Crosswords and Quays

Sunday, 24 July 2016

The crossword – like the bootlegger, the flapper and the skyscraper – was a creature of the Jazz Age.

True, it’s not easy to imagine Isadora Duncan or Bix Beiderbecke giving the nightclub a miss to stop at home and chew their pencil-end over a particularly tricky 8 Down, but it was, nevertheless, in 1920s New York City that the crossword came of age. In 1924, The Cross Word Puzzle Book was published by Simon & Schuster; it was the work of Margaret Petherbridge, a secretary at the New York World newspaper. These weren’t the first crosswords – but this was the crossword puzzle’s leap into the mainstream. By 1925, the craze was such that the Broadway Music Corp released 'Cross-Words Between Sweetie and Me' - a song lamenting the loss of a love to a crossword obsession.

It’s fitting, then, that I’m offering an original custom-set crossword as one of the rewards for backers of my new novel, Quays. Invest £180 in the book – a booze-soaked drama of Jazz Age Manhattan – and in return, in addition to sending you a signed special paperback edition and printing your name in the back of the book, I’ll compile you a crossword (cryptic, quick, or quiz) on a theme of your choice. A custom crossword makes a terrific gift for the habitual crossword-botherer in your life: it’s unique, it’s personalised, and it’s fun – in an exasperating sort of way.

I’ve been setting crosswords professionally for the better part of a decade. Quiz crosswords – themed puzzles for magazines including History Today, BBC Wildlife and History Revealed – allow me to indulge my love of research and penchant for eclectic facts. Cryptics – for New Humanist (as ‘Chaliapin’) and The Blizzard (as ‘Meredith’) – are an outlet for my more creative side: devious plotting and precise wordplay have their uses beyond novels and short stories.

The writers of the US Jazz Age were adept at bending the English language to their needs. Think of Damon Runyon’s extraordinary Broadway dialect, HL Mencken’s celebrations of slang, Dorothy Parker’s finely-crafted wit, James Thurber’s joyous absurdities, the experimentation of John Dos Passos, the shotgun sentences of Hammett and Hemingway.

At one stage, the working title for the novel that became Quays was A Study In Black And White. That reflected, among other things, the monochrome flicker of the movie-screen, and the play of light on Manhattan’s glass and steel. It could just as well be applied to the fifteen-by-fifteen squares of the crossword grid, as endlessly enigmatic and as rich in possibility as any Modernist novel.

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