By Staff Writer
The humble crossword, a staple of newspapers the world over, can quickly become something of an obsession, as many keen readers will no doubt attest. But what if the solving – or not– of a particular clue was something that could not only bruise your ego but actually cost you your life? That is the intriguing premise of The Foggiest Notion, a surreal stand-alone adventure that, as far as this reviewer is aware, enjoys the distinction of being the first novel in history about crosswords.
The story centres on a remarkable day in the life of Colin Holly, an emotionally-repressed former maths teacher and recovering alcoholic whose one remaining interest is the daily cryptic crossword puzzle of the Daily Voice newspaper. Things get off to an unusual start for Colin when a train nearly destroys his London home - a train travelling sideways on freshly-laid tracks set flat against the fronts of the houses down his street.
Colin quickly learns that crossword clues can manifest in the real world creating all manner of strange thing, such as a sideways train, and, unless promptly solved, run the risk of causing untold chaos and destruction. These clues come in pairs and the manifestations only disappear when both clues are cracked. It is up to Colin, an unlikely hero at one point described as a “knight in shining knitwear”, to vanquish the errant clues and solve the grid before time runs out and the cruciverbal creations become permanent fixtures.
Helping him is a small rag-tag bunch consisting of teenage girl Kia and her two unusual uncles: Uncle Sid, who has an odd habit of speaking only in anagrams, and Uncle Jasper, who reels off thesaurus lists. They are part of a team of specialised wordsmiths dedicated to solving crosswords and preserving the reality status quo. They have been drawn to Colin, who, it is revealed, is a ‘Solver’ – a chosen one sent to assist in the fight against the particularly fiendish grids. Unfortunately, the crossword creatures are also being drawn to Colin, driven on by an innate survival instinct and willing to go to any lengths to destroy the Solver before he destroys them.
Hopping off to solve the various clues, the group visit some very strange places, such as an antiquated sailing ship with a measuring device and the Chameleon Realm, a bizarre land where everything tries to look like its surroundings. They also have run-ins with a list of colourful characters including a roving reporter, a band of murderous corporate blackmailers and a robot steel band, not to mention the titular Foggiest Notion itself – a wispy malevolence hell-bent on thwarting Colin and allowing all future crossword constructs to roam the world unchallenged.
If that wasn’t enough, Colin and the team need to work out why more than 90 MPs have mysteriously vanished, and how a 20-ft three-year-old child connects with the peculiar goings-on. There’s a certain ‘Arthur Dent’ vibe to Colin, and comparisons with the equally imaginative Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy wouldn’t, on the surface, be out of place.
But The Foggiest Notion’s closest relation would probably be Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, where author Lewis Carroll, a noted mathematician, revelled in playing with logic and mathematical concepts in his nonsensical tale.
The same applies to this novel and its author, who is a seasoned professional crossword compiler writing for a number of national newspapers and magazines including the Daily Mirror, Sunday Telegraph and BBC Focus. Breman has a genuine passion for cryptic crosswords, the crazy images that clues conjure up and the real sense of achievement in solving them.
It goes without saying that The Foggiest Notion will appeal to all fans of wordplay, especially those who love their crosswords, but it also has much to offer fans of quirky fantasy adventures. And for those who wish they were better at cryptic crosswords, the book also serves as an entertaining and insightful guide to the different types of puzzle commonly encountered. Colin and the team explain their solutions step-by-step so readers can follow along and, hopefully, improve their own skills in the process. As an added encouragement, at the end of each chapter is a 15 x 15 grid that slowly fills with all the clues solved so far.
A most singular and enjoyable novel, The Foggiest Notion is best approached like a cryptic crossword clue: don’t ask why things are, it’s just because the grid says so.