Peter's Cryptic Crossword Bookshelf

This is a list of most of the books I've acquired over the years and used for solving and/or setting cryptic puzzles. The most useful books should be at the top of each category. At the moment (end of 2005) crossword books are fairly popular, and I can't include them all. The Amazon UK site now has good lists of alternative suggestions when you're reading about a particular book.


Whatever dictionary you choose from this list, don't try to save money by getting the "concise" version. The unusual words are the ones you'll need most, and these are the ones they take out to make the Concise version concise.

The Chambers Dictionary

The traditional favourite dictionary of every serious cryptic solver and setter based in the UK. When people talk about Chambers they mean this dictionary. Azed, the Listener, and the Spectator puzzles are pretty explicit about recommending it. Many other setters use it too. Those who used to know this dictionary as "Chambers 20th Century Dictionary" should note that "Chambers 21st century dictionary", which appeared rather early in about 1995, is not as comprehensive.

Chambers is a rather eccentric dictionary, and isn't terribly easy to use, though this aspect has improved in the last few editions. If you're not tackling "advanced" cryptic puzzles, I'd suggest investing in Collins or the Concise Oxford first.

The latest edition of Chambers appeared in 2003. Some details:

Title: The Chambers Dictionary
ISBN 0-550-10013-X
Price (Standard edition) GBP 30.00
References over 215,000 (1988: 190000, 1993: 215000)
Definitions over 300,000 (1988: 265000, 1993: 300000)

Some features

Introductory sections A short (5-page) history of English
Variation and change - short article on "standard" and other forms of English
Appendices New one - Notes on Authors cited in the dictionary.

The appearance and style are similar to the 1993 and 1998 editions. Headwords are now a sanserif font, which makes them easier to find, especially in long entries like those for 'sea'. We're promised some new waggish definitions to go with the ones for words like eclair. The layout is essentially unchanged - abbreviations are in the main text, as in 1993/8, and the lists of first names & phrases/quotes from foreign tongues are still separate.

As far as I know, no words in the 1993 or 1998 editions are deleted from the 2003 one.

Chambers is now also available on CD-rom. For details, see this review.

Collins English Dictionary

The Times uses this as a standard. It contains many more proper nouns than Chambers. I don't have the most recent edition, partly because I believe the text is much the same as the free dictionary which Collins generously provide on the web.

Longman Dictionary of the English Language

A perfectly sound alternative to Collins. Also has quite a few proper nouns.

Concise Oxford Dictionary

Substantially cheaper than Chambers, Collins, and Longmans, but also less comprehensive and doesn't do proper nouns. OUP also publish a rival for Chambers, Collins and Longman - the Oxford Dictionary of English. I've never owned this one but I'd expect it to do very sound job. And if you have 200 pounds a year going spare, you can of course have the full OED online.

Encarta Dictionary

Doesn't seem to be better than any of the above, based on fairly quick looks in shops. Appeared in remainder bookshops quite soon after publication, which isn't a good sign.

Websters 3rd New International

A great find for about 25 quid in a secondhand bookshop about ten years ago. Listener puzzles occasionally use words in it. If your public library has it, use theirs.

Other reference books

Roget's Thesaurus

The version editied by Robert L Chapman and published by Harper Collins is my favourite. It contains many word lists as well as the usual sets of synonyms. Flicking through randomly, I found lists of solvents, figures of speech, and types and pieces of armour. The version published by Longmans is also good.

Try to get a thesaurus that's organised into numeric categories, as Mr Roget intended. These use the space available much more efficiently than the 'alphabetical' type.

Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable

You can guarantee that at least half a dozen Listener puzzles each year will use a theme dug out of this British browser's favourite. There's new "Millennium" edition published in 1999.

Oxford Dictionary of Quotations

... and you'll probably find another half-dozen based on something in here. The ODQ also got a new edition in 1999, which looks well-organised.

Bartlett's Familiar Quotations also comes in handy sometimes.


The larger the better. The brand doesn't matter much. My remaindered Rand McNally New International has helped with many obscure places.

Dent Dictionary of Fictional Characters

This is an update of the Everyman d. of FC. Handy for some puzzles with literary references. Has often helped me complete Times eliminator puzzles.

Oxford Companion to English Literature

More help for those of us not as well-read as we might be.


The Oxford Book of English verse and Complete Shakespeare are useful. Another sort of anthology, the Bible, is also needed for puzzles occasionally.

Whitaker's Almanac

Lots of information on the British and world scene. Pears Cyclopedia would do just as well.

