featuring Sergeant Lewis and the other a current series appearing regularly on PBS called Endeavor. Endeavor was Morse’s first name, something long withheld from readers and from television fans. The Endeavor series shows Morse at the beginning of his career as a detective in the 1950s and 1960s.
Dexter continued writing—and working crosswords—for most of the rest of his life. He died at his home in Oxford, England in 2017. He was 86 years old.
The Devil’s Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce: Defame, Defenceless, Degenerate, Degradation
DEFAME, v.t. To lie about another. To tell the truth about another.
DEFENCELESS, adj. Unable to attack.
DEGENERATE, adj. Less conspicuously admirable than one’s ancestors. The contemporaries of Homer were striking examples of degeneracy; it required ten of them to raise a rock or a riot that one of the heroes of the Trojan war could have raised with ease. Homer never tires of sneering at “men who live in these degenerate days,” which is perhaps why they suffered him to beg his bread—a marked instance of returning good for evil, by the way, for if they had forbidden him he would certainly have starved.
DEGRADATION, n. One of the stages of moral and social progress from private station to political preferment.
The Prolific Reader. Kill the Quarterback is listed there along with some other great mysteries. https://theprolificreader.com/mystery”
Atlanta 1970 by Chris Wohlwend
Chris Wohlwend is a magazine writer and editor and author of the memoir Ridge Running: A Memoir of Appalachia. The article below is about one of his experiences pursuing the worldwide field of auto racing.
Watching an authoritative-looking official take one of the small cards and hand it to the business-suited man beside him, I decided that I needed to know what those cards were about. The exchange – after a smiling hand-shake – was on the top floor of the press tower at Road Atlanta, and the time was late November 1970.
The relatively new facility was hosting its first Sports Car Club of America’s annual championship spectacle, 16 separate races contested over a weekend. The American Road Race of Champions is the national pinnacle of amateur racing, featuring everything from Volkswagen-powered, hand-built open-wheeled single-seaters to souped up sedans to screaming racing vehicles with legendary livery such as Shelby, McLaren and Lola.
Two recent cases of true crime
Each day the annals of true crime thicken with cases that are largely clichéd, mundane, and altogether blah. Occasionally, however, a true crime event arises that, for us readers of true crime and fictional crime, reaches the level of interest.
Two such cases that you might have missed have come to my attention over the last couple of weeks.
One is the case of the 80-year-old nun in California who pleaded guilty to stealing more than $800,000 over a period of years from the school of which she was the principal. This nun had a gambling problem. She would take the money that was meant for the school and use it to finance her trips to Tahoe and Las Vegas, where she would, presumably, have a great time and gamble the money away. When she was caught, she tearfully admitted her wrongdoing and expressed her remorse in religious rather than criminal language. “I have sinned,” she said.
One arresting aspect of the case was the way the judge agonized over what sentence to give to her. The prosecution had recommended two years in prison. Many of her former students and many parents of her former students had written to the judge saying she was a good woman, and prison would not be appropriate. There, too, was the fact that she was 80 years old.
In sentencing her to a year in prison, the judge was overcome with emotion. No case that he had heard, he said, had affected him like this one. “I haven’t slept well in God knows how long,” he said. The judge’s lot is not an easy one.
You can read more about this case in a story in The Guardian found here.
The second case is one of a Home Depot employee in Arizona who stole more than $350,000 from the company. His job was to gather the cash from the cash register, to count it, put it in bundles, and then put those bundles in bags to await transportation. (Here’s a New York Times story about the crime.)
As he was doing his job, he realized that no one was watching him—or so he thought—and no one was checking up on him. Although there was a video camera watching what he was doing, no one else was checking very closely.
The man realized that he could slip counterfeit money into the bundles, and no one would be the wiser. He began purchasing play money from Amazon. That play money looked enough like real dollar bills to go into the bundles and not be detected.
He carried on these activities for about four years. Finally, Home Depot auditors, accountants, and investigators realized why they were coming up short in their cash receipts and what the source of that shortage really was. They turned things over to the Secret Service, which is in charge of investigating counterfeit claims. Further investigation revealed that this man, whose salary was not great, had acquired an increasingly lavish lifestyle.
What is interesting about both of these crimes is that they depended on the trust of other people. They also involved some level of intellectual activity on the part of the criminal. The people who perpetrated these acts had to be aware of what they were doing, the environment in which they were operating, and the possibilities of taking advantage of their environment.
Tiffany N.: I agree that your emails are a bright spot in the week! Goodnight Moon was one of our girls’ favorites and was read so much that we had it memorized at one point. For some reason, they always loved the “goodnight nobody” part, so we always had to pause there.
John S.: Enjoyed reading it, Jim, and that was interesting about Neville Chamberlain. Yes, sometimes we tend to grade everyone as a success or failure or good or bad, and there is often a big gray area or more explanation that is needed. We try to summarize a very detailed historical event in one sentence. Keep up the good work.
Marcia D.: I read to my son every night.
I have read Robert Harris’s book Munich. Very good read.
I have read a lot about Neville Chamberlain. Believe that Chamberlain really thought that there would be Peace after signing the Munich Agreement in 1938. However, Hitler was not known to keep to his agreements. Hitler wanted war and he intended to control Europe and Great Britain. He even eyed the United States. At present, I’m reading The Splendid and the Vile.
A friend and I saw Death on the Nile. It’s a great movie, better than the original. Also downloaded the book onto my Kindle. The scenery is gorgeous, the clothes are fantastic and the music, 1930’s Jazz!
Finally . . .
This week’s pen and ink: Blount County Public Library
Best quote of the week:
They know enough who know how to learn. Henry Adams, historian and teacher (1838-1918)
If you are looking for a quiet, meditative, non-theological but scriptural podcast to start or close your day, try pray-as-you-go.org. The podcasts are 10-12 minutes long, and they feature beautiful music, a scripture reading, and a very short devotional. It’s a great respite from an otherwise all-too-noisy world.
Helping those in need
Fires in California, freezing weather in Texas, hurricanes on the Atlantic Coast, tornados in Tennessee, and now coronavirus — disasters occur everywhere. They have spread untold misery and disruption. The people affected by them need our help.
It’s not complicated. Things happen to people, and we should be ready to do all the good we can in all of the ways we can. (Some will recognize that I am paraphrasing John Wesley here).
When is the last time you gave to your favorite charity? The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR.org) is my favorite charity. Please make a contribution to this one or to yours.
Keep reading, keep writing (especially to me), and have a great weekend.
His Amazon author page is where you can find more information about his books.
Last week’s newsletter: Replaying Goodnight Moon, reassessing Neville Chamberlain, and more reader reaction: newsletter, February 18, 2022
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