August 26, 2015 - "Double, Double" - Francis Heaney, made more good/less bad by Ben Tausig

Difficulty ● ● ◐ ○ ○

Puzzle Notes

Hi friends: 

Francis Heaney's "Double, Double," 3/5 in difficulty, is this week's puzzle.

Many of you know that crossword legend Merl Reagle passed away suddenly this weekend, far too early at the age 65. His many dedicated followers and the entirety of the puzzle community are in quite a bit of shock right now, and many lovely words and anecdotes have been shared.

I hope you won't my adding my own expression of appreciation for the person who I generally consider the greatest crossword constructor of any era. It so happens (and has been widely emphasized) that Merl was also a great guy, generous with his time and open with his expertise. I used to worry that he didn't like me because I was part of a new and unfamiliar wave of constructors, and because we'd had a long argument on a listserv (about the viability of the grid entry TRL). That fear was in my head. I sat in the audience at a showing of the documentary "Wordplay" at the IFC theater in New York in 2006, at which Merl and Will Shortz did a Q&A. Afterwards I worked up the courage to talk to Merl in the lobby, and I remember him turning towards me with a warm smile as he greeted me by name. To Merl, our argument hadn't been personal at all; his sole concern was advocating for the best possible experience for solvers. Puzzles and puzzle people mattered most to him.

I had no idea at the time that Merl had scooped me by a couple decades in the "new wave" of puzzle construction department. Merl was busy in the 1980s bringing levity to the crossword, not to mention serious formal experimentation. He was, in fact, the constructor most closely linked to the swell of puzzle-constructing energy that gathered at Games magazine and reached the mainstream soon after. The crossword rapidly, thankfully, went from arcane to fun. Everything that the AVCX and our friends do is under Merl's long shadow.

Fun, though, is deceptively simple, as Merl proved. It requires dedication and, at times, preternatural skill. When I brainstorm with BEQ or Matt Gaffney or someone else about theme entries, the acronym WWMD comes up A LOT. Yes, this entry we're talking about is stretchy, but is it funny enough to make you smile? That's how you know when it's OK to bend the rules. We all look to Merl here. He mastered the art of putting fun -- and, thus, the solver -- first.

He wasn't just jovial, though. He filled grids by hand, seeing angles few others could. His thematic execution was frequently perfect; I recall his 2007 ACPT puzzle, which switched X's and Y's in both the theme answers AND some of the clues. Thus, for example, the clue for VEGAN was "Sox fan, perhaps." That's one of thousands of times Merl managed to hide a trick both flawlessly and playfully. He was so damn good at his craft that he actually made puns funny, which I've never mastered as either a constructor or an editor. I'll sometimes run a pun theme, just to see if I've figured it out, but there's no one other than Merl I really trust to do it right.

I wrote in 2013 that "my inclination is to call Merl Reagle the greatest constructor of all time." The world lost an extraordinary talent on Saturday, as well as an extraordinary member of our community. I miss him a lot. Thanks for reading, and please find attached a bonus puzzle, an old one of Francis's from Peter Gordon's editorial tenure at the New York Sun, generously shared by Peter's publisher, and featuring a relevant tribute to Merl.

[Puzzle from "The New York Sun Crosswords 19," © 2009 by Peter Gordon, published by Puzzlewright Press. Reprinted with permission from Sterling Publishing Co., Inc. For more puzzles by Peter Gordon, visit]

Ben and the AVCX crew [, @AVCXWord]