The crossword puzzle, once solved, loses its
How enticing it had been, with its initial grid of blanks, and then
its scattered intersecting answers, a word here, a word there, a mysterious
letter z that suggested ten possibilities—and now it lies dead
on the page, a tombstone of disembodied words.
But Edgar Allan Poe might have seen the finished crossword puzzle as
a puzzle itself. Who completed it? What might the handwriting indicate?
Are there any erasures? Which words were guessed first? Might these
clues suggest anything about the psychological profile of the solver?
Poe liked puzzles of all kinds, from the inner workings of Maelzel’s
supposed automata, which purported to be a machine that played chess
(but probably hid a fleshy little man)—to geometric puzzles such
as the one in The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket—to
ciphers, one of which prominently appears near the end of “The
Gold Bug.” It was, therefore, a predictable — though surprising
— leap to make an entire story into a puzzle.
He invented the modern whodunit with “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,”
a short story published in 1841. Monsieur C. Auguste Dupin, the sleuth
in the story, has had numerous direct descendants, including the slender
and fastidious Sherlock Holmes, whose mind was like a neat attic, storing
only what was necessary for solving crimes. Sherlock Holmes, in his
turn, became the most popular model for the subsequent detectives and
curious busybodies who solve murder cases in delightfully ingenious
The whodunit is now a well-worn genre, but with many fresh plots remaining
to be found along its cemetery walkways.
In 1957, Robbe-Grillet elevated the whodunit to an experimental art
form with Jealousy, a story so puzzling that many readers enjoy
it without noticing that someone’s been murdered. It’s the
perfect crime . . . until finally a puzzle-loving reader unearths a
corpse being eaten by isopods. The lugubrious Poe would have approved.
Orlando Bartro is the author of Toward Two Words, a novel about
a man lost in a Mansion of Left Turns who finds yet another woman he
never knew, available at Amazon.com. He is currently writing two new
novels and a play. You can hear more of his insights into fiction at
the Grassy Elbow at YouTube.