For the benefit of solvers new to the rigours of the Advanced Cryptic, Dr Watson provides a monthly review of the Observer's Azed competition puzzle. Dr Watson is a regular Azed competitor.
There are three parts to solving a cryptic clue: spot the device (i.e. the type of clue), identify the definition and the cryptic part, and work out the answer. A lot of clues are solved in that order, albeit with some toing and froing between different possible approaches. The setter likewise has three controls on the difficulty of the clue: hiding the device, obscuring the boundary between cryptic part and definition, and the complexity of the final resolution. A skilful setter will balance these elements in each clue so that the overall difficulty of the puzzle is consistent, and the clues offer the solver a variety of challenges.
After the Titanic (sorry) struggles of Azed 1500, we return to the calmer waters of the Azed Plain. Notable absentees amongst the clues are homophones, composite anagrams and any proper names, but as Dr Watson’s comments show, it manages good range of settings of the three controls mentioned above.
1a: You’ll find LSO etc involved with his art? That’s about right. ORCHESTRALIST (anagram of LSO ETC HIS ART including R, & lit). The use of ‘involved’ and a count of the likely letters reveal the device. ‘You’ll find’ is a common filler (you’ll find) for & lit clues (not entirely necessary here - ‘LSO etc are involved...’ would have worked). An excellent clue, though, of the kind often seen in the VHC lists of the Azed competition.
16a: Monumental column e.g. Mexican rudely holds up from behind. CIPPUS (UP in SPIC all reversed). Caveat emptor. Azed does not shy away from earthy or un-PC words in his clues, though you’re unlikely to find anything in deliberately poor taste. Here he flags what to expect in the cryptic part.
18a: Phase in the life of insects forming colonies. ECLOSION (anagram). Single word anagrams of this length are rare and the clue writer can be excused a smirk of satisfaction on finding a new one. Azed works it neatly into the clue to achieve a very natural literal reading.
23a: Once spread abroad a lot of whispers threaten. SPERST (hidden). Hiddens are dead easy to solve, so the setter should take pains to hide the device (here by hinting at an anagram), or save it for obscure words like sperst. This clue is surpassed by 7d (see below).
25a: Aboriginal container for storing clarified butter. BINGHI (BIN + GHI). You’ve spotted the device, you’ve isolated the definition, but is the container going to be bin, pin or tin? Only a leaf through Chambers will reveal the truth... (for Watson it was third time lucky).
31a: A pintado is this after this. ADAPTION (anagram, & lit). What’s a pintado? It doesn’t matter. When the solution is itself a cryptic indicator the setter can occasionally offer this sort of ‘reverse’ clue (where the cryptic part refers in effect to the process of solving cryptic clues). Overuse it, though, and the clues are in danger of disappearing up their own vocabularies.
32a: Fisherman maybe reflected about nothing. LINER (RE NIL reversed). Azed cleverly hides the device here, offering several ways to read the clue cryptically. An amusing literal reading, too (would angler have been even better?).
5d: Producer’s ultimate target lasts after one switch of characters. ENDUSER (R and S swapped in ENDURES). The unconventional device is clearly spelt out in the clue.
7d: A unit of measurement. REMEN (hidden, & lit). Dr Watson’s favourite clue in this puzzle. Although it’s a hidden, it’s remarkably difficult to solve, and impressive in its self-sufficient brevity. Watson didn’t get the measure of this one until well after the solution was entered.
9d: Senseless massacre ends thus. INANE (i.e. massacre ends IN AN E). Haven’t seen this one before? You’ll certainly see it again.
13d: Brazilian tree beginning to climb in pasture? Not that. LECYTHIS (C in LEY + THIS). The little coda after the question mark throws the solver nicely off the scent.
22d: Drank up and was quick about it. SUPPED (UP in SPED). Neat wording fogs the clue just enough to prevent immediate solution.
Across: 11. MARANTA (a rant in ma); 12. PENAL (lane P rev.); 15. DUMB-CANE (MB in anag.); 17. ETHNIC (anag. less k) ; 20. PRESES (E in press); 26. SHORTISH (ort in shish); 28. RAPPEL; 33. NOGGING (noggin + g); 34. REED-PHEASANTS (anag.)
Down: 2. RABIC ((a)rabic(a)); 3. CRAPLE (l in crape); 4. HASP (has p); 6. TAUTOCHRONE (auto in anag.); 8. LECHWE (C in anag.); 10. SANIES (i.e. in sans); 14. SCEPTRAL (C in anag.); 19. SPRINGS (spr(ay) + anag.); 21. ROADIE (anag., & lit.); 24. RIGLIN (anag. + in); 25. SPANE (s.p. ane); 26. SLISH (l is in sh!); 27. SHUNT (n in shut); 30. NAGA (aga(i)n rev.)