Never knowingly undersolved.

Inquisitor 1177: Problem by Phi

Posted by duncanshiell on May 25th, 2011


Another puzzle, another preamble that has me wondering ‘What?’ on the first run through.  In the end though it all made sense.  This was a wonderful puzzle which took a couple of days to solve and appreciate everything that was going on.

The preamble told us that the grid has reflective symmetry about the vertical axis.  Some entries may not appear to fit, though a grid pattern comprising real words (one a common foreign word) is achievable.  Certain letters are not indicated in wordplay (my emphasis): solvers should enter only those bars that lie between such letters (except for two instances which will become obvious).  This will identify a problem, the solution to which allows completion of the grid in such a way that the final grid (assuming all bars were shown) also contains real words.

What this seemed to mean was that there were a lot of clues with no specified lengths and no indication of how many letters there were in the wordplay for each clue. The most useful piece of information was the statement about vertical symmetry.  At this stage I hoped that the clues would be fairly easy, otherwise the puzzle could be very difficult.

I think it is fair to say that the clues were not too difficult and the identification of an n character across clue gave the solver useful information about its mate on the same row.  For example a 6 character across answer in a vertically symmetric 12 cell grid will be balanced by another 6 letter answer and a 4 character entry that fits in the leftmost cells will have a mate in the four rightmost cells. In this case there may well be another 4 letter entry straddling the vertical axis.  

The top half was simpler than the bottom half, until I deduced that the bottom row was going to be blank after solving all the clues.  I assume this relates to the comment that some entries may not appear to fit.  It also took me a long time to realise that there were two two-letter down answers.  In fact, I only realised this when I came to write the blog and found that I hadn’t solved the final two down clues.   The common foreign word in the original grid fill is DER (one of the many German forms of the definite article).

After solving the grid, I had the following fill, showing all the bars that I had deduced:

















The characters in magenta show those letters I thought were not indicated in the wordplay.  Where these letters were in both across and down entries they were not indicated in either clue.  It was also useful to deduce fairly early on that the occurrence of these unindicated letters was symmetrical.

The next instruction was to show only the bars between unindicated letters, as follows:

















I must admit at this point, my first thought was to look for new words in the grid that crossed previously inserted bars.  When that search proved fruitless, I had to start thinking a bit more laterally.  Given the apparent imporatnce of the bars, my next step was to remove all the letters to produce:


















This revealed more clearly a digital representation of two numbers 25 and 52, and a possible sum (a problem) but one with quite a few operators, -, + and -.   I spent some time examining the clues for STOICS, CAREER, ROMALS and SITARS to see if I had too many unindicated letters, with a view to avoiding the need for the two minus signs. Even now the A in ROMALS and the T in SITARS give me pause for thought, but, in ROMALS in particular, I can’t see anyway of getting the A into the wordplay given.

The preamble stated that two bars would obviously not be required.  To get an equals sign the southernmost two vertical bars could be removed.  

A bit of experimentation with a calculator confirmed that – + – is equivalent to +, so we have the sum 25 + 52.  The answer, of course, is 77, or SEVENTY-SEVEN , which very nicely  has 12 characters.  This then produced:

















The final stage was to apply SEVENTY-SEVEN to the full grid.  I think the solution to be submitted should only show the bars relating to the sum.  In this case we have:


















With all the bars, the grid would look like:

















This yields a new set of down answers in the lower part of the grid, with possible definitions, as follows:  Note that some of these words have more than one possible definition

ROLAGS (rolls of combed sheep’s wool),  BIGAE (Roman two-horse chariots), PERV ([sexual] pervert), ODE (poem), ALAN (boy’s name), IT (neuter of he, she), OY (grandchild), HEMS (edges or borders), TEE (small plastic or wooden support), DERV (diesel engine fuel oil), SOOTE  (obsolete word for sweet) and SERRAN (a fish of the genus Serran).

There were many clever touches in the clues.  Not least the clue ‘Indian nursemaid‘ which was simply a definition because all the letters of the answer AYAH had to be unindicated in the wordplay.  Thiere was a bit of headscratching working out how the entries fitted before the penny dropped.  There were also a number of clues where only one letter was indicated in the word play.  This inevitably led to a number of wordplays dependent on the first, last or middle letter of a word in the clue.

It took me a long time to work out the wordplay to SITARS, but I think I have got it right.  

