Crossword Ends in Violence (5) by James Cary
It’s 1944. D-day is imminent and top-secret code-words OVERLORD and NEPTUNE have appeared in a national newspaper, the latest in a series of words suspiciously connected to the top-secret landing the Allies are preparing.
A national emergency, everything points to crossword compiler, teacher Carl Bookman. Even more incriminating is the fact that he is of German origin, with a brother working on breaking German codes at Bletchley Park.
Sixty years later, crossword compiler John Fellowes is tirelessly continuing the work that his grandfather Carl started at the Bookman Bureau. Times are bleak as computers are challenging crossword setters’ livelihoods and the bureau faces closure.
When John discovers his grandfather may have been a Nazi spy, he is devastated and sets out to clear his name. With the help of Amanda, the bored but enterprising accountant from downstairs and his colleagues Turner, a deeply embittered chess grandmaster and Overend, a hyper-intelligent bridge player, he attempts to find out the truth behind the crosswords.
The employees of Bookman Bureau are a suitably unconventional bunch. A passion for puzzles and games is how they earn their living. When the owner of the business discovers a potential skeleton in the family closet, they can’t resist the lure of a decades old enigma.
You quickly get the impression that John Fellows is a bit of an eccentric. Whenever he starts talking to anyone he immediately picks apart their responses to see if he can craft ingenious crossword clues from them. I pictured him with a slightly absent minded air, supremely focussed on whatever he was thinking about, yet totally oblivious to his surroundings.
Of the other characters, my personal favourite was Clarence Overend. If John Fellows and Cyril Turner are the definition of socially awkward, then Overend is somewhere way beyond that. Described at one point as being like a human computer, you get the impression that his first language would most likely by zeros and ones rather than English.
The author clearly loves his puzzles and even the structure of the novel has subtle nods to that fact. In each chapter, the action alternates between events with John in the present day and Carl Bookman in 1944. As a handy key, scenes prefixed with Across are modern while Down are historic. In parallel to the main narrative, there is also the story of a mysterious prisoner playing chess in a Russian gulag, those moments have chess related prefix.
John Cray is a sneaky so-and-so. It’s not often that I find myself researching additional information before writing a book review, but somehow he managed to make me curious enough to do just that. What did I learn? Firstly, that a cruciverbalist is 1, a constructor of crosswords, or 2, an enthusiast of word games, especially of crosswords. I also found myself reading through online articles regarding the actual history of the events surrounding D-Day. There are certainly some suggestions that something fishy was going on. I love that Cray has picked up on that and used this rather enigmatic moment in history as the premise for his fiction.
Dotted throughout the text there are a handful of cryptic crossword clues. I’ll admit I’m nowhere near an expert when it comes to crosswords and almost all of this lateral thinking is/was lost on me. I’m sure however, that puzzle fans will have fun figuring them out. I only managed about two if I’m being honest. That said, my lack of mental acuity at solving these conundrums didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the story in any way.
I’d happily read further books featuring these characters. I like the idea that the Bookman Bureau will return solving further mysteries in their own inimitable, if slightly shambolic, style. This novel does read like an introduction in some respects. Fingers crossed that there will be more in the future.
Crossword Ends in Violence (5) published by PIQWIQ and is available now. This is exactly the sort of novel that works well when you’re on holiday or travelling, easy entertainment to dip in and out of and enjoy.