Layers Upon Layers : Back With Iago

OMG. I missed the Tennyson bit?

And he is my homie.

Bad. Head Hung/Hanged in SHAME :o(

From the Guardian Newspaper :

We have recently pointed you at a graphic novel about the history of puzzles and at the first novel by Guardian setter Picaroon, each of which remains heavily recommended. Time for a peek at a golden-age yarn.

Curtain comes with the subtitle Poirot’s Last Case. It was eventually published in 1975, but Agatha Christie wrote it during the second world war, after her Kensington home had been Luftwaffed. London theatre was struggling through that war; a lonely Christie was becoming enamoured of Othello and, as Laura Thompson wrote in her biography, “Iago, in particular, obsessed her.”

As she imagined Iago “seeing Othello suffer as he has suffered”, she wrote a draft of Curtain and, rather than having it published, kept it in a drawer in case another air-raid put paid to her and left her daughter needing an income. So it was that Curtain became, much later, Poirot’s last case.

It takes a while before Iago appears, but – devotees of crosswords will be thrilled to hear – he emerges when the narrator Capt Hastings reads some clues, ostensibly from the Times. So, before we decide whether this is a good read – how do the crosswords hold up?

One of the clues is fine. Here’s how Hastings reads it from his armchair to a gathering of characters:

‘Even love—or third party risk?’ I read out. ‘Eight letters.’

Dr John Franklin splutters that it’s “probably an anagram”, but Boyd Carrington nails it as PARAMOUR. In the wordplay half, “Even” gives us PAR and “love” gives us AMOUR; the other half of the clue gives us a definition of that threat to a relationship that we might call a PARAMOUR.

Great, lovely: that’s how we expect it to work: half definition and half wordplay. Another clue is based on a terrific idea, and works charmingly …

The chaps between the hills are unkind (9)

… until you realise that while the wordplay is tremendous (the chaps are MEN between the hills, which are a pair of TORs), this doesn’t do the job of a cryptic clue in giving you a straight definition, at the beginning or the end, of TORMENTOR. Even in 1975, coherence is not a reasonable thing to expect.

This next clue is quite the puzzle, and not in the intended way. Hastings again:

‘Quotation: “And Echo whate’er is asked her answers” – blank. Tennyson. Five letters.’

Here’s the Tennyson, eye-rhymes and all, from the first verse of “Maud”:

I HATE the dreadful hollow behind the little wood,
Its lips in the field above are dabbled with blood-red heath,
The red-ribb’d ledges drip with a silent horror of blood,
And Echo there, whatever is ask’d her, answers “Death.”

I mean, this is just weird. The quotation is wrong: the rhythm, the words, the lot. Are we supposed to think that Hastings has forgotten how to competently read words from a newspaper? Definitely not.

So, you are thinking, might it be Christie’s mistake? Really? “Maud” is from the collection Maud and Other Poems … and one of those “other poems” is The Charge of the Light Brigade. So this is a tome which would surely have been on her shelves, and those of her editor.

Besides, there is something else. The Times editor in 1975 was the prodigious Edmund Akenhead, who introduced readers to the prolonged joys of the 23-by-23-square weekend Jumbo.

Akenhead also initiated the paper’s crossword championship, and arbitrated its showdowns. He tended to be accommodating: in a tricky clue about Eric the Red (“Red rover (4)” for ERIC), he allowed ERIK, especially since that year’s event was held at the Viking Hotel, which happened to honour that Norse explorer in its “Erik Bar”.

But he was not always so conciliatory. Here is a quotation clue, from the 1977 championship:

25ac Just one of Iago’s drowsy medicines (5)

And here’s the pertinent bit of Othello:

[…] Not poppy, nor mandragora,
Nor all the drowsy syrups of the world,
Shall ever medicine thee to that sweet sleep
Which thou owedst yesterday.

So, SYRUP. After some post-solving back-and-forthing, Akenhead accepted SYROP as a spelling used in some editions. What, one solver asked, about SIROP? As in, would you accept a French spelling not used by Shakespeare? Nope, Akenhead told her. But, insisted the solver, “Agatha Christie spells it that way”.

And Akenhead replied that however Agatha Christie might spell “syrup” is quite beside the point.

We are down the rabbit-hole now. Akenhead is clearly dissing Christie (perhaps unfairly: as far as I’ve seen, Christie only uses the “sirop” spelling when the francophone Poirot passive-aggressively orders sirop de cassis when someone has kindly offered to stand the man a beer). So: is Christie dissing Akenhead? Throwing shade by deliberately misquoting Tennyson, and imputing the error to the Times?

I think the answer is a no. And here’s the reason: it is the Iago clue that we finally get to in Curtain. Here it comes, again from Hastings:

I heard the teaspoon rattle on Barbara Franklin’s saucer.
I went on to the next clue. “‘Jealousy is a green-eyed monster,’ this person said.”

Sorry, but:

O, beware, my lord, of jealousy;
It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock
The meat it feeds on

I mean, it is never “a”. It’s always “the”. With regret, Occam’s Razor tells me that Christie got out of the habit of checking her quotations and that her publisher was happy to usher through her words unscathed by critical eyes. I hope I’m wrong: tell me I am.

Let us end on an arguably more important topic – do you, or the people for whom you are seeking gifts, want to read Curtain? My mentioning Iago is not a spoiler. For crossword fans, the scenes of solving help along the plot in a way that is incredibly pleasingly mechanical as well as thematic. The pay-off involves crosswords, and works just as well for a reader who is not preoccupied with puzzles.

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