The Fellowship of Puzzlemakers by Samuel Burr – Blogtour

What a delight this novel was to read: a feelgood quest to find himself for young fogey Clayton Stumper, who was left in a hatbox on the doorstep of the Fellowship of Puzzlemakers HQ in Bedfordshire in 1993. He was taken in by sixty-seven-years-old director and founder of the organisation Pippa Allsbrook, and brought up there by her with the assorted bunch of resident puzzlemakers. Now Clayton is 25, and Pippa died before she can tell him anything about his parents: the novel begins at her wake. Her death has awakened a need in him to find out. He should have known though, for Pippa, as a retired cruciverbalist (crossword-setter) has set him a series of clues to discover his origins which will take him on a real adventure.

But before we can get going with Clayton on his quest we need to discover more about the Fellowship. We’re taken back to 1979 to the upstairs function room of a London pub, where Pippa is hoping that people will come to her meeting to celebrate the art of puzzlemaking, and find that sense of fellowship. For whilst doing puzzles can bring people together, creating them is usually a solitary activity. Luckily she has a good turnout including Sir Derek Wadlow, a former cryptographer from GCHQ and Earl Vosey (anagram: Easy Lover) who is a master of mazes, amongst many others. As the weeks go on, they add Hector Hayward, a painter of jigsaw puzzles, and Nancy Stone, a London cabbie with a photographic memory who is the Queen of Quizzes, amongst many others. They set each other puzzles, give talks about their specialties, and most importantly enjoy each other’s company.

It’s not long before they formalise their organisation, pledging to give a percentage of their earnings to it, as all are finding that business is better together, and to celebrate their 100th meeting, Pippa books a slightly run-down hotel in mid-Bedfordshire for an weekend away for them all. She has an ulterior motive though. Pippa wants to buy the hotel to become their HQ, where they can all live together, feeding off each other’s energies to become the greatest puzzlemakers in the country. For most, it’s a no-brainer, indeed Hector had been living in his camper van until Pippa gave him a room in her house.

Burr goes on to alternate between the backstory of the Fellowship and Clayton’s present day mission to discover who his parents are bringing them together at the close. Having grown up with a bunch of mostly older puzzlemakers, Clayton may be a young fogey but he’s ready for adventure. Along the way, he meets a variety of people alongside those who Pippa’s clues will lead him to. Those random encounters are really well done, and are touching in many places, for he is a kind and generous soul.

Interspersed throughout are puzzles – codes, cryptic clues, and a encoded wordsearch. I did quite well with most, but couldn’t make head nor tail of what I was looking for in the wordsearch! The author does a good job of explaining them without doing mega info dumps on us though, which is always appreciated, and the answers are all in the text. Having set and taken part in many quizzes (read my post about quiz-setting here), devised many word puzzles, and being a big fan of piecing together arty jigsaw puzzles myself, I did love this aspect of the novel. But Clayton himself is a puzzle too, and it was wonderful seeing him build up his persona, piece by piece, clue by clue.

This is a gentle and very human mystery told with a lot of humour and pathos that happens to be a brilliant page-turner too. I had to know what happened next – in both timelines. Heartwarming and life-affirming, it was a pleasure to read.

Source: Review copy – thank you! Orion hardback, 368 pages.

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