Anatomy of a Crossword

Anatomy of a Crossword

by Nero Blanc

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781497671744
Publisher: Open Road Media
Publication date: 10/14/2014
Series: Crossword Mysteries , #8
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 327
Sales rank: 117,421
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Nero Blanc is the pseudonym of Steve Zettler and Cordelia Frances Biddle, who are husband and wife and serious crossword buffs. Biddle is also the author of the Martha Beale historical mystery series, which is set in Philadelphia, Zettler and Biddle’s hometown. Their website is

Read an Excerpt

Anatomy of a Crossword

A Crossword Mystery

By Nero Blanc


Copyright © 2004 Cordelia F. Biddle and Steve Zettler
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4976-7174-4


To use the old Hollywood vernacular: Back in April, Chick Darlessen "couldn't get arrested." Of the six pilot scripts he'd submitted to various television studios the previous fall, each and every one had been "shot down" by some twenty-eight year old "suit," a person literally half Chick's age, with comments that had ranged from insensitive to downright abusive.

"... Chick, baby, honey, nobody's doing Westerns anymore. Who knows from horses these days? Horses-smorshes. They shoot them, don't they? Har. Har ... We're thinking fresh, here, innovative. You want animals, they gotta be cute animals ... Small animals ... A talking weasel. Now that might be something new ... And remember, it's the gal-pal market we're selling to. Maybe a mother weasel ... A nag, yes, but no horses. Please."

"... Darlessen, sweetheart, extraterrestrials in the Nevada desert? Been there, done that. Everyone has. Give us something that'll grab the viewers and won't let go. I'm talking figuratively, of course ..."

"... The concept? Too pricey, Darlessen. It's also a big fat downer. You want a mature audience, you don't peddle death. No one likes a hero who croaks. No one needs a history lesson ... Who's this Patrick Henry guy, anyway? 'Give me liberty, or give me death.' Who talks like that? Nobody. Think interactive, Chick. We're selling corn flakes here. Oat squares. Fiber for a healthy diet. Give us something we can put in a box and you're gold, baby ...!"

And so the litany had gone, all winter long and well into spring. Every studio "pitch" meeting Chick Darlessen's agent had arranged ended with a brush-off more callous than the last, sending the screenwriter further and further into the depths of depression, and deeper and deeper into debt. He needed work so desperately, and was so broke, he'd taken a part-time job with a phone-sales bank—a job at which he was spectacularly ill-equipped. While he watched his fellow "marketing consultants" sweet-talk their way into endless sales and commissions, Chick only heard the angry click of receivers dropping back into their cradles. Often he didn't even get a chance to name the product, and by the Fourth of July he was three months late on his rent.

But then, on August 19, something just short of miraculous had happened—his uncle, Bartann Welner, unexpectedly dropped dead. Chick was Uncle Bart's sole surviving heir; and although Bart had just turned ninety, they'd been close, living only a few block from one another for the past twenty years and taking lengthy walks into the Hollywood Hills on an almost daily basis. Until his sudden demise, Uncle Bart had been as healthy as an ox. In fact, the joke between uncle and nephew was that the old man might well outlive the younger.

Initially, the thought of financial gain from Bartann Welner's estate seemed slim. Uncle Bart had been no more affluent than Chick, living on Social Security and a modest Screen Actors Guild pension he received from doing film stunt work in the 1940s and 1950s. The funeral costs alone could have put Chick in the poorhouse, but two weeks prior to his untimely death, Bart had been the Grand-Slam Winner of one million dollars on the TV program Down & Across, a crossword puzzle-themed evening game show.

Uncle Bart had been a crossword "junkie" for as long as Chick could remember. He was born on the same day the first puzzle appeared in a newspaper: December 21, 1913, and could complete the Sunday Times puzzle in less then fifteen minutes—in ink. Bart was born to be the Grand-Slam Winner, and as Gerry Orso, the host of Down & Across, had said at the show's close, "Let's hear it, folks—despite his age, Bart Welner has kicked butt here tonight!"

The check for the million dollars had yet to arrive, but Stan McKenet, the producer of Down & Across, had informed Chick that it was "in the works", and "not to worry. As soon as that show airs, the check is in the mail."

