Analysis | Solution to Evan Birnholz’s July 7 crossword, ‘The Three-Body Problem’ (2024)

Today’s puzzle is unusual in a few ways. One odd feature is the grid itself. While most crosswords feature some form of symmetry, this grid is asymmetric — the black squares are spread out in fairly random places.

The more important bizarre feature is the theme itself since you have to read some Across answers and Down answers differently from each other. There are five circled words in the puzzle, all representing body parts ... but the letters in those body parts must be entered three times to make sense of the Down clues where those answers appear.

  • 33A: [Send again] is RESHIP, with a circled HIP. When HIP is tripled in the Down direction, you get H.H. HOLMES at 34D: [Late 19th-century murderer profiled in Erik Larson’s 2003 book “The Devil in the White City”], PART III at 5D: [End of a trilogy, and a phrase that hints at each circled word when entering it in the Down direction], and APP PLAYERS at 29D: [Software that allows people to run mobile programs on computers]. I didn’t originally set out to include PART III as a hint, but it fit well and it presented itself as sort of an alternative title to the puzzle (and it also explains why I felt I couldn’t use the term “body parts” in the clues).
  • 46A: [“Bright” partner] is EARLY, with a circled EAR. When EAR is tripled, you get BEE EATER at 39D: [Bird that feeds on insects], AAA BOND at 47D: [Investment option considered to be the most creditworthy], and RIOT GRRRL at 16D: [Punk movement that “blasted feminism into the future,” per a 2019 New York Times article].
  • 54A: [Chicken ___ (Italian entree, briefly)] is PARM, with a circled ARM. When ARM is tripled, you get CLASS AAA at 25D: [Baseball group for the Rochester Red Wings], THEY’RE GR-R-REAT at 9D: [Slogan on cereal boxes], and “MMMBOP” at 55D: [1997 No. 1 hit for Hanson].
  • 94A: [One of 12 biblical groups of ancient Israel] is TRIBE, with a circled RIB. When RIB is tripled, you get STARR REPORT at 78D: [1998 government document referenced in “Monica’s Story”], WIIITIS at 91D: [Joint pain sustained by fans of Nintendo], and BBB RATING at 95D: [Letter grade assigned to a co.].
  • 111A: [Has an extra level, as an amp that Nigel shows off in “This Is Spinal Tap”] is GOES TO ELEVEN, with a circled TOE. When TOE is tripled, you get SCOTT TUROW at 93D: [“All my novels are about the ambiguities that lie beneath the sharp edges of the law” speaker], TOO OLD at 107D: [Ineligible for child tickets at a movie theater, say], and SLIME EEL at 89D: [Hagfish, by another name].

There’s an extra meta answer to uncover, as well. The revealer at 121A: [Vital thing in the body, an example of which is spelled out by the first letters of this puzzle’s tripled words] is ORGAN. Take the first letters of the five tripled body parts (HIP, EAR, ARM, RIB, TOE) and you spell out HEART.

Asymmetry is a rare feature of most mainstream crosswords, though in recent years it has become more common in such venues as the USA Today crossword. If you’re wondering why I abandoned symmetry to make this puzzle ... believe me, I spent a while trying to make it symmetrical, but I don’t think it would have ever worked, not unless I chose different body parts (most probably fewer body parts, too) and didn’t build to a meta answer like HEART. Limiting yourself to phrases with a letter appearing three times in a row is a big constraint on its own, and some of them (like a tripled H) have very few decent options at all.

In the end, though, symmetry is mostly an aesthetic feature of a crossword, but not an essential one. The puzzle extraordinaire Francis Heaney once told me five years ago, “Set yourself free from the prison of symmetry,” and I finally took the advice. In a way, the asymmetry also might have made the puzzle a bit easier than it could have been. Without a definitive pattern of where the theme answers would appear, I thought it would be a good idea to mark them explicitly with circles.

Some other answers and clues:

  • 24A: [Event that people do for kicks?] is SOCCER GAME. I’m enjoying watching the men’s UEFA European Championship and the Copa América tournaments, although the United States crashed out of the Copa América tournament this week.
  • 38A: [Total of reds and whites, perhaps] is TAB. This would be a bar tab with red and white wines.
  • 57A: [These usually aren’t considered stories] is BAsem*nTS. When you have a two-story house, the basem*nt usually isn’t considered one of the two stories.
  • 66A: [Group of animals in a shrewdness] is APES. A shrewdness might be a leftover animal group from last week’s puzzle.
  • 2D: [Character who appears in Captain America comics, aptly] is U.S. AGENT. He was new to me when I built the puzzle. Apparently he was originally named Super-Patriot.
  • 17D: [Like the vocal ensemble Chanticleer] is ALL-MALE. I got to see them in concert about 20 years ago. Here’s a video of them performing “Ave Maria” by Franz Biebl.
  • 100D: [First word of TMNT] is TEENAGE. If you didn’t know what TMNT stood for, it’s “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.”
  • 103D: [Sound of thunder?] is SHORT U. As in the “uh” sound in the word “thunder.”

What did you think?

Analysis | Solution to Evan Birnholz’s July 7 crossword, ‘The Three-Body Problem’ (2024)
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