I didn’t get all the unindicated letters properly on the first run through, when I let the definition take precedence over the word play.  As a result, it was fairly late on that I realised that there had to be a couple of minus signs in the equation.  As described above, I hope I have got that right, and it is not the two minus signs that should be ignored when establishing the final set of bars.

As I mentioned earlier, I think the clues were at the easier end of Phi’s cluing spectrum, but they were none the worse for that. The surfaces were very good.  There has been an interesting thread on the Crossword Centre message board recently about the importance of surfaces (or not).  It was interesting to note that Phi’s contribution to the debate was:  A good surface reading can mislead even the most dedicated clue vivisector into not seeing the structure. Eliding end of wordplay and start of definition so that they meet in the middle of a standard phrase is very satisfying, likewise an instance of ‘initially’ that doesn’t indicate initial letters. Given the nature of some of the wordplay in this puzzle there was a fair share of ‘initially’, ‘source of’ , beginning to’ and ‘central part of” in these clues.

Overall, I really enjoyed the puzzle, the title of which, PROBLEM, is fairly self explanatory.


No. Clues Entry Letters Wordplay
1 Ancient alkali in drug taken by fool POTASS (earlier form of POTASH, a powerful alkali; ancient alkali)   POT (the drug cannabis) + ASS (fool)
6 Animation about bill for cab

FIACRE (a hackney coach; a cab)

FIRE (animation) containing (about) AC (account; bill)  
11 Eruption of poor nettles throttling special shrub STREPTOSOLEN (an evergreen shrub with tubular orange flowers)   Anagram of (eruption) POOR NETTLES containing (throttling) S (special)
12 Song about a Middle East region ARABIA (a Middle East region) B ARIA (song) containing (about) A
13 Nothing in Observer recalled assaults again REDOES (assualts again; one of the meanings of DO  is ‘assault’) D (O [nothing] contained in [in] SEER [observer] ) all reversed (recalled)
14 Student’s account of a lot of lingerie? LACY (like a lot of lingerie which has lace trimmings; is lacy) Y L (student) + AC (account)
15 Like some beaches in Cornish resort (not the front) NUDE (like some beaches which are designated for nudists) N BUDE (resort in Cornwall) excluding first letter B (not the front)
16 Defence in court I overlooked in Californian resort MALIBU (Californian resort) M and U ALIBI (defence in court) excluding (overlooked) I
17 Disciples of Zeno rather conventional? Not entirely STOICS (disciples of the philosopher Zeno)

I and S

STOCK ([rather]conventional) excluding the final K [not entirely])
18 Always following one path in life CAREER (path in life) C and A A (one) + E’ER (ever; always)
19 Handkerchiefs half-curled round end of arm ROMALS (handkerchiefs) A and S ROLLED (curled; first three letters only [half]) containing (round) the final letter M of (end of) ARM
21 Indian instruments: one’s classic art SITARS (Indian [Hindu] musical instruments) S and T I (one) + ARS (ARS seems to be a classical term for art; e.g. ars longa, vita brevis [art is long, life is short, ars gratia artis [art for art's sake])
23 Chief objection OBA (West African chief) A OB (objection)
25 Describe again some Swiss summer, beside Lake RETELL (describe again) R and L ÉTÉ (in French speaking Switzerland [some Swiss], the word for summer will be ÉTÉ) + L (lake)
26 Employ heartless scheme USE (employ) U First and last letters SE (heartless) of SCHEME
28 Croatian money? One’s absorbed by pounds and pence LIPA (a Croatian monetary unit, one hundreth of a Kuna) A I (one) contained in (absorbed by) (L [pounds {sterling}] + P [pence])
30 Indian nursemaid AYAH (Indian nursemaid) A, Y, A and H There is no wordplay, only a definition
32 Dozens of Republicans intially involved in US stink ODOR (American spelling of ODOUR [smell; US stink]) O First letters of (initially) DOZENS OF REPUBLICANS
34 A set from antique times AGE-OLD (very old; from ancient times) O and D A + GEL (set)
36 English deer in retreat: something short-lived? METEOR (something brilliant or dazzling but short-lived) M and T E (English) + (ROE [deer], reversed [in retreat])
38 Policemen hauled back a coach GARDAI (Irish policemen) I (A + DRAG [coach]) reversed (hauled back)
39 Satisfied about rule and article in code OMERTA (Mafia code of honour) O (MET [satisfied] + A) containing (about) R (rule)




