I’ve been a puzzler (some say, I’ve been “puzzling,” and that may also be true) all my life. It started with math, where every day’s homework was a puzzle. For algebra: If one train leaves a station in Chicago going 30 miles an hour . . . For geometry: Given two sides of a triangle …
I loved those problems, which to me were just games and puzzles.
The Cable Guy has his own puzzle blog that features some of the challenges we’ve taken on recently. Check out the latest entry .
We often hear that mysteries are like jigsaw puzzles, that writers and readers enjoy putting the pieces together, ending up with a satisfying solution, much like turning 1500 jagged pieces into a reproduction of Monet’s Water Lilies.
In a way. But mysteries have to be like challenging puzzles, not the easy kind where all the pieces are piled before us with one brisk dump from the box, and what’s required is simply to sort them by color or shape and fit them together to match the picture on the cover of the box.
In a good “whodunit” mystery, there are many sets of clues that unfold: some are hidden in plain sight, some are subtly presented, some not; some are within the character profiles and arcs, the setting, or the plot. These mysteries are solved not by simply putting a given number of known pieces together, but by first sorting out the pieces that matter from the ones that don’t. Maybe there are a couple of red herrings; maybe there are no herrings of any color.
I’ve seen jigsaw puzzles where the manufacturer has deliberately included extra pieces that don’t belong in the scene. Similarly, there are the crossword puzzles that are diagramless. No black squares give us the word length; we have to figure that out ourselves.
Those puzzles are more like the great mysteries, where the clue is that the dog did not bark or the answer has been in the letter on the mantel all along.
Sometimes I worry that I’m wasting time with the morning acrostic, or the Sunday NY Times crossword, or the countless word games I find in print and online.
Is it enriching my life that I’ve learned a new word (predacious: predatory, plundering) or factoid (molasses is an ingredient of rum)?
I take my response from no less a puzzle figure than Erno Rubik (b. 1944), sculptor, architect, and inventor of the Rubik’s cube (patent, 1975). He has this to say: “The problems of puzzles are very near the problems of life, our whole life is solving puzzles.”
Some of us get more practice than others.