This week The Premier Crossword by Frank Longo bears the title "Tooling Around" and the long theme answers are clued with a "?" so we know it probably involves some play on words or puns intended to elicit a chuckle or maybe a groan. The top part of the puzzle put up very little resistance so when I came upon the first theme answer I had enough of it filled in to confirm my suspicions, and the substitution of a single letter turned the name of a common bird into a type of tool to match the somewhat tortured clue. This one turned out to be the easiest one to find in the box of tools and it soon became clear that the title not only describes the theme but it's an example of it too, because clearly Frank was "Fooling Around" when he conjured up these beauties:
23a - GREAT HORNED AWL (Tool with a large, bony projection?)
31a - AT THE TOP OF ONE'S VICE (On a tool's upper surface?)
43a - AX OF KINDNESS (Tool given as a peace offering?)
58a - HAMMER SIMPSON (Hit a cartoon dad with a tool?)
68a - THE WRENCH CONNECTION (Add-on accessory for a tool?)
81a - SANDER BULLOCK (Male bovine using a tool?)
98a - DRILL PICKLES (Use a tool on some Heinz products?)
108a-MOST VALUABLE PLIERS (Priciest tool?)
122a-I FEEL YOUR PLANE (Statement upon locating someone's lost tool in the dark?)
A couple of these tickled me a lot - "ax " is an almost perfect homophone for "acts" and it's always nice to be reminded of random "acts of kindness", and "I feel your pain" is common enough that substituting "plane" in the phrase still works. Some of the others had me scratching my head and I struggled in a couple of places to finally see the answers. I had "at the top of one's vice" completely filled in but still didn't get it - I finally realized it's a play on "at the top of one's voice" but I think that falls a little short of the mark. I love Sandra Bullock and I guess the substitution of "sander" isn't too much of a stretch, and Homer Simpson is probably ubiquitous enough to make "hammer" understandable. "The French Connection" was a best-selling novel and movie more than 40 years ago so it's possible younger solvers won't get the "wrench" connection (see what I did there?). Sports fans will probably know the MVP reference even with the tool substituted for the "players", and I guess everyone will know what "Dill pickles" are but why anyone would want to "drill" them is beyond me. So that's the theme - whether Frank was "tooling around" or fooling around" with us, I'll leave it up to you to decide.
Did anyone else notice the bonus tool inserted in the grid but not part of the themed? "Shaped with a certain cutting tool" certainly looks like it should be part of theme but it lacks a "?" and so produces the non-punny answer CHISELLED (85d)./ I can't make up my mind if that's a nice touch or a inconsistency that somehow affects the integrity of the puzzle, but there it is.
Close observation will reveal where I miswrote while filling in the grid, but those write-overs were more a result of carelessness than any difficulty with the puzzle. My real problems came in other areas of the grid, not the least of which was having to know not only ESTELLE (Parsons of "Roseanne" 96d) but the name of her character she played (BEV - 97d), and it didn't help that both of those crossed LYSE (102a - Disintegrate, as cells) which was a totally new word to me (and one that I am certain I will never use in conversation, so I'm unlikely to remember it). Looking back over the completed puzzle I can't see anything else that especially problematic but I still feel that I spent longer than usual to finish (not that that's a bad thing).
I was reading another crossword blog recently and several commenters seemed to take offense at a reference to "god" appearing in the grid (the whole answer was "godsend" or something like that) because some religious sects prohibit calling the almighty by name. Today Frank puts God right up front, clued as "Divine one" (1a) - feel free to register your outrage in the comments.
The holidays are fast approaching but Frank offers help for last-minute shoppers who have to shop IN HASTE (87a - Hurriedly) by letting them SAVE BIG (95a - Get a steal at a store) on items that are ON SALE (74d - Cut-rate) - that was considerate.
Three-letter fill is usually helpful to me because it's generally petty easy to fill in, but DIB (98d - Fish by letting the bait bob) had me totally perplexed as I have never heard of it. I wanted "jig" but it wasn't meant to be. Happily the long crosswords saved me.
I just noticed the Grand Ole OPRY (2d) crossing OPERETTA (19a - Gilbert and Sullivan work) - I wonder what that would sound like?
I can't wait to see what Frank Longo, the POOBAH (39d - Big cheese) of the Premier Crossword, has for us next week.