Which books should I read?

Peter Biddlecombe’s Guide to Crossword Books

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I’m going to start with the devil’s advocate point of view and quote Jonathan Crowther (the Azed setter at the Observer) in his A-Z of crosswords: “in my experience the ability to solve crosswords comes from practice rather than from diligent application to ‘how-to’ books, though these clearly have their place”. Is he right? Well my own experience was of roughly 10 years of practice before I sat down and read a “how-to” book properly. That was the first edition of Don Manley’s book. The effect of reading it was to clarify what was going on, and to speed up my solving considerably once I understood some aspects of the precision involved in the clues, which I’d not previously appreciated.

If you’re struggling, most of the books listed here should help you to tackle puzzles more confidently, but as Azed indicates, practice is the real key – the sooner you tackle a puzzle every day the better, however many books you read – even if you spend less time per puzzle than you would by working real hard on one or two a week. Use the relevant blog to read up about the clues you couldn’t do.

This list includes links to Amazon UK pages for all the ‘how to solve’ books I can find that are currently available in the UK. I’ve split them into two groups – the books by crossword editors and setters, and those by people who (as far as I can tell) are ‘only’ solvers. All my really strong recommendations are in the first group. I’d recommend reading the Amazon reviews for the titles that interest you – you’ll see a range of views and more detail. It’s only fair to say that I know Tim Moorey and Don Manley personally.

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Books by setters and editors

I’d suggest one of the first three is your best choice if your main aim is to learn to solve the Daily Telegraph puzzle. The next three are perfectly OK, the last one is a gamble.

Tim Moorey – How to Master The Times Crossword
The current leader of the pack if you just want a book to help you solve daily paper puzzles. Tim gives regular solving courses and has used his experience to produce a very clear and thorough guide. Like the Stephenson and Gilbert books below, most of the material applies to other puzzles just as much as the one mentioned on the cover.

Don Manley – Chambers Crossword Manual
The best guide to the full spectrum of cryptic crossword activity – this book includes advice for potential setters, and even crossword editors, and includes hints for tackling barred-grid crosswords like Azed and The Listener. This means that the part on how to solve daily paper puzzles is relatively brief – “Manley does not plod” as one of the Amazon reviews says. The result, based on Amazon reviews, is that not everyone finds the explanations helpful – every Amazon review gives five stars or one, with the fives just ahead.

Val Gilbert – The “Daily Telegraph” How to Crack a Cryptic Crossword
Val Gilbert was Daily Telegraph crossword editor for about 30 years, so she’s well-qualified to write a book which I assume (I don’t own this one) is aimed at the Telegraph puzzle in particular.

Hugh Stephenson – Secrets of the Setters: How to Solve the “Guardian” Crossword
Aimed at the Guardian puzzle in particular, but most of the advice applies elsewhere too.

Kindred & Knight – Chambers Cryptic Crosswords and How to Solve Them
Another one which I don’t own but I believe does a sound job. Both authors have set Listener puzzles, and Knight is “Mordred” in current Independent puzzles.

Kevin Skinner – How to Solve Cryptic Crosswords
Again one which I don’t own but I believe does a sound job. Amazon’s blurb says that Kevin Skinner is a setter, though not which paper(s) he sets for.

Ian D Walker – Solving Cryptic Crosswords the Easy Way
I don’t recall seeing a copy of this one. It seems to be published in South Africa, so may be addressed mainly at solvers of cryptic crosswords published there.

Colin Dexter – Cracking Cryptic Crosswords
A recent (end of 2009) book from Colin Dexter, which has some useful advice but misses out some pretty basic points and includes some poor clues. Colin Dexter should have been able to write a book as good as Moorey and Manley, but didn’t.

Barbara Gettinby – Cryptic Crossword Secrets
Fairly brief coverage of clue types, with lots of sample puzzles and answers which include explanations. But written in Australia and based on the rather pedestrian puzzles that seem to dominate the market there.

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Books by solvers

Most of these will help, but they vary in the extent to which the description of clues precisely matches what the setters say they are doing, and the quality of the detailed analysis. As above, the ones that seem best to me are listed first.

James A Coleman – Beginner’s Guide to Cryptic Crosswords
I have this in its original form – “The Complete Guide to Cryptic Crosswords” (Collins, 1989). Judging by its condition, I’ve not referred to it terribly often. It has lots of examples selected from puzzles including the Times, and gives you lots of examples of each trick – e.g. 15 “outer letters” ones from banana skin=BA to vile outsiders=VE. It’s possibly a bit dry as there are no tutorial puzzles, and quite old now – but I’m sure it could teach a beginner quite a lot.

Ged O’Connell – Decoding Cryptic Crosswords
This one has some very sound advice but would have been better with access to professionally-written sample puzzles. That said, it seems to have worked well for at least one Amazon reviewer.

A MacTier – A Crash Course in Cracking Cryptic Crosswords
I saw this in a bookshop a long time ago, but didn’t buy it, and Amazon doesn’t tell us much. Mr MacTier (of whom I know nothing) managed to get Mike Rich (former Listener crossword editor and Times Championship organiser) to write a preface, which I doubt he would have done without making sure that the book was competent.

B J Holmes – Solving Cryptic Crosswords
One that I don’t own but which looks perfectly OK based on a single Amazon review.

Francois Greeff – The Hidden Code of Cryptic Crosswords
I’m afraid my advice is to avoid this one – it has faults which are mentioned in my Amazon review.