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’s message board.

Azed No 1554: ‘Theme & Variations’ (3 Mar 2002)

Dr Watson wasn’t with Azed quite at the start in 1972, but recalls how eye-opening it was to tackle a first Azed after the blocked puzzles of the dailies.  It’s been a consistent  pleasure ever since, as hundreds of regular solvers and competitors will testify.  Watson offers heartfelt congratulations on Azed’s 30th anniversary, and looks forward to many more years of puzzling.

The ‘Theme and Variations’ puzzle is something of an Azed rarity these days.  Watson doesn’t recall seeing one in the last ten years.  Perhaps Azed was deliberately returning to an old style of puzzle to mark the anniversary.  The basic premise of this type of puzzle is that twelve unclued solutions must be deduced through their increasingly indirect links to a central theme.  Four of the words are ‘themes’ (themselves connected by the central theme), each having two ‘variations’.  Each pair of variations has the same relationship to its theme, but the relationships are different between each of the four themes.  The number of clues and the checking in the diagram are more generous than a standard puzzle, but this is still the most difficult Azed for some time.  The quality of the clue writing more than rises to the occasion.


Notes to the clues:

13a: Very hot, simmering indeed. SOOTH (so + anag.).  Azed is a master of disguise with the definition and cryptic part, and does it brilliantly here, despite using only four words.

19a: Japanese fish with mixed oil dressing. AIOLI (ai + anag.).  Here again there’s a clever feint. ‘Dressing’ would usually indicate a container and contents clue.

23a: The music of poetry? Those 9 may make this shine. NOTE (note shine = anag. of those nine).  An allusion to the Nine Muses.  The ‘9’ is about as indirect an anagram as Azed would allow, though Watson suspects he was deliberately being a little tricksy, given the other clue containing numerals at 3 down.

30a: Above in score, Springboks’ll contain opposition’s first pair. SOPRA (o, pr. in SA).  The Springboks being South Africa’s Rugby Union side.  You might solve the clue and spend a while trying to work out where the ‘R’ comes from, having read ‘opposition’s first pair’ as ‘op’.

37a: Palm yielding a drink – flog bottles. TALIPAT (a lip in tat).  No real evidence in Chambers for ‘lip’ meaning ‘drink’, as far as Watson could see, but this seems to be the explanation.

3d: My family has 7 in: 4 taken from school early. OLEA (hidden, 7d is ASH).  Simple enough as explained here, but a devil to spot when solving the puzzle.  Azed very rarely uses cross-references like this one, so it’s not something you look for.  Since 7d is an unclued theme word, the clue poses extra difficulty at the start of solving, but provides a welcome confirmation at the end.

4d: Tongue and a bit of shalad, we hear? LETTISH (cf. ‘lettuce’).  Doesn’t this have the feeling of a joke you’ve heard somewhere before?

5d: Article on opening for renal surgeon in The Lancet? ARCH (a r Ch.).  This elegantly worded and original clue is Watson’s favourite amongst a set of the highest quality.

8d:  US ‘thrill killer’ in denouement of rope caught by high shot. LOEB ((rop)e in lob).  The clue refers to the ‘Leopold and Loeb’ murder trial of the 1920s, fictionalised in the play (and the Hitchcock film) Rope.  Azed skilfully weaves the different elements into the clue.  The lower case ‘r’ in ‘rope’ appears to be a typesetting error.

22d: Foul simply embodies one. MISPLAY (anag. inc. a & lit.).  A textbook ‘& lit.’ that might have been the highlight of another puzzle, but here is one great clue amongst several. 


Themes and variations:

Completing the clued lights in the grid reveals the following in the theme and variation lights (a ? represents an unchecked cell and a digit represents a mutually checked cell in two T & V lights), theme word given first:

Theme A:   H A ? B O ? R    -    M U L 1 E ? R ?    -    ? 2 L D

Theme B:   ? Y ? T E R    -    T ? R 2 E 3    -    R ? 3 E T ?

Theme C:   4 S H    -     A R O ? L ?    -    ? Y ? A M O R E

Theme D:   1 A ? L E ?    -    ? 4 L L ? W    -    ? A I G R ?