And Chick wasn't worried. The payment would appear; an estate lawyer would perform his magical legal mumbo jumbo, and Chick would would have the lucre in his hands. But the real pot of gold, as far as Chick was concerned, wasn't the promised inheritance; instead, it lay inside a manila envelope he had found while clearing out his uncle's refrigerator. At first he'd assumed the envelope had been placed there to prevent something from leaking into a half-eaten bowl of moldy peanuts. But there were no apparent stains on the paper, and when Chick turned it over, he was intrigued by what Uncle Bart had handwritten on the outside: ANATOMY OF A CROSSWORD. Inside the envelope, Chick had discovered a neatly typed treatment for a TV movie of the week, and accompanying crossword puzzle, and a handful of articles clipped from newspapers published in Massachusetts and Vermont.

Chick never had any use for crosswords. He'd once tried to tackle one in the back of TV Guide but found he'd had no flare for word games. He was only able to wrangle two answers after studying the thing for forty-five solid minutes—and if he hadn't been a Larry Hagman fan, he wouldn't have solved the Genie clue. His mind just didn't move in a lateral direction. It had always been full steam ahead. But, after perusing Uncle Bart's treatment, Chick realized he'd hit the jackpot.

Less than a minute later, he was on the phone, punching in the numbers to his agent, Lee Rennegor. Given the screenwriter's current deplorable status, however, he was asked to "hold" for a considerable period of time before the great Rennegor himself got on the line. And even then, Chick wasn't permitted to speak.

"No more animals, Darlessen ... No more monsters. No more messages. No more dead people—"

"Lee, this is good. This is the money concept. I'm talking possible series here. No, make that a definite."

There was an audible sigh on the other end of the line. "You've never heard the term, 'six strikes and you're out'? It's over. I can't get you in another door. The Chick Darlessen keys have been thrown away."

Chick's lie number one: "Lee, I've come up with a fabulous story concept. Movie of the week—or pilot ... you call it. Get me into FOX, ABC, CBS, I don't care. A cable network? Showtime? That's all I'm asking, and I'll sell this baby in twenty minutes. Ten ... Five, even."

"It's over, Chick."

"Lee, Lee, Lee, what are you saying?"

"I'm saying it's over."

"I don't believe I heard you say that."

"If you were listening closely, you would've heard me say it three times."

"Lee, I can wrap this up in one word: Crossword ... Puzzle."

Lee groaned; no one said writers could count. Counting was the agent's job. "This doesn't have anything to do with your dearly departed uncle, does it?"

Lie number two: "Nothing. Nothing at all. I came up with this completely on my own." Chick silently nudged Bart's handiwork under the couch with his foot, somehow suspecting that Lee might be able to spot the envelope through the phone line. "This is hot, Lee. Just what the studios have been asking for. Interactive, smart, a cast you can identify with, people you can feel for ... sexy, even ... It's the whole nine yards."

"Okay ..." Another sigh. "Let's have it."

Lie number three: "I've been doing some research. I spent all day yesterday at the library, and I pulled up some very interesting articles from a number of newspapers in the Boston vicinity."

"What library? There's a library in L.A.?"

"Doesn't matter. The point is, the concept is based on a true story. A true crime."

"I'm all ears, Chick." Lee almost sounded as if he meant it.

"Okay, last winter in Vermont ... That's in New England. Snow, pretty scenery, and dynamite product placement for the automotive industry ... Four-wheel-drive heaven, if you get my drift ... Anyway, four couples get themselves snowed in at a country inn ... They're stuck. The phone lines are out. Plows can't get through for an entire weekend, and guess what? This really happened. You're gonna love this—"

"I've got another call. Hold on."

While Lee attended to a more important client, Chick retrieved Uncle Bart's work, then studied the answers to the crossword. "Ahh, Uncle Bart. What the heck is this?" He shook his head. "You can't do this—"

"Can't do what?" Lee was back on the line.

"Nothing. Nothing. Just talking to myself."

"So what happened in Vermont?"

"One of the eight snowbound people turned up dead in the middle of the night."

"We're back to dead again?"

"This is solid stuff, Lee," Chick pleaded.

"Okay, okay, I'll bite, murder or accident?"

"Murder, of course. The straight skinny, too. I've got newspaper clippings to prove it—"

"You stole newspapers from the library?"

