Challenges issued in anger (10)

From simple to unsolvable, William Hartston clues up on the good, the bad and the ugly of the nation's favourite cryptic crosswords in the daily and Sunday papers

When the Independent first appeared, the Times was on strike and the Independent crossword seemed designed to give bereft Times readers their daily fix. Since then, the Independent crossword has tried to find its own niche, but a definite character has never quite emerged. There is a good variety of styles from different compilers, but little sense of a strong overriding discipline. As a result, the Independent crossword could be considered either the best-balanced of all, or the most plan-free. With clues ranging from the inspired to the mundane, the level of satisfaction on completing it can vary widely from day to day.

When the Independent first appeared, the Times was on strike and the Independent crossword seemed designed to give bereft Times readers their daily fix. Since then, the Independent crossword has tried to find its own niche, but a definite character has never quite emerged. There is a good variety of styles from different compilers, but little sense of a strong overriding discipline. As a result, the Independent crossword could be considered either the best-balanced of all, or the most plan-free. With clues ranging from the inspired to the mundane, the level of satisfaction on completing it can vary widely from day to day.

Having recently celebrated its 75th birthday, the daily Times crossword is still the benchmark for serious puzzlers. It started in 1930 when a letter to the paper from a naval Lieutenant Commander proposed that the crossword in the weekly edition should be moved to the daily. The current crossword editor, Richard Browne, has kept the tradition of tight, fair clues, confusing but not misleading. The level of erudition demanded of the solver is higher than in most of its rivals; it helps to have had a decent classical education and be intimidatingly well-read. Or you can impress your friends by calling up the premium-rate phone line to get the answers, then scribble them in nonchalantly.

Set by a team of pseudonymous compilers led by the incomparable Araucaria (John Graham), the Guardian crossword has a character all its own. Its supporters find it witty, original, playful and delightfully infuriating; others consider it too clever by half. A favourite trick is to have one pivotal clue on which many of the others depend. Until this is solved, you are desperately scratching round the edges of the puzzle, hoping something will turn up. Without a flash of inspiration, it can be very hard work, but there is a great feeling of satisfaction when the key is found and everything falls into place. Araucaria, incidentally, is commonly known as the Monkey Puzzle Tree.

The daily crossword in the Telegraph is no less tricky in clue construction than those of the other broadsheets, but it seems to be aimed at a slightly less erudite readership. Crossword editor Val Gilbert takes great pains to ensure that not too many unusual words appear as answers, and when they do, you can work them out even if you don't know what they mean. There was an uproar in the crossword community around 1990 when the Telegraph was reported to be considering the use of computer-compiled crosswords. It wasn't true, but they did toy with the idea of building a database of clues that could be recycled.

Coming rather late to the idea of catering for its readers' leisure pursuits, the Financial Times has never seemed to take its crossword with the seriousness it deserves. There is also the problem that much of the paper's circulation is overseas, which prevents the crossword being firmly rooted in British culture. This has resulted in a restriction in both answers and clues that leads to a rather more bland product than those of its rivals. It is also the easiest of the cryptic crosswords in the upmarket press. Perhaps they feel that our economists and leaders of business ought not to have too much of their time wasted on such decadent verbal frippery.

In 1926, a great tradition of tortuous crosswords was established in the Observer set by Torquemada (Edward Powys Mather). His mantle was taken up by Ximenes (Derrick Macnutt) from 1939 to 1972, and since then by Azed (Jonathan Crowther). The pseudonym is not just the first and last letters of the alphabet. It's also Deza backwards, and Diego de Deza was, like Torquemada and Ximenes, a Spanish Grand Inquisitor. That's the sort of thing you have to know to have any hope of doing an Azed crossword. A recent one included answers such as OCHIDORE, VIMANA, NGUNIS and RINGHALS. Not for the faint-hearted or the verbally challenged.

The Listener may have ceased publication, but its crossword lives on, currently in the pages of the Saturday Times. Anyone who thinks cryptic crosswords are convoluted ought to sneak a look at this one. Solving the clues is always just the first step. Last week was typical: all the across answers in the top half of the grid had an extra letter inserted somewhere. These letters were the same as those omitted from the answers in the bottom half and spelt out a message, while the answer running across the middle was not clued, but described as "thematically significant". A good crossword for a very long holiday. You may understand the instructions by the time you go home.

Currently compiled by trivia supremo Mitchell Symons, the Mail on Sunday's You magazine crossword is the wittiest of those that set out to test general knowledge. It does not have obscure Latin plant names so beloved of most general-knowledge crossword setters, but usually relies only on things anyone ought to know. With straightforward non-cryptic clues, it is not at all difficult, but usually has a diluted version of the Guardian's trick of one key clue on which several others depend. Warning: there are good prizes, but so many correct entries each week that it is probably not a good investment of the postage. Some have entered every week for decades without winning anything.

Probably the best introduction to cryptic crosswords, with short clues, anagrams clearly indicated by words such as "changed" or "ruined" and buried words scarcely hidden under the verbal topsoil, the Crusader is firmly placed at the bottom of the cryptic range, but fills a very necessary gap in the market that can lead solvers onto the more difficult puzzles. This is quite appropriate: the first crossword in a British newspaper appeared in the Sunday Express in 1924. A few years ago, there were howls of protest following a change of compiler, but once readers became accustomed to a new style and a few new tricks, they were content again.

Well-constructed clues add up to a testing crossword, but sometimes lacking in rigour and usually lacking in wit. You have the feeling that the compiler is examining you rather than teasing you. Good clues ought to coax the right answer out of you, but these usually require a laborious putting together before the answer is reached. One nice addition, however, is a weekly clue-writing contest. The winning entries tend to draw attention to the fact that those in the puzzle are a bit on the dull side. The top prize for the crossword is a valuable fountain pen; runners-up get ballpoints. Best clues win £20.

For those too timid to try Azed, the Observer also offers the Everyman, a straightforward cryptic crossword with £15 book tokens and dictionaries as prizes. After the Crusader in the Express, this is probably the simplest cryptic crossword. One might have expected better of the sister paper of the Guardian, but Everyman is really a bog-standard crossword, fine for a bus ride but offering little challenge or satisfaction. One can hardly imagine a less inspired clue for EAT than the final clue that featured in last week's Everyman: "Have a meal in Neath (3)". Verdict: technically sound; could do better.

Quite a simple crossword, but curious mix of the mundane and the unexpected. One day last week, for example, "He has constructive ideas for changing the Arctic" was a surprisingly good clue for ARCHITECT, but "It measures the strength of the current" isnot even a remotely cryptic clue for AMMETER. The overall feeling is that a fairly decent crossword has been toned down for the Mail readership, resulting in a bit of a mish-mash. Despite the inconsistencies, it's sometimes worth doing for the occasional flashes of inspiration.

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