Most solvers will already have got the theme by this point.  Theme word A must be HARBOUR and B should be OYSTER (with XYSTER an outside possibility).  What connects these to the 30th anniversary theme of the puzzle is of course PEARL. Pearl signifies a 30th wedding anniversary - not given at the entry in Chambers but easily checked.  Pearl Harbour (sic) and pearl-oyster both appear in Chambers. The pearl entry also gives pearl-ash, which looks a good option for C; and pearl-barley for D, though D could also be Pearl Bailey, the singer.

On to the variations:

Theme C is the most straightforward: ASH, AROLLA and SYCAMORE are types of tree.

Theme B’s variations aren’t that hard to spot, either.  TYROES and ROSETY are anagrams of the theme word.  Note that variations may include word-play as well as semantics, because this will come in useful later.

Theme A’s first variation is clearly MULBERRY, and Mulberry harbour appears as an entry in Chambers. For the second variation (we know now it’s ?OLD) it’s tempting to go for HOLD, given the similarity in meaning to ‘harbour’, but what we need to look for here is a connection that’s the same as that of ‘mulberry’, namely a word that can appear in front of ‘harbour’.  A scan of the options in Chambers turns up cold harbour, and COLD is the second variation.

Theme D is big trouble.  We have to choose between ‘barley’ and ‘Bailey’, and all the possibilities of  ?ALL?W and ?AIGR?.  Variation 2 is almost certainly MAIGRE (a fish or a description of Lenten food). Variation 1 has about nine possibilities.  The only thing to do now is to consider all the ways of that this theme and variations could work. It isn’t going to be easy.  References and internet searches will not avail you because there’s no reasonable semantic connection between any set of three words (Watson in desperation mistakenly plumped for a tenuous culinary link between ‘barley’, ‘maigre’ and ‘mallow’).  The answer turns out to lie in a manipulation of BARLEY.  It can be split, in the style of a charades clue, into BAR and LEY.  Looking through their entries in Chambers reveals that bar4 is defined as a maigre fish, and ley1 leads to lea2, meaning ‘fallow’, so MAIGRE and FALLOW are the variations. 

This solution can’t be deduced from Chambers alone unless you actually consider splitting the theme word, or spot bar4 by chance.  Bradford’s Crossword Solver’s Dictionary lists bar under fish (one amongst hundreds) and lea under fallow, and so might provide the necessary inspiration.  Chambers Crossword Dictionary has neither.  Dr Watson’s thanks to all the message board contributors who helped with this solution. One points out that the OED defines ‘callow’ as a type of meadow, so Azed may need to consider that as a possible valid answer.


Complete solution:

1a: AROLLA;  6a: FALLOW;  11a: MULBERRY;  13a: SOOTH;  14a: ELEATIC (E leat I C);  16a: HEBE (hidden);  18a: HARBOUR;  19a: AIOLI;  20a: CRIM (C + rim);  25a: NOTE;  27a: SHOGI (shog (d)i(ce));  28a: LEAM (e(ye) in lam);  29a: HOER (O in her);  30a: SOPRA;  31a: HYRACES (race in anag.);  35a: COLD;  37a: TALIPAT;  38a: ELEMI (anag.);  39a: SYCAMORE;  40a: ROSETY;  41a: OYSTER;  1d: AMELANCHIER (élan in anag);  2d: RULLION (rul(e) lion);  3d: OLEA;  4d: LETTISH;  5d: ARCH;  7d: ASH;  8d: LOEB;  9d: LOBOSE (lobos e(at));  10d: WHOREMASTER (anag. in waster);  12d: BARLEY;  15d: MAIGRE;  17d: ECHOES (Ch O in see rev.);  21d: ROE (alternate letters);  22d: MISPLAY;  23d: ELOHIM (hole rev. + I’m);  24d: CARFARE (far in care);  26d: TYROES;  32d: STYX (‘sticks’);  34d: SPOT (top’s rev.);  36d: DIT (2 defs, D It.)

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