Solving the unsolvable

* Spoiler alert *
The answer to this clue appears at the bottom of this post.

Some friends and I gathered online today to have a crack at the infamous “DA” cryptic in Melbourne’s Age newspaper. David Astle is a devilish setter, much revered and (gently) reviled on the crosswording scene. You’ll find him on twitter @DontAttempt – say no more.

This clue was our final solve:
7ac. Stable strap hurting head, stricken by beer (10)

We’d solved the cross letters as:
(Pretty uninspiring cross letters, and, crucially, no first letter in place.)

At this late stage of a puzzle, if you’re still struggling even to confidently identify a clue’s definition element you know you’re looking at something pretty difficult — likely an obscure final answer, or tricky wordplay or misdirection, or all of the above! When you come up against this from a setter with a penchant for the diabolical, it’s easy to get mentally overwhelmed by the possibilities.

We’d scratched our heads over this a few times throughout the solve. Following our best intuition for DA’s misdirecting ways, we were inclined to see “Stable strap” as the definition, meaning some kind of equipment used on horses (ie in stables).

This was a hunch, but it lead us to an idea. If this was really the definition, the final answer seemed likely to be a niche piece of vocabulary that we might never have seen before. We wondered if DA, knowing the various impediments to solving this clue, might have tried to balance the clue with less difficult wordplay. Perhaps he might exploit some more run-of-the-mill cryptic-ese, or at least some of his more common Astle-isms. #benevolent-creator

Running with this, we reasoned that BEER could simply represent ALE — one of the most common synonym pairs used in cryptics — which fit nicely at the end of the answer to give us –A–T–N–ALE. Seemed reasonable.

Next, perhaps we needed a synonym for HURTING, with its first (“head”) letter removed (“stricken”)? A bit more complex, but not an uncommon construction. If correct, we might expect an ING in the answer, which also fit for -A-TINGALE.

Finally, we needed a synonym for HURTING that fit ––A–TING (with that first letter to be removed.) Since DA fairly regularly exploits the synonym pair hurting/smarting, we wound up with MARTINGALE.

At this point, one of us recognised the word, but thought it related to gambling. A Google search confirmed that martingale can mean both a method of gambling or a strap connected to a horse’s bridle!

This all goes to show that with a bit of careful thinking about a setter’s process you might be able to crack a few of those seemingly intractable clues, and learn some fancy new vocab in the process.

But, hmm… could we really call DA a benevolent creator? I think the neighs have it.