I’m excited to get started on this meta suite, which I’ve been informed is geared toward “meta newbies.” Now, I’m no meta newbie, but frankly I’m relieved at the thought that there’s nothing like “Prove Fermat’s last theorem, then turn it upside-down and translate it into Urdu” lurking around the corner. Just some good, old-fashioned meta fun. Fingers crossed, and off we go!
Puzzle 1: “A Little Talent” (Easier)
Notepad: The Meta Answer for this puzzle is a famous actress.
Solving time: 3:21
Meta solving time: -1 minute
So, we’re informed that Puzzle 1 is on the easier side, and that the meta answer is a famous actress.
What’s more, the clues explicitly tell us how to arrive at the meta answer:
- 16-Across, [Clue that leads to the first syllable of the meta answer] -- DEODORANT BRAND
- 26-Across, [Clue that leads to the second syllable of the meta answer] -- DIRECTOR SPIKE
- 46-Across, [Clue that leads to the third syllable of the meta answer] -- SHORT-TERM HIRE
- 61-Across, [Clue that leads to the fourth syllable of the meta answer] -- OPPOSITE OF PUSH
I spent longer than I should have thinking of DEODORANT BRANDs while solving, but that turned out to be unnecessary work. DIRECTOR SPIKE has to be either JONZE or LEE; a SHORT-TERM HIRE is a TEMP, and the OPPOSITE OF PUSH is PULL. That gives us:
(???) + (JONZE/LEE) + (TEMP) + (PULL) = ???
SHIRLEY TEMPLE. Or, rather, SURE + LEE + TEMP + PULL. Concentration-style!
This meta is definitely on the easier side: I had it with just LEE and TEMP. But for a little puzzle (note that it’s only 14x15), it put up a fight! This is slower than my usual solving time for an “easy” puzzle, but maybe it’s just me!
- 36-Across, [Place in a 1969 Best Picture nominee?] -- ETTA. Very clever clue; it refers to Etta Place, from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. This crossed the also-challenging AERO [Gordie Howe, for four seasons], which is a defunct World Hockey Association team. Probably the most challenging crossing in the puzzle.
- 2-Down, [Drink with many pellets] -- ICEE. Presumably referring to ice pellets, but the Icees I’ve had in my day haven’t been particularly bumpy. I guess I’d call them ice… granules?
- 3-Down, [Part of a “Clue” accusation] -- ROOM. I just rewatched the cult classic Clue from 1985. Hard to believe it’s 30 years old, since it really holds up!
- Did anyone else notice 64-Across, [Opine age indicator] -- RING? Normally I’d assume the extra “O” in the clue was just a typo, but in a meta suite (and with a constructor as crafty as Andrew), I’m going to file that away under “Fishy things that might be relevant later”…
Puzzle 2: “Winning Formula” (Medium)
Notepad: The Meta Answer is a Nobel Prize recipient.
Solving time: 2:36
Meta solving time: 30 seconds
Puzzle 2, a slightly more challenging puzzle, asks us to figure out which Nobel Prize recipient is hinted at.
My approach to meta puzzles is this:
- Look for clues that explicitly tell me how to arrive at the meta answer (as with Puzzle 1 in this meta suite).
- If no such clues exist, look for a discrete set of “longest” answers, since they’re the most likely to contain thematic/meta content.
In this case, there are four long across answers that seem likely to contain some hints as to the meta:
- 17-Across, [It’s under your skin] -- NERVE ENDING
- 27-Across, [Apparatus in an Olympic routine] -- PARALLEL BARS
- 46-Across, [Lynch, Woolery, or Clark] -- GAME SHOW HOST (Presumably these refer to Jane Lynch, host of Hollywood Game Night, Chuck Woolery, host of many things but most recently Lingo on GSN [I think], and Dick Clark, host of Pyramid.)
- 62-Across, [Extremely precise, as time] -- TO THE SECOND
Well. What do we do with that?
A trick I’ve learned from having done my fair share of meta-puzzles (and crosswords generally) is that when a clue or answer contains the word BEGINNING, START, MIDDLE, CENTER, END(ING), FINISH, and so on, it’s a hint to look at the word before it. For example, [False start?] might clue EFF, since the start of the word “false” is the letter F; similarly, [Center of gravity?] might clue VEE; and so on. So when I see NERVE ENDING, I tend to think it’s a cryptic clue for the letter E. Let’s see if that bears out.
PARALLEL BARS must refer to some glyph represented by two parallel lines. Either || or =, right?
