“Forced Entry”

I’ve had the latest Listener puzzle for about 24 hours now, and I have one empty square left. (The middle square of 32 down. It’s three letters long, and I have the first and last letters from the crossing words, but the middle letter is unchecked.)

The puzzle is called “Forced Entry”. It’s an unusually straightforward puzzle, for the Listener anyway. There’s a gimmick in the clues that makes them more difficult to solve, but no secret theme to be discovered or anything like that.

I like the straightforwardness, but the gimmick seems a bit fussy. The wordplay portion of the clue includes an extra letter that indicates how many spaces in the alphabet forward or backward you have to change one of the letters in the answer to the clue to get the word you enter into the grid. It’s a bit dull to do the figuring and it doesn’t seem to add anything to the puzzle. I think I would have liked the puzzle better if the gimmick were made even simpler and you just had to change one letter of the answer to form a different word before entering it into the grid.

Curiously, a gimmick of this sort means that a few crossing letters are actually more helpful in solving the long entries than they are in solving the short ones. I don’t want to give away anything in the puzzle, so I’ll make up an example. Let’s say you have two crossing letters in a nine-letter word, like P---C----. There’s a chance that one of these is the changed letter, of course, but there’s a better than even chance that neither of them is, and in that case you’re looking for a pair of words that fit that pattern and are different by only one letter. So if you do a search for nine-letter words with P and C in those positions, and you run your eye down the list looking for words that are one letter away from other words, then when you see PRESCRIBE or PROSCRIBE it’ll jump out at you. Then it’s not hard to see whether the clue contains anything that looks like a definition of either word, and if it does then you know the other one is what goes into the grid. Because there are going to be very few other possibilities, if any, for a word of this length, chances are good that the first word you come across that jumps out at you like this is going to be part of the right answer. All this without having to consider the clue, which in this puzzle is not a normal cryptic clue. The clues in this puzzle, in fact, can be tricky to figure out even after you know what the answer should be, so being able to narrow the possibilities way down with two or three crossing letters is a very big help.

Whereas, say you have the same two crossing letters in the three-letter entry C-P. The middle letter is unchecked, so this time either the C or the P definitely is the changed letter. (The rules of the puzzle state, very sensibly, that the changed letter will always be checked by a crossing word.) The word in the grid could be CAP, COP, or CUP. Because this is the Listener puzzle and anything in Chambers Dictionary is fair game, however uncommon, it could also be CEP, which Chambers gives as a type of edible mushroom. So the word that answers the clue could fit any of the patterns CA-, CE-, CO-, CU-, -AP, -EP, -OP, and -UP. There are several dozen possible words, and short words are typically the ones that have the most possible meanings, half of which are Scottish or dialect or Shakespearean or archaic or otherwise obscure, and you could be staring at the right word for a while not even see how the clue leads to it.

Which is why in this puzzle the longer entries fell into place for me fairly early, and the hardest work has been in nailing the last eight or nine short words.

Still, one by one they have fallen, and I’m sure 32 down will fall soon as well.

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