Low Concept

The Purloined Letters

A crossword detective searches for clues to a puzzling mystery.

Illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo

Illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo

A database created by a software engineer has raised questions over whether old New York Times crossword puzzles were copied in other publications. … “There was no way to track this before,” [Times crossword editor Will Shortz] said. “This is something new.”
New York Times, March 5, 2016

A private eye never goes looking for a femme fatale, but an 11-letter word for “seductress” had just walked into my office, and she had legs on her that went all the way from 14 across to 61 down.

“You’re the crossword detective?” she asked, examining the framed and completed puzzles on the walls. The Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Saturday edition of the New York Times—I’d solved them all.

“I’m a sleuth, a shamus,” I told her. “Both those words fit.” I went after a specialized type of criminal, the lowlifes of the puzzle world—the definition-Googlers, the answer-looker-uppers, the pencil-it-in-first-ers. It was a tough job, especially on weekends.

She looked me over like a retiree eyeing a half-completed Wednesday puzzle: disappointed, yet still intrigued. Finally, she said, “I expected someone a little more square.”

“Not everything’s black and white like the crosswords, doll,” I replied. “Now let’s cut to the chase: You’re looking for answers.”

She told me she worked for a big-circulation general-interest newspaper, what most people would consider a three-letter word for “piece of old cloth.” Their crossword editor was in some hot water—and we’re not talking about a seven-letter word for “whirlpool bath.” Seems this fellow may have borrowed a few too many grids from other papers, and now things were mixed up worse than the Jumble. This editor had gone missing—and just like tomorrow’s paper, if I couldn’t find him, they had no clues.

It was a complicated case, but that didn’t worry me. Like always, I’d start at the top left corner and work my way down.

“Things could get ugly,” she warned me. “But judging by that samurai sword on your desk, you can handle yourself.”

I corrected her. “It’s a ‘fencing blade.’ Four letters.”

I made her sign the standard contract—in pen, of course.

Looking back now, I realize that sometimes there’s more than one right answer, like that two-timing New York Times crossword that could be solved with either CLINTON or BOB DOLE. I should have known that SIREN isn’t just a five-letter word for “seductress.” It’s also a five-letter word for “alarm.”

* * *

I figured my old partner might be able to help. Saul gave up the crossword game years ago for a cushy gig working “spot the difference” cases, but his mind was still sharp. Or so I thought. When I walked into his office, he was on me like an EMU in an amateur constructor’s puzzle. “See anything different from the last time you were here, Jake?” he asked.

Off the top of my head, I noticed three changes, but I told him I didn’t have time for his little games.

“Know anything about this crossword plagiarism case?” I asked, tossing two puzzles on his desk, one from earlier this week, the other from over a decade ago. Saul ran them through his database and immediately found the similarities. But looking at the hard copies, he spotted something else.

“This new crossword ain’t copied,” he said, examining the newsprint against the light. “It’s a counterfeit.”

* * *

The docks on the Lower East Side aren’t the kind of place you’ll find reputable puzzle-solvers. Sure, there’s a bridge or two here, just not the kind Omar Sharif wrote about. But my source at the mahjong tables in Columbus Park had some info on a shipment of knockoff sudokus coming in from Hong Kong, and I had a feeling our junk-peddling editor might try to hitch a ride to safety on a four-letter Chinese boat.

I trusted my source, but I never could stomach board games. Too many moving parts. Too many things that could go wrong. Doesn’t matter if it’s Monopoly, Battleship, Stratego, or the game of global domination—they’re all four-letter words for “danger.”

I waited on a bench, hiding my face behind an opened newspaper. It was another risk: In all the excitement, I hadn’t yet finished that day’s crossword. I tried to focus on the case, but my eyes kept wandering down, down … 17 down … “Ship’s warning device” … seven letters, starting with …

Just then, a low, deep blast woke me from my reveries. And just as a tugboat emerged from the gloom, I saw her—the same dame who sent me out on this high-stakes word search. She was racing down the waterfront, wearing a trenchcoat and a fedora pulled low over her eyes. I knew from years of rifling through the style section looking for crosswords that this wasn’t a new fashion—it was a disguise!

She spotted me and ran off toward Canal Street. And like a dog chasing a paperboy, I followed. Even today I couldn’t tell you why. Maybe it was because I didn’t want this paper doll to get any more torn, or maybe it was because she looked like the blonde in the Beetle Bailey strips my mother used to read me. If you’ve got the time, pal, ring that five-letter Austrian doc and tell me my diagnosis.

I caught up to her and spun her around, not knowing whether I wanted to kiss her or slap her, although I was pretty sure the word had four letters. And then my world went topsy-turvy faster than Dan Feyer finishes a Highlights puzzle. It wasn’t my client at all—it was a papier-mâché dummy wearing a blond wig!

I’ll admit, this was an embarrassing mistake for a gumshoe of my caliber to make. But I’m only an expert at crosswords. Saul’s the guy who spots the differences.

By the time I made it back to the docks, the boat was long gone, and all that was left of the counterfeits was a half-torn sudoku so shoddy that all the 1s were actually I’s. Not surprisingly, it didn’t add up …

At least the dame wasn’t involved, I thought to myself. And that’s when it hit me. I ran the 36 blocks down and across to my office, pulled the contract from my filing cabinet, and looked at her name.

It was right there, in black ballpoint. Sue. Sue Doku.

All these puzzles and games, and it turns out I was the one getting played.