Prepare to be Puzzled: Paul Sloane’s Lateral Thinking Puzzlers

For the past week or so I have been with Ariel visiting her family in the States. We’ve gotten a lot of fun stuff done (Long Beach Island and a Memorial Day barbecue to boot) but, unfortunately for me, she’s also crammed doctor and dentist appointments, a haircut, and a trip to the nail salon into her busy schedule. My choice: sit in various waiting rooms while those around me gawk at my hilarious accent or stay in the house and find another way to entertain myself while she’s gone. This is how I came across Paul Sloane’s Lateral Thinking Puzzlers, a book that has kept me, if not entertained, then at least occupied over the past few days.

The first thing that got to me was the title – what the fuck is a ‘puzzler’?

Last time I checked ‘puzzle’ was still a perfectly valid term, making ‘puzzler’ one of the most redundant words in the English American dictionary. The last book that I read was Freakonomics, which encourages the use of logic to solve problems, so I’ll admit that this ‘lateral thinking’ nonsense came as a nasty shock to my system. Here’s a relatively simple ‘puzzler’ that I failed to answer:

One night during the Second World War, an allied bomber was on a mission over Germany. The plane was in perfect condition and everything on it worked properly. When it had reached its target, the pilot ordered the bombs released. They were released. But the bombs did not fall from the plane. Why should this be so?

Answer:

The plane was flying upside down.

Admittedly this answer begs the question of why any trained allied pilot might try to bomb his enemies in an upside down plane. Or even how a high-ranking official determined this lunatic capable operating an expensive and deadly military aircraft in the first place. But, ‘Hey’ Paul Sloane would say, ‘prying questions of that sort are against the spirit of lateral thinking exercises.’ Fair enough – you win this round, Sloane.

My prime concern is not this answer as such; I am more concerned by the fact that this is possibly the most sensible answer in the entire book. Sloane initially adopts four or five brain teasers that have been knocking around for decades and then proceeds to pull the remaining ninety-five or so puzzles straight out of his arse. As I go on, do bear in mind that Sloane closes his description for the book by writing, ‘Everyone will join in, to try and come up with the apparently impossible solution – and will groan when the obvious answer is revealed.’

A man entered a house. There was no one else in the house. He walked into a room, stopped, and then slowly raised his hands above his head. After a moment, he turned around, let out a laugh, and left. Why?

This one really threw me. There’s so little context and absolutely no explanation for what’s going on. At least the allied bomber was fighting in the Second World War – why is this man laughing at empty houses? Why should I care? Sloane deeply intrigued me with this one, and that’s probably why his solution made me so angry.

Answer:

The man was a burglar intent on robbing the house. When he reached the library, he heard a harsh voice say ‘Hands up!’ When he looked around, he saw a parrot in a cage.

That was a pretty contentious use of the word obvious, Paul. I can think of ten solutions off the top of my head that are more obvious and make more sense than this. And say what you like about this parrot, he still managed to deter the burglar from stealing whatever it was in the room that he had his eye on. This burglar was almost as idiotic as the jolly old fly-boy who tried to drop bombs through the roof of his plane, the aerial equivalent of pointing a gun at oneself and pulling the trigger. Sloane’s protagonists seem to be, more often than not, people who are entirely inept at their chosen professions.

Those were both easy ones – the following puzzle is from the ‘moderate difficulty’ section:

A woman sat at her kitchen table with her two sons. She spoke to each of her sons and they replied to her, but the sons never spoke to each other. The boys had not fallen out and did not dislike each other. Although they conversed freely with their mother, they never addressed a word to one another. Why?

Always be suspicious of a lateral thinking puzzle where the answer is considerably longer than the question.

Answer:

The mother was a Russian who was widowed during the war and who had fled to the West, leaving her first son behind with his aunt and uncle. She settled in France, married a Frenchman, and had a second son. When her first son visited her for the first time, there was a tearful reunion around the kitchen table. However, neither half-brother could speak the other’s language, so they could converse only through their mother.

What really gets me about this one was how weirdly specific the answer is: the nationalities; the heartbreak; the ‘tearful reunion around the kitchen table’ which has absolutely nothing to do with the question or the answer. After delving further into this book I realised that Sloane’s puzzles only increase in difficulty because the answers become more and more ludicrous. The answers to the simple questions are generally two or three lines in length; there is an answer to one of the hardest questions which takes up an entire page. Meanwhile the questions themselves hardly change at all. The whole thing becomes less of a thinking exercise and more of a test to see which participant has taken the most LSD.

Another hilarious thing about this book is how frequently ice presents the perfect solution. It could be the remnants of a melted snowman, the absence of a block to stand on or the disappearance of a murder weapon – in all scenarios, ice is a lateral thinker’s best friend. Ice is to lateral thinkers what breakups are to Taylor Swift.