Chambers Biographical Dictionary

Contains all the information you normally need about some famous person.

Crossword cheating books

Nearly all of us have to use these sometimes!

Chambers Words, Backwords, etc. etc.

Chambers put a computer to work to produce these. They do not include every word in the most recent edition of Chambers. If you have a computer, then programs like Ross Beresford's TEA do everything these books do and more.

Words sorts words alphabetically in groups of the same length.
Back-Words does the same but sorts by alphabetical order read backwards, so that NORTHERNER and SOUTHERNER appear next to each other, for instance.
Anagrams uses a system by which you look up BERTU to find BRUTE, REBUT and TUBER.
Crossword Completer lets you look up alternating letters, e.g. -U-A-U-A to find CUNABULA and HULAHULA.
Official Scrabble Lists contains lists like all the five letter words containing an X.
The next two add category information not so easy to find elsewhere. As they're not mentioned (in December 2002) on the Chambers web-site, I assume they're out of print.
Fiction File lists works of fiction by Author, Title, and major characters.
Word Lists has lists of words in particular categories, sorted by length, so that you can find seven-letter Bolivian cities or 6-letter constellations.
Phrase file sorts phrases by word length, so that you can decide that PICKLED------- is probably CABBAGE, HERRING or WALNUTS.

Collins Crossword Dictionary (out of print)

This has many lists of words in categories often used in puzzles, including the odd spelling habits of Shakespeare and Spenser, words often pinched from foreign languages, minerals listed by colour, etc. etc. There are similar books by Jeremy Howard-Williams and Anne Bradford which are more easily available at the moment.

Bradford's Crossword Solver's Dictionary

I have a copy of the 6th edition, published in 2005. This is an excellent book. For full details, see this review.

The Chambers Crossword Dictionary

This is another book of categorised word-lists. Although it contains many lists and many words, it seems to have been produced by letting the computer do its stuff, rather than by exploiting experience of solving British crosswords of the kind it's supposed to help with, despite claims about getting advice from famous British setters. As a couple of examples:

I'm being harsh, but they want 25 of your money for this. The introductory articles by Jonathan Crowther (Azed) and Don Manley (Duck, Pasquale, Quixote, etc.) are good, and the list of anagram indicators is handy, if only to show the sheer number of possibilities.

"How to solve" books

Chambers Crossword Manual

This book by Don Manley (aka Duck, Pasquale, Quixote) leads this field. It contains information about advanced as well as standard cryptics, a good selection of sample puzzles, and advice about writing puzzles too. All the normal types of cryptic clue are covered, with plenty of examples, and practice puzzles. ISBN 0-550-19034-1.

How to do the Times Crossword

This is the best "how to solve" book to appear since Chambers Crossword Manual was first published. It appeared in 2001, and is written by Brian Greer, who edited the Times Crossword from 1995 to 2000. Brian is a psychologist, currently working on mathematics education, and he uses these skills to explain cryptic clues well. There's some historical information about how the current style of Times clue-writing evolved, with sample puzzles showing how different things used to be, and many examples of wonderful clues. Those with ambitions to write puzzles should also read this book - it identifies many common faults with clues and says why they are faults. ISBN: 0-00-710840-0.

Cryptic Crosswords and How to Solve Them

This book by Fred Piscop (ISBN 0-8069-7751-5) is an excellent short introduction to American cryptics, with good explanations and plenty of puzzles to try.

Of the others recently published in this category, I'd suggest the Chambers book by Kindred & Knight or Teach Yourself Crosswords by Ruth Crisp, one of the setters who foiled the Daily Telegraph's notorious 'computerised crosswords' scheme of early 1998. Both may be suitable if your current ambition is to be able to finish daily newspaper cryptics.

Puzzle books

UK newspaper puzzles - Penguin and other publishers

Penguin have published books of puzzles from the Times, Guardian and Independent. These usually contain at least 60 puzzles. Of these, the Times series has not been added to since about 1991, and isn't easy to find in bookshops. Times Books (part of Harper Collins) subsequently published an "Omnibus" book of 120 puzzles in about 1995, and now publishes books of Times puzzles fairly frequently. At the end of 2002 there were 5 Times Crossword books, and a couple of books of Jumbo puzzles. One notable book of theirs:

The Times Crossword Masterclass contains 100 puzzles, selected for difficulty. All have been used in some stage of the Times Crossword Championship. The ones used in regional finals (1-65) were solved by 20% of competitors or less. Puzzles 66-90 are from National finals. None were solved correctly by all the finalists. 91-100 are all eliminator puzzles. Price is 6.99, ISBN 0-7230-1059-5. Dates of the championships range from about 1973 to 1994, though some puzzles are undated. Recommended for those with ambitions in this contest.

