mezzacotta Puzzle Competition

Solution: 4C. Crossover Word

We are presented with what looks like an unnumbered set of 30 cryptic crossword clues, and an empty crossword grid with no numbers. A quick check reveals that the indicated word lengths of the clues are consistent with the 30 word spaces in the grid. So it seems that the most obvious thing to do is solve the clues, then fit the answers into the grid.

Solving the clues can be done with standard cryptic clue principles. In doing so, you might notice that the answers are ordered alphabetically, which may assist with solving some of them. The solved clues are as follows:

Having solved all of the clues, any attempt to fit them in the provided crossword grid will be fruitless, as they can't be made to intersect in the right places.

The twist to this puzzle which needs to be realised is that all of the Thursday puzzles in this competition are interrelated, and rely on information from other puzzles. This particular puzzle may be the easiest one to notice this with, because once the cryptic clues are solved, and the paintings in puzzle 4B. Art Elsewhere are identified, a very suggestive pattern emerges. Every single one of the answer words above exists in the title of one of the paintings in Art Elsewhere. In fact, exactly two of them appear in the title of every one of the fifteen paintings (see the solution to 4B. Art Elsewhere for full details about the paintings, including hyperlinks):

This is likely to be the first positive indication to solvers that the five puzzles released together on Thursday are inter-related. This would be a highly suspicious coincidence otherwise!

The next thing to notice is that each painting contains another significant word (ignoring short prepositions and articles such as "the" and "of"). Listing those third significant words and looking at the first letter of each, in the order in which the paintings are presented, reveals a hidden message:

The message reads PURE X IN WILD NUDE, or possibly PUREX IN WILD NUDE. This sounds like it could be another cryptic clue. But cryptic clues are conventionally given with a number or numbers in parentheses, indicating the length/s of the answer word/s. Some searching across the other puzzles in Thursday's group may reveal an otherwise mysterious "(9)" at the top of the last page of puzzle 4D. Signs of Change. This "(9)" might have caused some puzzlement while solving the other puzzles, as nothing seems to consume the information it gives - the trick is to realise that it belongs here.

So we have the clue: Pure X in wild nude (9).

"Pure" is the definition, "X" is a "cross", which is inside "wild nude", that is, an anagram of the letters "nude". The solution is UNCROSSED, which is pure in the sense of pure-bred rather than cross-bred animals. This answer also ties back to the title of the puzzle: Crossover Word. We initially expected the cryptic answers to be used in a crossword, but in actually solving the puzzle the words remain resolutely uncrossed.

The solution to the puzzle is UNCROSSED.

Puzzle design notes

After concocting the idea of the inter-related group of puzzles, I knew I wanted as one of the set something that would look at first glance like a cryptic crossword puzzle. There'd be a set of clues and a crossword grid. But the grid would be used by another puzzle, and this puzzle would use only answers to the clues, mixed with some information from another puzzle. What else could be done with a list of 30 words?

We often make puzzles that involve identifying pictures, and I particularly like ones involving works of art. So I had the idea of finding works of art which used the clue answer words in their titles. 30 is a good number of cryptic clues, but seemed too many artworks, so I decided to find works of art which contained two clue words each. That led to the idea of artworks with three significant words in their titles, with the third, unclued, word providing the next step of the puzzle.

I decided that that step would be recursive, involving extracting another cryptic clue to be solved. The first problem was that 15 letters is a very small number with which to compose a workable cryptic clue. This led to the idea of using "X" to efficiently indicate "cross", which linked nicely back to the initial crossword concept. I realised that the words were actually not being crossed to solve the puzzle, which gave me the thematic solution of UNCROSSED. The cryptic part of the clue then became the very nice "X in wild nude". But this consumed 11 of my 15-letter budget, and I now needed a word which literally meant "uncrossed", but was only 4 letters long. Some thesaurus work led to "pure", and I had the completed clue.

Now came the hard part! By this point I had constructed the crossword grid, and already used it in the construction of puzzles 4A. All Astir and 4F. Tangram Mix-up! So changing the grid was really not an option. Given the grid was fixed, I now had to find a set of fifteen famous (or at least notable enough to be findable) paintings satisfying the following constraints:

This was a very difficult set of constraints to satisfy, and it took several days of searching. I began by locking in a painting of Saint Francis Xavier, to take care of the "X". This ate up one each of the five-letter ("saint") and seven-letter ("francis") words. I figured the "U"s would be difficult, and found Young Woman With A Japanese Umbrella (treating the noun phrase "young woman" as a "word") and Abduction of Proserpine on a Unicorn. This consumed both my ten-letter words ("young woman" and "proserpine"), and a seven ("unicorn") and eight ("japanese"). And so my search continued. The eleven-letter words were difficult, eventually settling in to "saint george" and "composition".

By the time I was approaching the end of this process, I was looking for things like a painting with three significant words in its title, one of which starts with "I", the other two being 4 and 9 letters long. With this exact constraint, I ran across Iris, Messenger of the Gods, a sculpture by Auguste Rodin. I wanted a painting, but in a pinch a sculpture would do, especially if it was by such a famous sculptor. Then I looked up an image of Iris, Messenger of the Gods. I won't supply a link here, but you can look it up for yourself. It is Not Safe For Work if your work objects to you looking at detailed sculptures of female genitalia. Needless to say, we thought twice about asking puzzlers to identify this work of art from a picture.

So I kept looking. After some reshuffling, in which some paintings I really wanted to include were discarded, I finally had a set that satisfied the constraints. Then I set about writing the cryptic clues, and inflicted the puzzle (along with all the others in the set of five) on test solvers.

They solved it, but pointed out a problem. I'd written the clue for FRANCIS as "Mule we hear is the nanny, literally back to front (6)", whereas FRANCIS has 7 letters. I could have changed the 6 to a 7, but then this would mean the listed word lengths no longer matched the word lengths of the crossword grid - there would be one too many 7s and one too few 6s. This could alert solvers very early that something was amiss.

So I went back to the drawing board, and searched for more paintings, having to discard a painting with a seven-letter word and replace it with another with a six-letter word (while keeping the same number of letters in the second word, and maintaining the initial letter of the third word). I couldn't just throw away the FRANCIS painting, as it provided the crucial and indispensable "X" in "Xavier". I ended up discarding Golfers on the Ice near Haarlem, by Adriaen van de Velde, in favour of Isaac Winslow and his Family. This of course meant discarding the following two cryptic clues:

I particularly like the first of those, too. In a bizarre coda, when the final puzzle was released, the clue for FRANCIS still listed the answer as being 6 letters long! Despite correcting the underlying problem, I had neglected to change the "(6)" to "(7)". A keen-eyed cryptic-solving team spotted this quickly and notified us, triggering the minor erratum that was issued for this puzzle. For some reason, I seem to have letter blindness when it comes to this particular word. Even now, looking at the word "FRANCIS", I have to count it very carefully to convince myself it doesn't have 6 letters!