 Entry Letters Wordplay
1 Songs from soprano amongst trees PSALMS (songs)   S (soprano) contained in (among) PALMS (trees)
2 Location of castle manged to get surrounded by oil OTRANTO (reference The Castle of Otranto, a 1764 novel by Horace Walpole)   RAN (managed) contained in (surrounded by) OTTO (a variant spelling for ATTAR, a fragrant essential oil
3 Problem with viewing vehicle during vehicle test, after overturning TRACHOMA (a contagious disease of the eye; problem with viewing) H and A CAR (vehicle) contained in MOT (vehicle test), all reversed (overturning)
4 Stake placed either side of a cold passage SPIRACLE (passage [geology term]) R SPILE (stake) containing (placed either side of) (A + C [cold])
5 Stops Spurs’ latest score? Not entirely STALLS (stops) S Final letter S of [latest] SPURS + TALLY (score) excluding the final letter Y (not entirely)
6 Behaviour I associated with ants FORMIC (associated with ants) C FORM (behaviour) + I
7 I mostly fixed security for Gaelic girl ISEABAIL (Gaelic form of the girl‘s name ISABELLA) A I + SET (fixed), excluding the last letter T (mostly) + BAIL (security)
8 Information re crime involving love followed by a bumbling detective CLOUSEAU (reference Inspector Clouseau, the bumbling detective played by Peter Sellers in the Pink Panther series of films) S and U (CLUE [anything that points to the solution of a mystery or puzzle; information re crime] containing [involving] O [love]) + A

Spurning last of lichen, climbing Arctic animals increasingly like water-plants

REEDIER (like water-plants [e.g. reeds])   REINDEER (Arctic animals) excluding N, the final letter (last of) LICHEN, all reversed (climbing)
10 Dry up in play? Ultimately the forgotten lines will get attention ENSEAR (dry up; Shakesperean word, hence the reference to ‘in play‘)   Final letters E, N and S of (ultimately) of THE FORGOTTEN LINES  + EAR (attention)
19 Quantity of wool – 50% of it – included in a bit of cloth ROLAG (a roll of combed sheep’s wool; quantity of wool)   OL (50% of WOOL) contained in (included in) RAG (a bit of cloth)
20 Rear of first farm building STY (farm building) S and Y Final letter T (rear of) FIRST
21 Main source of electricity SEA ([ocean] main) S and A First letter E (source of) ELECTRICITY
22 Rivers entering ocean from mountainous area SERRA (mountainous area)   (R [river] + R [river], i.e rivers) contained in (entering) SEA (ocean)
24 Roman vehicle heads for Bologna – increasingly fuel runs short BIGA (an ancient Roman two-horse chariot; Roman vehicle)   First letters of B and I (heads for) BOLOGNA INCREASINGLY + GAS (fuel) excluding the last letter S (runs short)
27 Dirt from fire? That’s not hard SOOT (dirt)   SHOOT (fire) excluding (not) H (hard)
29 A support I ignored PER (for each or a)   PIER (support) excluding (ignored) I
30 Expansion of leaf? Odd bits of it ALA (a leafy expansion, running down the stem from the leaf) A First and third letters L and A (odd bits) of LEAF
31 This writer promoted an attention-grabber HEM (a half cough to attract attention; attention-grabber) H ME (this writer) reversed (promoted)
33 Costly to overlook a European article DER (German for ‘the’; European article)   DEAR (costly) excluding (overlook) A

Mild oath beginning to dismay

OD (a form of God, used as a mild oath) O First letter D of (beginning to) DISMAY


Central part of key note TE (note of the tonic sol-fa) T Middle letter E (central part of) KEY

As I wrote this blog, I learnt the very sad news about the passing of Mike Laws, editor of the Inquisitor series of puzzles. I have had a lot of pleasure from solving Mike Laws’ puzzles over the years, in his many guises as a setter. The Inquisitor series has been a joy to solve. My condolences to his family.

I shall be on holiday when this blog is published and may not have internet access to read any comments.

9 Responses to “Inquisitor 1177: Problem by Phi”

  1. ele says:

    Brilliant effort. I wish I had persisted on this one but I and my collaborator got discouraged and gave up at an early stage. I’m glad to see I did at least interpret most of the rubric correctly. What I didn’t understand was that you could have abutting words without bars, and so I couldn’t see how to deal with those words that had no missing letters. In retrospect it is clear from the rubric that only some bars have to be ‘inserted’ and so there are by implication others that are hidden, but it wasn’t at the time.