One positive outcome of this book is that it gives me the chance to begin a new regular feature for the blog. Every week I will post a lateral thinking puzzla’, along with the answer to that of the previous week, and you can give your prospective answers in the comments section. A correct answer will win nothing whatsoever – in fact I will probably be highly suspicious of any correct answer and assume that you (a) googled the question or (b) are lucky enough to own a copy of this book yourself. [Matthew adds: “Lucky?”][Ariel says: I know I feel truly blessed that my family owns such a precious gem of a book.]

I will leave you with a puzzler from the ‘fiendishly difficult’ section of Lateral Thinking Puzzlers:

A man lies dead inside a trailer. He has shot himself. Close by him is a block of wood. It is a plain piece of wood about two feet long by one inch wide (61 cm by 2cm). The wood carries no writing or other markings and yet, it is fair to say that the sight of this piece of wood on this day caused the man to commit suicide. Why should this be so?

Just remember that Paul Sloane hates you and will do the upmost to ensure that you will never solve the riddles that are the product of his dark and twisted mind. Ciao!

@JeremyCoward

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0 comments

  1. Tash Reply

    Tried to hang himself first but the wood broke so he shot himself instead

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    • 22aer22 Reply

      I made this exact same guess when he read this one to me the other day! It apparently makes way too much sense to be the real answer.

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    • jezerami Reply

      Haha yeah this always seems to be the answer to any suicide-related puzzle. But not this time!

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  2. Kylie Reply

    The man felt so sad to live in a trailer built of aluminum that the sight of real wood reminded him of all the missed opportunities of his life, and he ended it all. Either that, or he’s part of a pact of thieves or other conspirators and their boss has a special signal to let them know it’s time to die: a ‘block’ of wood that is ‘about’ 2 feet long but exactly 61 cm.

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  3. malcolmthecynic Reply

    Stabbed himself with it? It was like the blue trombone from HIMYM and a symbol of a relationship he had with a significant other and giving back the gift is a way of saying she’s no longer interested?

    These aren’t “riddles”, because you can come up with any number of solutions that make sense. They’re just pieces of flash fiction except that Sloane intentionally hides the ending from us.

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    • Bellomy Reply

      In my version the shot has to fail to finish the job, so he then uses the wood. It never says the shot killed him.

      I actually think this might be it.

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    • jezerami Reply

      Lol. If a piece of wood was his idea of a romantic gift I’m not surprised she dumped him! And yes fair point.

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    • jezerami Reply

      Ha weird! Where’s that plank from again? Ariel and I both recognise it but can’t place it.

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      • 22aer22 Reply

        Yeah it’s driving me nuts!

        I also can’t believe you were near LBI! I grew up in NJ, and even now when I’m home in the states in PA we’re only like 1 1/2 hours from LBI. It’s so fun to visit for the weekend 🙂

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      • E.H.Taylor Reply

        Ed, Edd, and Eddy!
        Don’t ask me how I remember this since I haven’t seen that cartoon in years. I remember nothing of the show, but I vividly remember that plank.

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  4. callmeIndigo Reply

    Clearly the piece of wood killed his family long ago, and seeing it now he knew it had returned to finish the job; rather than suffer the indignity of being killed by what rightfully should be an inanimate object, he shot himself.

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    • jezerami Reply

      That’d be pretty awkward if it turned out to be a different plank of wood. And close, but no cigar.

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  5. E.H.Taylor Reply

    I can’t answer this puzzle because the dimensions for the piece of wood are incomplete. I mean, how thick is it?

    I need to know in order to decide if it was tall enough for him to trip over while holding the gun. (That *would* have been my guess had this puzzle not been missing such vital information).

    Or maybe he’s living in a trailer because he has a phobia to wood, so when someone accidentally leaves their block of wood behind (everyone carries those, right?), it terrifies him to the point of shooting himself!

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    • jezerami Reply

      I will break the rules slightly and tell you that the piece of wood is (approximately) 1cm thick. And no luck so far, feel free to keep guessing!

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      • E.H.Taylor Reply

        I can definitely see these guest posts (and especially the comments to them) getting out of hand, haha. Do we really have to wait a week for the answer to this?

        Okay, next guess:
        The man used to be a martial arts master, but was disgraced and exiled when he failed to break a board with his head. Years later, on the anniversary of this failure, someone has sent him the same board he could not break. He is determined to regain honor by succeeding, but when he fails on every attempt, he shoots himself.

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      • 22aer22 Reply

        I wish that was the real answer, that’s amazing. I’ll talk to Jeremy about maybe posting the answers over a weekend and the new questions on Wednesday hehe.

