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. Please post any comments on this review to the Crossword Centre message board.

Azed No 1537: Plain (4 Nov 2001)

The Crossword Centre’s message board was enlivened this month with a discussion over the merits of various types of ‘subtraction’ clues.  In this sort of clue, the cryptic part contains or alludes to extra letters that do not appear in the final grid entry, and provides instructions for their removal, usually in conjunction with other devices such as anagrams or charades.  Subtraction has an obvious appeal to the setter because the more letters there are to play with in the cryptic part the more he or she can do with them.  The simplest subtraction is the removal of the first or last letter, indicated as often as not (in fact all too often), by ‘losing [his, etc.] head’ and ‘endlessly’.  Removing the middle of a word could make it ‘heartless’ - but how many letters constitute the heart of a word?  Then there’s the removal of specific letters from a subsidiary word, such as part from compartment to leave comment.  This is where the question of fairness kicks in.  The letters that are removed don’t appear in the grid and can’t be cross-checked, so how cryptically can the setter indicate them, and still give the solver a reasonable chance?  In this example, would ‘Note where one section is removed from another’ be ok, or should it be ‘Note where part is removed from a section’?  Azed would see either clue as valid because the letters removed are consecutive, though the former is undoubtedly much trickier to solve.

The fun really starts when the letters removed are not consecutive, and worse still, not in order.  The message board discussion centred on whether ‘tore off clothing’ could indicate the removal of r…ent from raiment to leave aim, and on Colin Dexter’s Ximenes competition winner for TAILOR-BIRD: ‘Fantastic warblers do it. Sew leaves! Here’s one amongst them.’ (I in anagram of warblers do it less s,e,w, & lit).  That last clue is a kind of compound anagram by proxy.  Azed’s view is that it should have included something to indicate that the letters removed were not in the order given (e.g. ‘Somehow sew leaves’) – but see 27a below.  For an example of extreme subtraction, try this VHC clue from a recent Azed competition: ‘Nearly smooth leaves around jazzy bower drop down rock face (6)’. Solution at the end.

All of which merely provides a preamble to this month’s fairly straightforward puzzle (whose main difficulty concerned typesetting errors in the competition instructions).  It’s worth noting in a few of the clues below, though, the different ways Azed manages his subtractions in an effort to challenge the solver.

Notes to the clues

1a: Thesis Prism’s disseminated in position of tutoress? MISTRESS-SHIP (anagram).  You can solve this without knowing Miss Prism is Cecily’s governess in The Importance of Being Earnest, but the Doctor likes to give a quality consultation.  How many other English words contain a triple letter? Answers to the message board, please.

13a: Low life, old, not legless (nearly so). LEGGE (legge(d)).  The first of the subtractions - so obvious that you doubt the solution at first.

19a: Scrabble letters round edge of board.  These can’t be shown thereon. TILDES ((boar)d in tiles).  The apparent anagram indicator proves to be a dummy.  Watson seeks confirmation of Azed’s assertion from anyone possessing a Spanish or Portuguese Scrabble set.

27a: One with policy maybe, retrograde, is missing show again? RERUN (insurer rev., less is).  Hmm… the clue seems to indicate that is is removed from insurer after reversal.  Shouldn’t it be indicated as si, then?  An illustration the complications inherent this clue type.

29a: Light units set back round area of some organs. SEXUAL (a in luxes rev.).  A very po-faced clue for this solution.  Regular competitors might have enjoyed a bash at it.

33a: Chopper providing air defence on quitting region. ADZE (AD + z(on)e).  An easier subtraction in a cleverly worded clue that avoids the obvious temptation of an anagram!

1d: Timon, for example – what could make him so sharp? MISANTHROPOS (anagram of Timon so sharp).  The clue packs a huge amount into its few words: Shakespeare, character, and even a Greek flavour.  Timon does double duty as definition and letter contributor to create a ‘semi & lit’.

5d: Turfed, for example, where centre of sward’s become uneven. SODDY (odd for (sw)a(rd) in say).  Not at all obvious, with the key indicator  disguised as part of the definition, and the more noticeable sward given only a walk-on part.

11d: Jumbo measurement maybe spawning cracks. WINGSPAN (anagram).  One word anagrams of this length are a gift to the setter.

20d: Batting side half dismissed and lacking stand declare (firmly).  INSIST (in + si(de) + st(and)).  Two different subtractions in the same clue.  Watson feels ‘stand lacking and’ would have worked better cryptically and just as well literally (cricket experts may differ).

26d: Metre dug? I don’t mind heavy going. MUDDER (m + udder).  The kind of effortlessly witty clue that maintains Azed’s sterling reputation. Just pips Timon as Watson’s favourite of the puzzle.

31d: The end for Scotch, English having arranged bottling. DEID (E in did).  A good example of how a cryptic reading can suddenly appear on re-examining the clue.

Other solutions

9a: PERICON (per icon); 12a: SIVA (a vis, rev.); 13a: DARDIC (d in Daric); 15a: MEDIBANK (anag.); 16a: NARCOS (so C ran, all rev.); 18a: TRYER (anag.); 21a: CAFTAN; 24a: TEMPE (hidden); 30a: ONISCOID (comp. anag.. & lit); 32a: PESACH (S in peach); 34a: BETIMES (I’m in bêtes); 35a: STANDARD-BRED (stand + d in anag.); 2d: SEVERY (S + every); 3d: TRANCE (n in trace); 4d: RIEM ((dunc)e in rim); 6d: SURBED (anag.); 7d: HIDAGE (hid age); 8d: PICKEREL-WEED (ere l we in picked); 10d: CUESTA (cue + at s(print), rev.); 14d: PARCENER (arc in anag.); 22d: ARISTA (hidden); 23d: FUSAIN (USA in fin); 25d: EXCAMB (anag.); 28d: BOHEA (e in a hob, all rev.)

Solution to subtraction clue: RAPPEL (Grappelli less glib less b!, ref Stefan G., jazz violinist (bow-er))

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