Hey, wait a minute. So far we have E and (quite probably) = … Wouldn’t it be nice if this turned out to be E = mc²? A GAME SHOW HOST is an EMCEE (MC), and TO THE SECOND is another way of saying SQUARED. I like it!
The meta answer is a Nobel Prize winner, and the Nobelist who proposed the mass-energy equivalence is ALBERT EINSTEIN, our meta answer. (He won the Nobel in 1921, not specifically for this, but “for his services to Theoretical Physics, and especially for his discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect.”)
When I think of Nobel Prize winners, Einstein’s probably the first one that comes to mind. So if you started the puzzle thinking he might be the answer, you probably had an easier time finding him as the Meta Answer. Also, when in doubt, look at the title: “Winning Formula” suggests that we might be looking for a formula, and this is probably the most famous one of those in all of modern science. Even with all of that help, though, this meta puzzle was definitely tougher than Puzzle 1.
For some reason, I found solving the actual crossword easier than solving Puzzle 1. Very Monday/Tuesday-ish for me.
- 14-Across, [Hatred (and a drug if you change one letter)] -- ODIUM. The drug, obviously, is opium. I’m assuming that the parenthetical clue is there because ODIUM isn’t an everyday word for most people.
- 35-Across [Before, either way] -- ERE. As in, ERE is a palindrome, so it reads the same either way. Cute!
- 45-Across, [Common foe in an ‘80s action movie] -- USSR. See, e.g., the 1984 classic Red Dawn.
- AHA! 64-Across, [With 55-Across, star of 2014’s “Million Dollar Harm”] -- JON / HAMM. Again, at 64-Across, we have a clue with an extra letter! The 2014 film was called Million Dollar Arm, so there’s an extra H in this clue. Now I’m positive Andrew’s up to something. I’m also guessing we might need a four- or five-letter word (depending on whether Puzzle 5 contains this feature as well) that starts with OH, in order to solve the meta suite. O’Hare? O’Hara? Ohio? Too soon to say, probably, but I do like the idea that (Scarlett) O’Hara would show up in A Cavalcade of Stars. Again, we’ll see how this bears out!
Puzzle 3: “Turkey Trot” (Harder)
Notepad: The Meta Answer is a bygone actor.
Solving time: 3:43
Meta solving time: 3 hours (then a day of rest) + 1 minute after solving the final puzzle
Puzzle 3 bills itself as “Harder.” Let’s see if that’s true. The Meta Answer here is a bygone actor. Several of the clues make themselves evident as relating to the meta:
- 17-Across, [Cons, slangily [Quarterback]] -- YARDBIRDS
- 30-Across, [Having a solution [Newscaster]] -- WORKABLE
- 39-Across, [Frequent Menuhin collaborator [Actor]] -- SHANKAR (“Menuhin” here is Yehudi Menuhin, a famous violin virtuoso.)
- 46-Across, [Goal for some systems [Actor]] -- SECURITY
- 62-Across, [In bloom [Writer]] -- FLOWERING
Remember that the title here is “Turkey Trot.” Don’t ask me how I arrived at this, but right away I realized that all five of these answers begin with an anagram of a famous Tom’s last name:
- (YARDB)IRDS = Tom BRADY [Quarterback] + IRDS
- (WORKAB)LE = Tom BROKAW [Newscaster] + LE
- (SHANK)AR = Tom HANKS [Actor] + AR
- (SECURI)TY = Tom CRUISE [Actor] + TY
- (FLOWE)RING = Tom WOLFE [Writer] + RING
Okay, so… what now? Probably our “bygone actor” is named Tom something, but I’m not sure what to do to figure out which Tom. My first thought was to try anagramming the remaining letters into a last name. We’ve got IRDSLEARTYRING. That’s a lot of letters--probably too many for a last name. But there’s no clear reason why we would want to try anagramming it into anything other than a name. I gave it a few tries, and the closest thing I found to a meaningful anagram was RIDLEY STARRING, which almost seems like something. Conclusion: This is a dead end.
There’s probably something else I’m missing--maybe there’s a hidden theme answer in the grid, or a special word like “Turkey” or “bygone,” that I’m supposed to perform this first-half-anagramming transformation on. But I can’t find anything like that, so my next strategy is to think of bygone actors named Tom and try to figure out how the puzzle hints at them.
The only bygone Tom that readily comes to mind is Tom Bosley. Those letters (BOSLEY) aren’t hidden anywhere obvious, nor is any of his more famous characters (Father Dowling, Mr. C on Happy Days). It’d be nice if, say, BOYLE’S LAW were somewhere in the grid, but it’s not. So, probably not Tom Bosley.