Lie number four: "Ahh, no. They're photocopies."

On the other end of the line, Chick could hear Lee light a cigarette—a good sign. He was interested. "So, where's this crossword fit in?"

"It seems one of the guests at the inn was a puzzle editor from a Massachusetts newspaper; a babe by the name of Annabella Graham. She was there with her husband, who just happens to be a private eye. His name is Rosco—is that great or what? Who names their kid Rosco? Anyway, the rest of the couples were foodies—you know, amateur chefs ... They worked together as well as socialized together. Taking a yearly trip to the inn was a tradition, but—and here's the kicker—one of the original couples was a no-show. Instead, the wife sent a special dessert recipe, a sort of 'sorry, we're missing the fun,' and hid it in a crossword puzzle—"

"I'm fuzzy on this, Chick. Where's the connection between death and a puzzle ...? Oh, and before you go any further, who was killed: a male or a female?"


"Good. No one's buying dead dames right now."

Chick made mental note of the fact. "It was a he ... The victim was one of the husbands. At first, no one knew how he died. Was it poison? Strangulation? Ordinary heart attack? Suffocation?"

"Nobody had a cell phone?"

"Sure. But what difference would it make? No one could come in or go out."

"So who did it?"

"That's where the crossword comes in. It seems there was a secret message in the puzzle, and this Anna Graham babe figured it out, and then fingered the guilty party."

"So who did it?"

"Who cares. Don't you see, Lee, that's the pitch."

"To be honest, no, I don't see. What pitch?"

Chick took a deep breath. "Okay, follow closely." Lie number five: "I've worked out a fictionalized treatment based on the research I've done. What we have is a mystery story with everything hanging on the puzzle ... And here's the kicker—we cobroker a deal with a network and a magazine publisher, so the show's crossword appears on airdate. That way the viewer gets to solve the crime right alongside Miss Annabella Graham!"

"I thought you said she was married?"

"Mrs., Miss, what difference does it make?"

"According to my divorce lawyer, quite a bit."

"Okay, Lee, fine. But can't you see this? We publish the puzzle in TV Guide or something—"

"They already have a crossword."

"Okay ... okay ... We put it in a magazine that needs a circulation boost. They'll love it. The show sells the mag—the mag sells the show! I think Playboy's circulation has been down lately."


"Okay, maybe not Playboy. But I'm telling you, anyone would jump at this. It's a great hook. It's a money hook." Chick looked at a note Bart had scrawled in the margin of his treatment. "Did you know that forty million Americans do crossword puzzles every single day?"

"Where'd you get that?"

Lie number six: "I'm a professional, Lee. I do my homework. You check the numbers if you don't believe me."

"Humm." Lee was thinking it over. "Maybe you have something."

"Have something? Have something? Call Stan McKenet. He produces Down & Across. He'll eat this up."

"It's a game show, Chick. Stan doesn't produce nighttime drama."

"Call him. Call him right now. I'll stay on hold. Dollars to doughnuts he eats this up in a second—game show or no game show."

"You got a title?"

"You're going to love this." Lie number seven: "I was up all last night working on it. Anatomy of a Crossword."

"I like it."

"I told you. I told you. Call Stan. I'll hold."

While Chick was on hold, he once again glanced over Uncle Bart's treatment and puzzle. It was all there. All he had to do was create the working script. However, there was one slight problem; Uncle Bart's puzzle contained the true identities of the people involved in the true crime. He knew full well that any network legal department would balk on using real names. Chick needed to get a new puzzle for his pitch to fly.

Lee came back on the line and said one word. "Pass."


"Stan McKenet passed."

"Get out of here. No way. You didn't pitch it right."

"I told you, Stan doesn't do nighttime. He's strictly game show." Lee lit a second cigarette—he was still thinking. A good sign. "You've got a puzzle you can serve up with the treatment, right?"

"Ahh ... Yeah. But here's the thing ..." Lie number eight: "I created it, and I'm not real happy with some of the clues. It needs a little tweaking here and there. We're marketing to a savvy audience, a clever audience—"

"I'm going to call Lew Groslir, in Culver City, for you. He's looking for something. This may be it."

Lie number nine: "Lew Groslir. Right. Tell Lew I've contacted Anna Graham to make an original crossword for the show—if he bites. She's got a solid following among puzzle fanatics—a built-in audience. How's that for a hook?"