  2. HolyGhost says:

    I saw the problem revealed by inserting the bars (and ignoring two) as:
    “2 over 5 + 5 over 2 =”, the answer being “TWO POINT NINE”, which completes the bottom row.

  3. HolyGhost says:

    I should have added “… but doesn’t leave real words.”

  4. Simon Harris says:

    Far too hard for me, I’m afraid, so I take my hat off to you (yet again!) for this post.

    The grid did at least come in handy as a “practice” grid for the following week’s Nimrod.

  5. Duncan Shiell says:

    Holy Ghost

    I think can remember a maths teacher from many years ago drumming into me that the answer to a sum of two fractions should be expressed as a fraction, not as a decimal. In that case, the answer to your sum would be twenty nine over ten or two and nine tenths, neither of which would fit neatly into 12 cells.

    I must admit to having done a bit of experimentation with possible endings for the new down words before hitting on 25+52=77 and was attracted for a time by SEPARATENESS or SEVENTY-EIGHT as possible words acoss the bottom. When SEVENTY-SEVEN eventually dawned on me, it therefore came as a strong candidate for the right answer.

    I’ve managed to get a good broadband signal in a campsite in Sweden.

  6. HolyGhost says:


    I acknowledge that SEVENTY SEVEN in the bottom row produces the more elegant completion of the grid, and will doubtless prove to be the published solution.

    However (and notwithstanding your maths teacher’s drumming of “fraction + fraction = fraction”), there is no indication that the horizontal bar between the 2 & 5 in column 4 and that between the 5 & 2 in column 9 should be ignored (and to my mind writing the problem as “25 – + – 52″ would be highly suspect).

    This isn’t a case of sour grapes, rather a moan that a seemingly defective preamble prevented a satisfactory completion of the puzzle.

    And for me, the sentence “Some entries may not appear to fit, though a grid pattern comprising real words (one a common foreign word) is achievable.” served to hinder, not help.

    Sad news indeed about Mike Laws, whose death was announced on this site by Gaufrid last week.

  7. Duncan Shiell says:

    I take your point about - + - being very clumsy and I also recognise that a pattern of 25 + 52 alone could have been created by including the I of STOICS and the first R of CAREER in the wordplay, and/or by including the A of ROMALS and the T of SITARS in the wordplay. The occurence of the two – signs still concerns me, such that I accept my solution could be wrong.

    We are at the position where - + - seems very odd, but TWO POINT NINE doesn’t produce real words.

    As I will still be away when the solution is printed in The Independent Magazine, I would be grateful if you could post a comment about the solution at the end of this thread a week on Saturday.

    Alternatively, Phi may like to comment.

  8. twencelas says:

    Duncan and HolyGhost

    I agree with you both to some extent. My first answer to the arithmetic was two point nine, may not be a fraction, but it is a representation of 2/5 plus 5/2. When this did n’t yield real words, I looked at 25 plus 52 – which gave the alternative answer “Seventy-seven” – this did yield real words and as the puzzle number was 1177, it was the number I backed, as it were. The second pair of superfluous bars did rather muddy the waters, but I persuaded myself at the time that it was a bizarre representation of an addition.

    Personally, I had more problems getting the clues solved, the top half quickly fell into place, but the lower half of the grid was torture for me – some days I rattle through Phi’s clues at an uncanny rate of knots, but others, like this one, it becomes more a war of attrition.

    It is sad for the world to have lost the talents of Mike Laws, for me the Inquisitor has become a more contemporary version of the Listener under his guidance – Themes like “Only Fools and Horses” and “Bash the Bankers” bring more of a chuckle when solved, than some of the more obscure themes employed in the Listener, yet each requires a similar degree of skill to get to the “message”.

  9. Phi says:

    I meant to comment yesterday but got sidetracked.

    I confess to a goof in the grid here in that I overlooked the bars between the TWO and FIVE and the FIVE and TWO which as a result were indicated as being retained because the adjacent letters actually specified bars in the digits in the sum. Raising the 25 a row would have solved it, and prevented anyone being misled into thinking of fractions. This may be why Mike, God rest him, sat on it for so long. As it happens, I know a couple of solvers got through it and found 77 without distraction, but it remains my oversight. Sorry, folks.

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