After quite a lot of brainstorming and low-key agonizing, I’ve decided to move on to Puzzle 4 and come back to this one later. I suspect that after solving the entire meta suite, I’ll be able to backsolve this one.
[Author’s note: If you’re dying to see the solution to this puzzle, skip to my review of Puzzle 5, in which I backsolve this meta.]
- 27-Down, [Awesome, to rappers] -- ILLIN’. See also The Great Illin’ Debate of 2012.
- Our “clue to watch”: 64-Across, [Have a tone at dinner, perhaps] -- GORGE. [Have a ton at dinner, perhaps] would make sense, so this clue has an extra E. Not much starts with OHE except O HENRY, but there are only 5 puzzles… Hmm.
- Something else interesting happened in this puzzle: 52-Down, [Poppies contain it] -- OPIUM. Remember last puzzle, when we had ODIUM, whose clue included the phrase “and a drug if you change one letter”? Seems awfully convenient for it to pop up in the very next puzzle. I’m thinking it’s not a coincidence, but I have no idea how it could be related to the overall meta.
Puzzle 4: “#1 Choice” (Easier)
Notepad: The Meta Answer is a comedian with 8 letters in his name who would both make a good fifth theme entry, and whose name can also describe the theme as well.
Solving time: 1:59
Meta solving time: ~3 minutes
Thank goodness Puzzle 4 is an “Easier” puzzle. We’re looking for an eight-letter comedian who might make a good fifth theme entry, and who describes the theme. So what are the first four theme entries?
- 18-Across, [Employment recruiter, slangily] -- HEAD HUNTER
- 27-Across, [“I’m in need of assistance”] -- CAN YOU HELP ME?
- 47-Across, [Body that advises a monarch] -- PRIVY COUNCIL
- 59-Across, [Chocolately treat that may not satisfy hunger?] -- POT BROWNIE [Note: “Chocolate[l]y” was spelled that way in the clue. Maybe it’s a typo; maybe it’s a feature of the overall meta. Who knows?]
This meta is much more transparent than Puzzle 3’s: The first word of every theme answer is a synonym for “toilet” (HEAD, CAN, PRIVY, POT). (The puzzle’s title, “#1 Choice,” cheekily hints at that.) So we’re looking for an eight-letter comedian whose first name is a synonym for “toilet.” Right away, JOHN comes to mind as a good candidate, but I can’t think of a comedian who fits the bill.
I just searched for a list of euphemisms for “toilet,” and near the top of that list was W.C. There we go--the meta answer is W.C. FIELDS. I don’t know that I would describe the theme entries as “fields,” so I’m not sure how well he “describes the theme.” I might have just stopped at “The Meta Answer is an eight-letter comedian who would make a good fifth theme entry.” Nevertheless, I feel confident that W.C. FIELDS is the right answer.
- 41-Down, [Rallying cry for University of Alabama fans] -- ROLL TIDE. Nice entry.
- 38-Down, [Florida setting for a Bogart/Bacall classic] -- KEY LARGO. Another nice entry!
- Our “clue to watch”: 64-Across, [Gaul, Pay, or pen follower] -- PAL. We want “Gal,” not “Gaul” here, so U is our extra letter. OHEU. I’m baffled.
- The weird typos are spreading! Besides the one I noted above (“Chocolately” instead of chocolatey), there’s also 17-Across, [Surrealist Jean] -- MIRO. It’s “Joan,” not “Jean.” I’m beginning to wonder whether some of these might just be regular old typos.
Puzzle 5: “Guests of Honor” (Medium)
Notepad: The guests of honor are feeling a bit off. First, you’ll need to locate them at a common place in the previous four puzzles. Use the two step process revealed in this puzzle to locate them, and make them whole. Then, drawing on the previous Meta Answers, you’ll be able to identify the occasion that has brought everyone together. The Final Answer is six words long.
Solving time: 2:59
Meta solving time: ~5 minutes
Last puzzle, and it’s a doozy! Puzzle 5 gives us a bevy of instructions. It seems to make the most sense to start with figuring out what the “two-step process” is:
- 17-Across, [Step one in finding the guests of honor (looking back at the previous grid)] -- DISCOVER AN ERROR
- 28-Across & 48-Across [Step two in finding the guests of honor] -- TRANSFER A LETTER / FROM CLUE TO ENTRY
- 63-Across, [Form an ironclad alibi...or, an alternate title for this meta contest?] -- COVER YOUR TRACKS
Alrighty then! So, we’re told that to find the guests of honor (who are in a common place in the previous 4 puzzles), we need to DISCOVER AN ERROR, then TRANSFER A LETTER FROM CLUE TO ENTRY.
