Thursday, October 8, 2009

One Across, Two Down

It should come as small surprise to her readers that Miss Lemon is an avid worker of crossword puzzles. To enjoy them, one must have a smattering of foreign languages, geography and music, and keep up on popular culture and sport. It's just the sort of activity that calls upon one's logic and resourcefulness. It's perfect for those employed in a library ... or perhaps a detective agency.

Miss Lemon has recently taken to solving American-style crossword puzzles. Less overtly clever than their British counterparts (the punning clues are far fewer), the seeming simplicity of these puzzles is the real challenge. Only an hour ago, Miss Lemon sat sipping her afternoon tea and wrestling with whatever would be a four-letter word for 'Type of shark,' first letter 'L,' last letter 'N.' By the time she got to her last bite of scone, she had it: LOAN.

Only in America would this fish swim in a fiduciary sea.

But lest Miss Lemon be diverted from the true purpose of this column, it is this fondness for crosswords that drew her to Ruth Rendell's One Across, Two Down (1971), and she recommends it for her readers now.

The novel, like her later (and perhaps stronger) Judgment in Stone (1977), is a whydunit rather than a whodunit. But true to the threads that bind all of her fiction, Ruth Rendell doesn't stint on suspense -- or psychological exploration of character.

The character in question in One Across, Two Down, Stanley Manning, has no ambition in life beyond becoming a master setter of crossword puzzles. Oh, and getting his hands on his live-in mother-in-law's £20,000.

When Stanley loses his job at a petrol station, he finds he has little more to do than the daily crossword.

Naturally, Stanley's idle mind turns to murder.

Miss Lemon won't reveal the bizarre set of circumstances that unfold -- one might be able to guess them. But suffice it to say that long before the inheritance comes due, Stanley find himself embroiled in a most unwise investment.

There is perhaps a bit more violence in One Across, Two Down than what Miss Lemon typically cares for, but the clear-eyed deftness with which Ruth Rendell portrays Stanley's motivations -- and the workings of his mind -- make it easy to overlook.

And Miss Lemon must admit, Stanley Manning, in the midst of his paranoid stupor, invents some of the cleverest -- if not craziest -- crossword clues.

She thinks you will enjoy this one immensely. Now if you will pardon Miss Lemon, she thinks she's heard the Evening Standard dropped outside her door.

1 comment: