Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Review of Crossword Ends in Violence (5) by James Cary (Piqwiq, 2014)

John Fellowes runs the Bookman Bureau, an agency established by his grandfather which specialises in setting newspaper puzzles.  On its last knees financially, the agency has three staff -- Fellowes who creates cryptic crosswords, Turner who formulates chess puzzles, and Overend who sets Bridge challenges.  None of them are particularly blessed with social or business skills -- Fellowes lives in his own world constantly turning everything he encounters into cryptic clues, Turner is an embittered, geeky bully, and Overend is high-end autistic, a walking computer with a photographic memory who is obsessed with solving the Petrov puzzle -- a set of codes found in a KGB file along with the record of some chess matches that carries the reward of £50,000 for whoever cracks it.  Fellowes has grown up believing that his grandfather did important secret work during the Second World War, but on his death-bed his Great Uncle Sydney reveals that Carl Bookman was arrested as a German spy a few days before D-Day after key code words appeared in crossword puzzles he set.  Fellowes doesn’t believe it and sets about trying to establish the truth, aided by Turner, Overend, and Amanda, an accountant in the same building.  The remaining clues, however, are few and difficult to access.

Crossword Ends in Violence (5) charts John Fellowes attempt to uncover whether his grandfather really was a German spy during the Second World War, communicating with the enemy through crossword puzzles.  He’s aided in this task by his two geeky employees at the puzzle agency he runs, and Amanda, an accountant working for a firm in the same building who finds them oddly fascinating.  The strength of the story are the four main characters, who are quirky, engaging, have a nice dynamic, and have a lot of potential for anchoring a series of stories involving puzzle solving.  Cary populates the story with a number of small puzzles, that add a nice touch.  The story is told using multiple intersecting storylines, set at three different time periods (contemporary, eight years after the war, and 1944).  For the most part this works well, enabling the tale set in past and contemporary eras to be told simultaneously and putting them in productive tension.  However, two converging storylines concerning events in Normandy led nowhere, and the one concerning a Polish cryptographer lacked credibility, weakening the ending.  Moreover, the exploits of four puzzle solvers didn’t involve enough of an adventure -- a little bit of hacking and a trip to the archives -- and was very linear in progression, with no blind alleys or sharp twists.  In my view it would have benefitted the story to extend the contemporary investigation to provide a couple more challenges to overcome. Nonetheless the storyline hook is good and the resolution to the puzzle is satisfying.  Overall, an interesting and engaging debut, with a set of characters that hold much promise.

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