This absolutely must be where our weird 64-Acrosses come into play. Let’s go back to each of them and try this transformation:
- In Puzzle One, 64-Across was [Opine age indicator] -- RING? So we have an extra O to transfer from the clue to the entry. The only reasonable way to do that is to turn RING into RINGO. Are you all thinking what I’m thinking?
- In Puzzle Two, 64-Across was [With 55-Across, star of 2014’s “Million Dollar Harm”] -- JON. So we’ve got an extra H to stick into JON. How about JOHN? I’m feeling pretty good about pre-calling the next two as GEORGE and PAUL, but let’s go through the motions anyway…
- In Puzzle Three, 64-Across was [Have a tone at dinner, perhaps] -- GORGE. An extra E + GORGE = GEORGE.
- In Puzzle Four, 64-Across was [Gaul, Pay, or pen follower] -- PAL. An extra U + PAL = PAUL.
So these are quite clearly the four BEATLES hiding out in the previous puzzles. The Notepad then tells us that in order to identify the occasion that has brought them all together, we’re supposed to draw on the previous Meta Answers. To recap, those were:
- SHIRLEY TEMPLE
- ALBERT EINSTEIN
- TOM ___? (probably)
- W.C. FIELDS
As it turns out, if you search for Shirley Temple + Albert Einstein + W.C. Fields + The Beatles, you’ll find that all of those people, plus actor TOM MIX, were among the many people featured on the album cover of SGT. PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND. As it happens, that album title is six words long (how convenient!). Not sure that I’d call a band an “occasion,” but it’s certainly something that binds the four Meta Answers as well as the four Beatles, so I’m perfectly willing to drop the confetti and balloons and call this a success!
Backtracking for just a second to talk about TOM MIX. He makes sense as the answer to Puzzle 3: He’s a bygone actor named Tom, and his last name is suggestive of anagramming. It’s by far the least elegant of the Meta Answers for me, especially because Tom Mix is such an obscure actor by today’s standards (even among crossword fans, who see him occasionally in clues/answers because he’s associated with the ever-present OATER). I wonder if more than a very few solvers will come up with him prior to solving the final puzzle. That said, you can solve the meta suite (as I did) without coming up with his name, so it’s certainly not the end of the world.
This was a really lovely meta suite!
The kernel of the thing is Sgt. Pepper, and Andrew’s given us two ways of getting there: through the four meta answers (TEMPLE, EINSTEIN, MIX, FIELDS) and the four hidden Beatles. I suppose if you’re very familiar with the album cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (and I suspect there are trivia fans and Beatlemaniacs alike who are), the hidden Beatles running throughout the puzzles are extraneous, but they were definitely useful to me.
Because there are so many people on that album cover, in hindsight this might have made for a really fun year-long meta suite in the style of Pete Muller’s monthly music metas (i.e., 12 puzzles, each hinting at a different person on the cover of Sgt. Pepper). That said, the first four puzzles of this one were well-conceived and pitched at a good difficulty level for less experienced meta solvers.
The one minor exception, to me, was Puzzle 3, “Turkey Trot.” I loved the idea of anagramming famous Toms and hiding them in the grid, and it was a fun solve despite my Meta Answer woes. Without more to go on than “a bygone actor” named Tom, though, it was very difficult to figure out TOM MIX until after solving the entire meta suite. Maybe “early 20th-century” rather than “bygone” would have been useful. It’s also entirely possible that I have a limited sense of how well-known he is, and older solvers may have less trouble coming up with him.
If you’re reading this part now, you’ve probably already solved the entire meta suite. Still, if you’re thinking about whether to recommend this to a friend, I give it a green light for both novice and experienced puzzle enthusiasts. For the beginner, it’s a good induction into the world of meta puzzles (though for the absolute beginner, I’d recommend solving with a more experienced friend who can explain the basic rules of metas). Plus, the crosswords themselves are well-constructed and top out at about a Wednesday New York Times difficulty. For the expert, if you’re looking for a brainburning meta puzzle challenge, you’ll probably want to wait for the end of the month at Matt Gaffney’s site. But this a light and clever diversion which, if you’re not like me and don’t spend hours agonizing over something you’ll backsolve later, shouldn’t take you more than a couple of hours. Well worth the price of admission!