Books of puzzles are available for most UK daily newspapers. One recent one (December 2002) worth considering is Araucaria's Monkey Puzzles (Guardian Books, ISBN 1-843-54004-5). This contains 100 of his puzzles, starting with his first Guardian puzzle. Araucaria follows his own rules, but has produced some of the most entertaining cryptic crosswords of the last 40-odd years.

Books of Advanced Cryptics [mostly out of print!]

These are harder to find. You must either snap them up when you see them or look carefully in remainder or secondhand bookshops. General advice: snap up any puzzle book you want - relatively few get a second edition!

Starting with the granddaddy of them all, the Torquemada Puzzle Book should be snapped up if you're lucky enough to find it second-hand. It contains some of his extremely difficult puzzles, other word games and puzzles, a cheat's dictionary listing all the words used in the crosswords, a bizarre mystery story in which you have to discover the correct page order before discovering the murderer, and a set of sheets of tracing paper so that you can solve a puzzle without ruining the book.

Ximenes on the Art of the Crossword Originally published in the mid-60s, this classic of crossword literature was reprinted in 2001 by Swallowtail Books. ISBN: 190340004X. It contains lots of good advice for setters, especially those writing advanced cryptic puzzles. X was the successor of Torquemada at the Observer and moved its puzzles from perversity to fairness. The book sets out many of the principles followed by good setters today. A Penguin book of Ximenes puzzles was published in 1972, just after the death of X. Derek Harrison's Site has some X puzzles.

Azed succeeded X in 1972. Two books of Azed puzzles have been published by Chambers. Best of Azed Crosswords has half of his first 200 puzzles. Observer Azed Crosswords has a third of the next 300.

The Third Penguin book of Listener puzzles appeared in 1980. After a long pause, including the salvation of the Listener puzzle by the Times (maybe Murdoch isn't all bad!), Times Books published The Listener Crossword in 2002 (ISBN: 0-00-714632-9). This contains 60 puzzles from 1991-95, arranged in order of increasing difficulty - easily assessed for Listener puzzles because each attempt sent in is checked, and records are kept. The first few puzzles are supposed to be solvable by experienced solvers of the Times or similar daily puzzles. The last few will undoubtedly justify the book's sub-title ("The World's Most Difficult Crossword") - only 8 correct solutions were received for puzzle 60. If you think your interest in cryptic puzzles will last, get the book now and lay it down like a bottle of vintage port, to come back to in a decade or two's time. All Listener puzzles are "gimmick" puzzles, and inevitably some of the gimmicks will mean more to British solvers than those in other countries. A copy of Chambers is essential for tackling these puzzles.

Grafton and Chambers have each published one book of Spectator puzzles.

Books of Independent Mag. puzzles are published by Headline. These are a good introduction to advanced cryptics.

Two compilations of puzzles selected by Gyles Brandreth were published by Sphere in the mid-80s - the (Almost) Impossible and Even More Impossible Crossword Books.

The Atlantic Monthly puzzler book (David R Godine, Boston) contains 100 examples of the work of Emily Cox and Henry Rathvon.

Private Eye Crosswords by Tom Driberg has an entertaining introduction and a good set of non-Ximenean puzzles. As with the current series of Eye puzzles (by someone else), the less noble parts of life are well to the fore.


Crosswords for Dummies by Michelle Arnot (1998) hasn't appeared in London bookshops, but I bought a copy on holiday in 1998. The book is mostly about solving puzzles published in North America, but includes a chapter on cryptic crosswords. Michelle Arnot has been gracious enough to listen to some suggestions from me about improving this chapter. It's currently most useful for folk based in North America. It would be unfair to expect complete coverage of all cryptics in a chapter this long. The information about US-style puzzles is mostly excellent. If, like me, you try them sometimes, but struggle with some of the local references, it may help. There are at least four books of 101 Crossword Puzzles for Dummies. I don't think any of them have any cryptics.

The next two are out of print:

Roger Millington's The Strange World of the Crossword (1974) has lots of information on the history of puzzles.

Michelle Arnot's A History of the Crossword Puzzle (published in the US under the title What's Gnu) has interesting information about the early days, on both sides of the Atlantic.

Back to Peter's Puzzle Corner ...

Back to our home page ...

Editor: Peter Biddlecombe
Page status: (Always?)under Construction
Last change: