Crossword book club: Horse Under Water by Len Deighton | Crosswords

Horse Under Water
Horse Under Water at the Guardian Bookshop.

Last time, our suggested reading was the thriller Horse Under Water by Len Deighton.


This is the second story featuring the spy we know from TV and film as Harry Palmer, except that Deighton doesn’t name his hero. Palmer, we know from The Ipcress Fileenjoys crosswords …

I found the crossword puzzle I had been working on. Alice had completed it. I had got ten down correct. It was EAT …
DITHYRAMBE had been quite wrong. I don’t know why I’d ever thought it otherwise.

. … sometimes taking a chapter or two to solve a clue. He is, though, scornful of slower solvers, as we see in Funeral in Berlin:

Harry Palmer solves a crossword
Joe Cole as Harry Palmer solves a crossword clue. Photograph: ITV

‘What does “sibling” mean, Chico?’ I asked.
‘No idea, sir.’ He’d spent three years at Cambridge, getting his gown tangled in bicycle chains and he couldn’t do the Daily Telegraph crossword without cheating. There was silence until he began to tell me the plot of a film he’d seen the night before.

In other words, Deighton’s Palmer has a knack for using crosswords for quietly comic moments; unlike, say, the Times under the eyes of John le Carré’s Connie Sachsthe puzzles tend to remain uncompleted, often because there’s a hell of a lot going on.

The IPCRESS File in the Guardian Bookshop.
The Ipcress File in the Guardian Bookshop.

We had a solving moment in ITV’s recent Ipcress adaptation; We can hope for more – and that Horse Under Water finally moves to the screen for the first time. It’s not entirely clear why this tale is the only Harry Palmer story to have so far remained on the page. Certainly, there’s enough plot for three films, once you account for all the different things that are being hidden underwater (a TV series, I note hopefully, offers more screen time); others have wondered whether it’s the horse.

When the novels and films first appeared it was perhaps less widely known that “horse” might mean heroin, and crosswords steered well clear of narcotics. Nowadays, solvers are well versed in drug slang.

On the subject of “H” for “horse”, Deighton’s sentences often read like deconstructions of cryptic clues: sentences stuffed with acronyms, often explained in footnotes that also tell the reader about related abbreviations that won’t be used in the story but which help us to pretend we understand tradecraft at the most granular levels.

Horse Under Water’s exposition about the drug trade is interspersed with Palmer’s successive attempts at a clue, changing STURGEON to STALLION to STARLING, and there are crosswords outside the plot too.

The chapters have clue-like titles, a little in the American style

Deep signal
The point of a pen
Short talk
Friday on a Portuguese calendar
Never say this

. … these being BEEP, BALL, BRIEF, SEX and DIE. As some of the chapters are less than a page long, there are plenty of them. Ultimately, they work as loosely as The Ipcress File’s horoscope chapter titles, so that you, the reader, don’t ever really have to think like a solver … unless, that is, you have shelled out for a first edition.

First edition endpapers of Horse Under Water
Horse Under Water, courtesy of Existential Ennui. Photograph: Existential Ennui

In these early copies, there was additional crosswording material in both endpapers – and a loose page inserted somewhere into the novel with a grid. For the first five weeks after publication in October 1963, you had the chance to be the first to send in a correct solution for a very reasonable £50 prize.

Horse Under Water first edition, courtesy of Deathon Dossier
Horse Under Water first edition, courtesy of Deathon Dossier. Photograph: Deighton Dossier

It’s too late now, but if you want to investigate the puzzle or find out more about Horse Under Water, I heartily recommend Existential Ennui and The Deighton Dossier: have a solve and let us know how you get on.

Our next book

Landscape Painted with Tea, a novel
Landscape Painted with Tea, a novel.

His best-known novel is in the form of a dictionary. He wrote a play in the form of a theater restaurant’s menu. He is very much our kind of author. Our next book literally contains the subtitle “A Novel for Crossword Fans” and offers help on “HOW TO SOLVE THIS BOOK DOWN” and “HOW TO SOLVE THIS BOOK ACROSS”. From Milorad Pavić (“he thinks the way we dream”), we have: Landscape Painted with Tea.

I think this one might need six weeks. Discussion in the comments below, or when we reconvene.

Past Book Group books

Find a collection of explainers, interviews and other helpful bits and bobs at

The Shipping Forecast Puzzle Book by Alan Connor, which is partly but not predominantly cryptic, can be ordered from the Guardian Bookshop

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