Never knowingly undersolved.

Enigmatic Variations No. 941 – The Sign of Four by Salamanca

Posted by mc_rapper67 on November 27th, 2010


A fellow EV blogger recently mused on the ‘blogger’s nightmare’ of being allocated a puzzle he/she can’t get to the bottom of. Well, here’s an example (unless the penny drops some time between writing this up and posting it!)… The preamble talks of ‘the most abstruse cryptogram’, a ‘seven percent solution’, signs, gifts and interpretations linked to the theme of ‘FOUR’, and some ‘imaginative’ picturing of items in the grid. It all turned out to be a FOUR-pipe problem, far from elementary, and defeated my best efforts at detection.

It was not all doom and gloom – I filled the grid, researched/worked out the underlying references, and enjoyed some fiendish and clever clueing. But, I was unable to make the imaginative leap to identify the sign/symbol, or find the hidden items in the grid – hopefully the ‘Comments’ section below will soon yield the final pieces of the puzzle. Please check back later, if enlightenment has not yet arrived…

To give Salamanca his or her dues, the title was an explicit reference to the underlying work, The Sign of (The) Four by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the text of which is fairly easily findable on t’web, if you haven’t read it, or don’t have an ACD anthology to hand. And the two types of substitutions in the grid soon became clear:
– any light containing the word FOUR – I found six, crossing at three locations – needed these four letters replaced by a ‘sign’ of some sort.
– and four other clues, lacking definition, and explicitly indicated as 1st of 4, 2nd of 4 etc., led to the surnames of characters from the book, replaced by their forenames:

The reference to a ‘seven percent solution’ diverted me for a while – were solvers to leave some (most) squares blank, leaving only 7% of them filled? In the end, I deduced that this was just a quote from the book, referring to Holmes’ drug use/addiction: ‘He raised his eyes languidly from the old black-letter volume which he had opened. “It is cocaine,” he said, — “a seven-percent solution. Would you care to try it?”

As for that abstruse cryptogram? Another quote from Holmes in the book gives plenty of material to work with: ‘“My mind,” he said, “rebels at stagnation. Give me problems, give me work, give me the most abstruse cryptogram or the most intricate analysis, and I am in my own proper atmosphere. I can dispense then with artificial stimulants. But I abhor the dull routine of existence. I crave for mental exaltation.”‘ (How wonderfully put – one for my next performance review at work!)

Despite much staring, up-down-left-right-diagonal-spiral searching, head scratching, and rewriting/re-filling of the grid, I just could not work out which items of the gift – problems, work, intricate analysis? – were being referred to, let alone how I could ‘imaginatively picture’ them together in the grid. I also failed to work out the ‘sign’ to be substituted for the word ‘FOUR’ in those three squares.

There were a few little niggles which didn’t really help – word length 7 instead of 6 on 11D, no word length on 16D, and 17A might read better with ‘scuppers’, rather than ‘scupper’? – but I had most of the grid filled in less than an hour, the book characters substituted soon after – and then repeated efforts over the rest of the fortnight at getting across the final line…so far in vain.

So, ‘thank-you’ to Salamanca, for giving me work and problems. I hope my intricate analysis is of use to some readers. This mental exaltation was anything but dull routine, and I am off to make use of some artificial stimulants (though nothing quite as strong as Sherlock’s)!

Clue No Solution (and entry, if different)   Clue /
1A TWO-BY-FOUR   Piece of timber – by implication eight? (6, hyphenated) /
Double defn – 2-by-4 is a piece of wood, and also equals 8
6A STOMA   Opening bible, perhaps out of church (5) /
STOMACH (‘bible’ can mean ‘third stomach of a ruminant’) less CH (church)
10A OWRIE   Dress I wore in Aberdeen a bit shabby (5) /
anag (i.e. dress) of I WORE
12A FUMOUS   Like Holmes’s pipe, renowned when University’s American (6) /
FAMOUS (renowned) with second letter as U (university) for A (American) – thematic reference to Holmes and pipe smoking
13A AKBAR (DOST)   2nd of 4: Arab king, possibly (4) /
anag (i.e. possibly) of ARAB + K (king) – no definition
15A OOMPAH   Tuba sound from one absorbed by enthusiasm (6) /
OOMPH (enthusiasm) absorbing A (one)
17A TOOTOO   Exquisite horn sound soon scupper tin (6, hyphenated) /
TOOT (horn sound) plus SOON without SN (tin)
18A ABY   No longer continue forever outside Britain (3) /
AY (forever) around (outside) B (Britain)
21A KRIS   Kings ones to stab with a dagger (4) /
K + R (both abbreviations for King) + IS (ones)
22A SINGH (MAHOMET)   3rd of 4: Timeless things recollected (7) /
anag (i.e. collected) of THINGS less T (time) – no definition
24A MOHUR   Once more fling mostly gold coin (5) /
MO (obsolete for ‘more’) + most of HURL (fling) – MOHUR being a gold coin
25A OVINE   Sheepish Six in one (5) /
ONE with VI (six) inside
26A DWINDLE   Tremor in Perth outside beginning to wane and fade away (7) /
DINDLE (Scottish for thrill, vibration, tremor) around W (beginning to ‘wane’)
27A BALFOUR   Fellow involved in smearing of Labour? (7) /
F (fellow) involved in anag (i.e. smearing) of LABOUR – whole clue is the definition(?)
31A ANT   Insect’s old if it’s small (3) /
double defn – ANT = insect, AN’T = archaic abbreviation (i.e. ‘small’) of ‘IF IT’
32A GNAMMA   Description of hole by Australian at last found in letter (6) /
N (last of Australian) in GAMMA (letter) – ‘gnamma hole’ being Aboriginal Australian for a rock hollow in the desert
35A BOO-HOO   After old boy returned to Ohio we Scots weep noisily (6, hyphenated) /
BO (OB, or old boy, returned) + OH (Ohio) + OO (Scottish for ‘we’)
37A OOHS   Expressions of pleasure as Soho’s lit (4) /
anag (i.e. lit, or drunk) of SOHO
38A GRANNY   Elderly relative’s old to go round North Norway (6) /
GRAY (mainly American version of grey, or old) around N (North) + N (Norway)
39A YOKES   Joins together one agreement in another (5) /
OK (agreement) in YES (another agreement)
40A EVENS   Poetic nights, timeless occasions (5) /
EVENTS (occasions) without T (time)
41A FOURCROYA   Plants their name comes from mad French King, see? (And what he must be, mostly) (6) /
FOU (French for foolish, or mad) + R (king) + C (see) + most of ROYAL – Fourcroya being a genus of plants, yielding hemp – another drug reference?
Clue No Solution (and entry, if different)   Clue /
1D TODY   Small insectivore one’s escaped from this time? (4) /
A (one) escaping from TODAY (this time) – TODY being a small insectivorous bird from the West Indies
2D ORSON   Golden boy who played Citizen Kane (5) /
OR (gold-en) + SON (boy) – as in Welles
3D BITO   A little round tree (4) /
BIT (a little) + O (round)
4D FOUR-FOOTED   Gathering of true food, like beasts (7, hyphenated) /
anag (i.e. gathering) of OF TRUE FOOD
5D QUOOK   Scots spoke certainly and no longer trembled with fear (5) /
QUO’ (Scots form of ‘quoth’) + OK (certainly), and QUOOK = obsolete past tense of quake
(as per preamble, not in Chambers, so checked in OED – online at, for free, using UK Library Card number)
6D SMOOR   What’s to suffocate Mac? (Look up in Chambers?) (5) /
SMOOR = Scottish, to smother, and = ROOMS (chambers) looking upwards – wonderful juxtaposition, given that the previous word was not in Chambers!
7D TOMPIONS   Clockmaker’s starting to sell plugs (8) /
pluralised double defn – (Thomas) TOMPION – watchmaker in the 1700s – plus S (start to sell), and TOMPION also a variation of tampion, a protective plug
8D OUP   Oscar’s riding to join in Edinburgh (3) /
O (Oscar) + UP (riding, as in a horse), OUP being Scottish word to bind with thread, or join
9D ASHY-GREY   Pale coloured yager riding around reluctant (8, hyphenated) /
anag (i.e. riding) of YAGER, around SHY (reluctant)
11D ENTAME   Once subdue some violent Americans (6) /
hidden word in violENT AMEricans
14D OTTAVINO   Absurd vain toot for a small flute (8) /
anag (i.e. absurd) of VAIN TOOT
16D KHAN (ABDULLAH)   1st of 4: Eastern inn (8) /
single defn(!) – KHAN = Eastern inn – no (second) definition
19D SMOKABLE   Acceptable to piper, eschewing cocaine some black (shag) shredded? (8) /
anag (i.e. shredded) of SOME BLACK less C (cocaine) – yet another pipe/drug reference
20D SMALL (JONATHAN)   4th of 4: Special shopping precinct (8) /
S (special) + MALL (shopping precinct) – no definition
23D TWENTY-FOUR   Unfortunately few try-out new folded sheet (7, hyphenated) /
anag (i.e. unfortunately) of FEW TRY OUT + N (new) – a TWENTY-FOUR being a folded sheet of paper
24D MILADY   Respectful address for gentle one inside middle of crypt (6) /
MILD (gentle) with A (one) inside + middle letter of crYpt
28D LIONS   Pride one’s only shortly displayed (5) /
anag (i.e. displayed) of I (one) + S (plural) and ONLy cut short
29D FOURGONS   Sun or fog disrupt baggage wagons (5) /
anag (i.e. disrupt) of SUN OR FOG – a fourgon being a French baggage wagon
30D SMOKO   Badly mistook it leaving for a tea break in Perth (5) /
anag (i.e. badly) of MISTOOK without IT, Perth as in Australis, this time – see 26
33D MOOR   Heath is to tie up his yacht! (4) /
double defn – MOOR = heath, and to tie up a boat. Nice additional allusion to yachting enthuisiast Ted Heath
34D OSSA   Officer’s first on ship with athletic bones (4) /
O (officer’s first letter) + SS (steam ship) + A (athletic)
36D ORE   What’s spent in Sweden getting mineral aggregate (3) /
double defn – ORE = Swedish currency, and a source of minerals

6 Responses to “Enigmatic Variations No. 941 – The Sign of Four by Salamanca”

  1. Dave Hennings says:

    Well, mc_rapper67, congratulations on a fine admission of failure. I suspect it made a more detailed introduction to the clue analysis than if you had succeeded.

    All I can say is that I’m glad it wasn’t my turn to blog as I totally failed to solve the final step as well! The only thing extra that I spotted was that there were an awful lot of Os in the puzzle, especially in the 3×2 block in rows 3 and 4. I felt this had something to do with the pearls that were sent to Mary Morstan by Sholto. If they had been the only Os in the puzzle, it would have been obvious, but in the end I, like you, admitted defeat.

    Like you, I look forward to further comments which may explain everything!


  2. bb says:

    I just wrote in the numeral “4” whenever “four” appeared in an answer. That may be to simplistic. As for the gifts, there were 6 pearls, which I took to be the 2×3 block of “o”s near the top of the puzzle. As pointed out above, I would have felt better about that had there not been other Os in the grid.

  3. mc_rapper67 says:

    Dave/bb – thanks for the updates. Now you mention it, I had wondered if all the ‘O’s in the grid were coins or ‘treasure’ of some sort – but I had not spotted the 6 together (or linked that to pearls/Mary/Sholto), and I had already written far too much in trying to cover for my lack of a solution!.

    To me, there seemed to be lots of pairs of Os, either up/down or diagonally, and trying to track them down made my head spin even more…I shall await next Sunday’s official solution with interest!

  4. Kruger says:

    Please note this was not my puzzle!

  5. mc_rapper67 says:

    Apologies to Kruger and Salamanca – my cut-n-paste error attributed this EV to Kruger, when in fact it was the fiendish work of Salamanca…

  6. mc_rapper67 says:

    Just to tidy this up – the official solution had the ‘symbol’ as four plus signs – ‘++++’ – or crosses, as the signatures of the four conspirators? – so bb’s approach of using the number 4 was not quite there, and the correspondents above were correct on the six ‘O’s together being ‘imaginatively pictured’ as Mary Morstan’s pearls.

    Onwards and upwards!…

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