"You spoke to her? You have this all set up?"

Lie number ten: "Would I lie to you? We talked last night. I phoned all the way to ... Ahh ... Ahh ..." Chick shuffled through Bart's news clippings. "All the way to ... Newcastle, Massachusetts. That's where she lives. It's back East. She's on board. Can't wait for the go-ahead. And I can tell you, she'll be thrilled to work with Lew."

"Obviously she's never met him ... Okay, hold on, let me see if I can get him on the line."



"I've got one word: Forty million people."

A brief sigh emanated from the receiver. "Right."

For Chick, it felt like an eternity before he heard his agent's voice again; it was quite obvious Lee was already on his third cigarette. "You're in," he said, dispensing with a more traditional greeting. "Tomorrow morning at eleven. It's 10411 Culver, third floor ... And, Chick?"


"Don't blow this one."

All that was back in August.


Gray enveloped the windows of Belle Graham's home office: leaden gray intermingled with spurts of sleet and frozen rain that spattered hard and dismally against the panes. Simply trying to peer through the murky glass into the small garden made her feel cold and miserable. This spirit of hopelessness seemed to extend outward. The three yew bushes she could see had lost their usual buoyant elan, while the lack of bird life normally clustered around the squirrel-proof feeder was the coup de grâce, turning the frigid and sodden day even more woebegone and cheerless. Welcome to late January in coastal Massachusetts, she thought. Welcome to ice-covered roads, grizzled, somber skies, snow and more snowand more snow after that. Spring seemed a long, long way away.

Belle put down her pencil, shoved aside the sheet of graph paper upon which she'd begun constructing a new crossword for Newcastle's Evening Crier, shivered, and gazed at her dog Kit. The lanky, multicolored mutt lay curled in happy, puppy dreamland near the base of an overworked space heater. The electronic device was struggling in vain to keep the house's converted rear porch at a temperature that could be deemed remotely habitable and pleasant. Studying both the dog and the heater, Belle momentarily considered stretching out on the floor beside Kit and borrowing a little of her furry warmth. Instead, Belle sighed, pulled the long cuffs of her bulky cable-knit sweater over her hands, hunched her shoulders, and wondered whether she should search for her down vest—and then whether the interminable dark days of winter were ever going to depart.

The phone rang, interrupting her gloomy reverie. She reached for it, forgetting to peel back her sweater-mitten. The combination of clenched fingers and wool sent the receiver spinning to the floor, where it clattered sharply against the painted wood floorboards. The sharp noise woke Kit, who immediately sprang to her feet and began barking at the garden door.


Excerpted from Anatomy of a Crossword by Nero Blanc. Copyright © 2004 Cordelia F. Biddle and Steve Zettler. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Anatomy of a Crossword 3.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Earlier books are better
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
Screen writer Chick Darlessen inherits the estate of his beloved uncle Bartann Welner. Besides one million dollars that the deceased won on the television show Down & Across, Chick also gains a screen play. Apparently his uncle wrote called Anatomy of a Crossword based on a homicide case that Newcastle, Massachusetts resident Belle Graham, a puzzle constructor with syndicated crosswords across the nation, solved using clues from a puzzle that led to the killer. He sells the screen play to Lew Groslier who plans to turn into a TV movie.......................... After coming up to Newcastle and taking pictures so that they can recreate the pertinent scenery for a Hollywood set, Belle flies to Hollywood to act as a consultant for the film. From the time she arrives in California she senses something is not right. The man supposed to play her husband, P.I. Roscoe Polycrates, is in an automobile accident; one of the actresses is injured by something falling on her; and Chick is murdered with his girlfriend arrested for the crime. Belle and Roscoe take matters into their own hands, navigating the treacherous bogs of Hollywood to catch a killer and expose the wrongdoings connected to the movie............................. ANATOMY OF A CROSSWORD is a real puzzler that readers won¿t be able to figure out until Nero Blanc reveals the happenings. This author consistently creates an engaging cerebral who-done-it for armchair detective. This terrific latest work includes misinformation and red herrings that keep the readers attention at all times. Sprinkled throughout the book are puzzles that the audience will enjoy solving since they relate to the plot by containing clues to the mystery................................. Harriet Klausner