Have you ever set a treasure hunt challenge for your kids that involves following a series of clues to the ultimate prize of a present or a treat? I loved doing this for both my kids at birthday time or Christmas, but it can be a dangerous practice, as one hard or misread clue could result in the whole thing ending in tears. It was important to word clues carefully and not to be too cryptic (not easy for me). Tangents were common, and too many false leads would soon lead to demands of ending the game. I was always fascinated by how my clues were interpreted and especially pleased when the right intention was discovered. Not so happy when something that I thought was obvious was completely misunderstood.
In some ways The Stickler Weekly is like setting a treasure hunt, and I monitor closely the twists and turns that people follow to achieve a complete grid. When a clue is misinterpreted, I feel a little like I did with my kids doing the treasure hunt: hoping that a re-read of the clue will shed new light how it might be solved, and a new direction taken. The blog provides me with insights into how people solve and their solving habits which hopefully helps me write better clues. It can also provide me with ammunition to take advantage of possibly a hurried and not comprehensive approach that solvers can sometimes take. Such was the case with 4-down [Cold feeling admitted by serial killer (6)] in The Stickler Weekly 212.
The clue to me had a straightforward construction: a standard container and its content clue, but with (possibly) a couple of twists. The first was the definition used for NIP (as Chambers defines it, “The pinch of cold”), the second was the seamless use of SERIAL KILLER, either of which might send people briefly down the wrong path. This is the nature of cryptics for me: slight deception that causes a hiccup on the way to the right answer. I had no idea that if the cross letters had been found, the word SHIVER would leap to people’s minds, even before they properly read the clue. It’s common for regular solvers to get a picture of possible answers by just looking at the pattern of letters, then a quick scan of the clue can confirm one of those possible answers. I know from my experience, if I’m in a hurry, that’s all I need: no in-depth breakdown is required, just spot the link, enter the answer and move on. So sitting back and watching the drama around this clue unfold took me straight back to those kids’ treasure hunt days – “not shiver…the clue doesn’t lead to shiver, no matter how you twist it”. I think I have the online crossword’s built-in congrats message to thank for forcing a fresh look at this clue by solvers, otherwise most would have been satisfied with what they had, and probably wouldn’t have checked the solution either – never knowing that they had the wrong answer.
As an aside, I would never equate HIV with “killer” for a number of reasons: technically incorrect as HIV is the virus that causes AIDS; a tad politically incorrect to be so blunt; and I would consider “killer” to be just too general as a pointer for HIV.