Cross-eyed and clueless

Dr Louise Levene on the wordy habit of Plater's hero
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The Independent Culture
the man in the polyester suit staggers towards you, glass in one hand, cheese football in the other and utters the dreaded words, "So you're the little lady who edits the crossword puzzles. That sounds in-ter-est- ing." I feel nothing but sympathy for doctors and solicitors routinely cornered by people after free advice. I may not get lumbered with tales of chronic cystitis and conveyancing but, frankly, Clues I Have Loved is not a conversational gripper.

The ninth circle of hell for the crossword editor is the letter (usually in green crayon) demanding personal information about the Independent's crossword setters. "I have always imagined Portia to be a lady barrister with clipped vowels and tight briefs." Because they daily lock brains with the crossword setters they feel a burning need to know them personally. Alan Bates is just such a solver. Normal people, on being made redundant, would set up a savings account and take stock of their lives. Not Oliver. Oliver goes to the Orkneys to find Aristotle. Mind you, I'm prepared to believe anything of a man who buys the Telegraph on Thursdays just for the crossword puzzle.

Plater's heroes are always male monomaniacs with a lot of old 78s. Although middle-aged and badly dressed, they supposedly retain a certain crumpled charm, and pride themselves on their anti- bureaucratic eccentricity. Oliver is particularly proud of his elliptical thought processes: this is illustrated by his obsession with cryptic crossword puzzles and the need to see gnomic meaning in anagrams.

Solve the crossword and you solve the mystery. By the end of Oliver's Travels, the crossword setter Aristotle is luring Oliver steadily northwards by planting leads in the crossword grid. The idea that a crossword puzzle is a means of conveying coded information isn't new: the most notorious case was when a Daily Telegraph puzzle in 1944 just happened to include the words Mulberry, Neptune and Overlord. MI5 took a lot of convincing.

The strange thing is that Plater himself doesn't even do cryptic crosswords: "We do the Guardian quick crossword and the Independent on Sunday quick one - which takes us even longer.'' He was once given a crash course in how to solve cryptic crosswords by his great friend Tom Courtenay (qv), and he became intrigued by the idea. "I only have the vaguest idea of them and in any case the use of crossword conventions had to be such that ordinary people could understand it." Hence the story's concentration on the humble anagram. In the end, even this simple concept proved a bit much for Plater. He had originally named his heroine Diana, believing "Diana. Not Priest" to be an anagram of predestination (something Oliver finds curiously significant). It isn't, and her name was hurriedly changed to Diane.