CHRISTMAS CONTEST FINISH LINE
by Leigh Lundin
Except for announcements of finalists and post-game analysis, our Christmas contest concluded at midnight GMT. In two parts, this Sunday and next, I’ll explain how the contest came to be created and how it was solved.
The idea for the puzzle derived from two sources. In June, I reported about l’Oulipo, the French writing project, one of our clues that referred to things French. Oulipo spoke about ‘constrained writing’, which creates works with constraints or rules, such as lipograms. Proponents such as Thomas Pynchon claim constrained writing makes for better writers. I can’t vouch for that, but limitation rules prove challenging and fun to work around, a puzzle in itself. An author becomes more conscious of word choices, turn of phrases, and tightening text.
The other impetus originated within a computer science cryptography assignment. Dr. Paul Abrahams once dismissed class for the winter break by handing students a solid block of incomprehensible text, telling them it contained a Christmas message.
My girlfriend was in the same class. We sat on the floor that winter, taking the text apart. I like lateral thinking, the ability to look at problems obliquely, sometimes helpful in puzzle solving. I remember the moment the eureka solution struck– or dumbstruck. Usually, I sent my professor a Chanukah card but that holiday I rushed to find a card with the same message. I think Judy and I were the only students to crack the code.
Seeds and Sowers
Following the Oulipo article, I began to think about merging the two concepts in creating a Christmas puzzle for our readers, combining Dr. Abraham’s challenge with lipograms. With the idea still in its infancy, I floated the idea of a collaborative puzzle to my colleagues.
John is always enthusiastic about new ideas. He immediately joined in and along with Rob, suggested offering books as prizes, quickly echoed by Deborah who first raised the idea of anthologies.
Rob became our contingency planner, our what-if executive, thinking ahead to unforeseen problems the rest of us haven’t yet considered. Steve contributed in that regard, too, lending gentle humor when it was most needed. He became our anthology editor.
The game progressed from a puzzle to a contest. James took the administrative reins, formulating rules and coordinating the project. His shouldering that burden allowed me to focus on the puzzle itself.
James blew the rest of us away by custom designing an anthology as the prize and then negotiating for rights to the included stories. James also arranged for Angela and Melodie to join us, making all eight original bloggers a part of the project.
Text, Context, Subtext
During puzzle week, many of our columns offer clues on two levels: (a) the essential puzzle clue and (b) clues to the clue. For example: The first article that describes the rules contains a clue to the message. Additionally, the items listed under the heading Chanukah Gifts contain a tool to help in decoding the puzzle and hints what to look for.
Although we specify clues to the message won’t be found in the footnotes, the very presence of footnotes suggests an indirect hint. In other words, if we wanted to discuss a topic that didn’t fit the parameters of our puzzle, we buried it in a footnote.
Thus, each column contains the message clue and many articles contain additional clues suggesting what to focus on. For example, the title of Rob’s article about the Nigerian scam is a bonus clue. That kind of cleverness underscores the team effort. While James urged me to take a bow for starting the project, planting the seed was all I did. The brilliance came from ideas everyone tossed into the circle.
In the limericks article, one of the ditties provides a clue to the clue, simultaneously linking to the Oulipo article and hinting at the French origins of the message itself. Nowhere in the article can you find the word ‘limerick’, another (albeit indirect) hint.
In my opinion, the cleverest second level clue came from James’ article from Silver Blaze about the dog in the night. I thought I advanced the cause by providing a link to The Adventure of the Dancing Men, but James’ clue was more subtle and useful as well as bloody sly. In other words, look (or listen) for something that isn’t there. Combined with Rob’s clue…
When I persuaded others to join me in my madness, I sketched an outline of what I proposed without revealing the mechanism and message. Rob shocked me by guessing the answer out of the box. Prior to Rob’s feat, I worried about the puzzle being too difficult. After Rob’s leap of deduction, I fretted it would prove too easy.
That last, it was not. I sought feedback along the way and the most common concern was finding a place to get a toehold. Where does one start? As the game moved to its second week, Rob suggested additional hints to help readers narrow their focus. I opened that Sunday suggesting solvers look for two things: commonalities between articles and anything uncommon. It’s a credit to my colleagues that no one seemed to notice unusual wording. James continued offering hints through the week as the game neared the finish line.
We received support from Women of Mystery and Bill Crider. Privately, I hoped one of their members or readers might snag a prize. Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazines also lent support to our efforts.
To my knowledge, Criminal Brief became the first blog to attempt a puzzle of this order. We might also have been the first to create a lipogrammatic blog. Whether or not the experiment proved successful, we made a silly little bit of history thanks to the team efforts of colleagues inside and outside Criminal Brief and our loyal readers.
I want to thank Deborah, John, Steve, Rob, and James for all their work and suggestions. All of us thank Melodie and Angela for contributing thoughts and stories for the anthology. Thanks to Terrie Moran and the gang at Women of Mystery. Finally, to our readers, thank you for your support and hard work.
One of our readers wrote reams of notes as she worked on the puzzle. Next week, I’ll bring you a story behind the story. You’ll be amazed.
In the meantime, check in Monday to learn the results.