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  6. Taylor Reply

    In 1979, the man married his high school sweetheart. They lived happily together for several years and even opened a kite store. The store was tremendously successful, and it became the envy of all the surrounding kite store owners.
    Then, tragedy struck. One day late in the fall of 1984, the man came back from a lunch break to find his wife dead on the floor. At her feet was a half-constructed kite, the last one she ever worked on. The kite, ironically, was decorated with a skull and crossbones.
    The police decided that the wife had been murdered. Blunt-force trauma to the head, they said, but without a murder weapon they couldn’t prove who had done it. There was nothing more they could do.
    The man buried his wife and spent the next three decades in mourning, drinking himself to oblivion in an attempt to drown out the constant, blinding absence of his beloved. His kite store fell to ruin, and so did he.
    Then, one day during yet another Harry Potter marathon on ABC Family, there was a knock at his door. The weary man rose from his decrepit chair and dragged himself to the door, a drink in his hand.
    He opened the door. No one was there. The man looked down to find a small cardboard box on the porch.
    The man took the box inside and opened it. There were two items within: a small block of wood and an index card.
    The wood he recognized immediately. It was a support strut for his biggest competitor’s most famous kite, the Black Mamba. It had been the only kite the man and his wife had been unable to construct, and the biggest threat to their business.
    On the index card was written, “the murder weapon.”
    In an instant the man understood. It was that competitor who had killed his wife in a fit of professional jealousy. He had remained uncaught all these years. And the worst part if it was that when the man’s store finally went under, that competitor had graciously bought him out–and had even kept the man on as an employee. His wife’s killer had been paying his bills for thirty years, while he bagged substandard kites.
    It was too much to take. The man knew there was no way to prove to the police who had done the murder. He promptly committed suicide rather than live with this knowledge.

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  7. janelovering Reply

    The man has been considering suicide for some time. He recently wrote to his best friend (who lives at a distance) asking him whether, under the conditions he has been living, he would consider suicide to be an option.

    The friend received the letter. His friend was right, given the circumstances, suicide was the only option. Not wanting to write back with such an outright message, he took a small plank and shaped it, sending it back the next day.

    The man considering suicide opened the package and shot himself. I wood.

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  8. Aggman Reply

    The man is a caretaker (or janitor for you american times) in a secondary school (high school for you american types). The day he kills himself is the day that he is released from prison after years inside. Years earlier he was convicted for molesting an under age student at the school he worked at. Although whilst in prison for he considered suicide, partly because of his experience but mostly his because of his guilt. The day he is released from prison, the journey to his halfway house (in this case, a trailer, presumably to keep him isolated and away from children) includes a ride passed his old school, the place of the crime. This triggers the guilt, the panic and shame he managed to keep so well under wraps for so many years in jail to resurface, stronger than ever. As he is let into his new trailer by his guard, the contrast of the bright light of the sun and his new dark home causes his eyes to struggle to adjust. He steps into the trailer, sees a piece of wood, frighteningly similar in dimension, shape and colour to his trusty old broom from all those years ago. This time his suicidal feelings were too strong. Without hesitation, he grabs his guard’s handgun from its holster, puts it to his temple and screams the words “GOD FORGIVE ME”. BANG. He drops to his knees, before his lifeless body falls to the floor. Any other the day, the wood was just a piece of wood. Today, it was a Mnemonic to what he had done and how, even after his punishment, he could not live with himself.

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    • jezerami Reply

      Well ‘Aggman’, kudos for getting the dark and twisted part spot on. Unfortunately Sloane wrote his book for the entire family – molestation and paedophilia are two themes that he seems to have avoided. Better luck next time!

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      • 22aer22 Reply

        This is definitely one for Lateral Thinking Puzzles – After Hours. Loving the stories people are coming up with on here, they’re better than all the stories we’ve read on this blog!

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  9. KayMia Reply

    I remember when I used to love these puzzles (not puzzlers, M. Sloane…). I am okay with specific answers to puzzles so long as the answer actually makes a lick of sense and is not so absurd that an equally ludicrous answer cannot satisfy all of the facts. Detectives run into this situation frequently, I imagine, when they can form a number of theories that all fit the facts, but it is pretty close to pointless to drum up any insane theory because lateral thinking; the airplane flying upside down is about as idiotic of a solution as could be possibly imagined for that scenario. I agree this isn’t developing any sort of skills for the book readers, except for maybe becoming the most irritating member of any group of friends.

    I unfortunately have heard this one before so I won’t hazard a guess, but it certainly does not meet the criteria I mentioned. I much prefer the ideas in the comments to the shit that will unfold next week.

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    • Jeremy Coward Reply

      I couldn’t agree more! I would understand these puzzles if they were intended as creative writing exercises or something like that, but the implication here seems to be that the given answer is somehow more obvious/fitting than any other, even though that’s rarely the case. I’m surprised that you’ve come across this one, hopefully next week’s question will be new to you.

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  10. clara Reply

    He was holding the gun and tripped over the block of wood

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  11. Dan Reply

    I, like the man in the puzzler, will give it a shot.

    This man has been haunted his whole life by stunted growth. He used an unmarked piece of wood cut to his exact height to measure any progress he has made to grow taller than two feet. He never marked this piece of wood because the reminder of his actual height would be too depressing for him to see every night as he checked in hopes that he grew to be any taller than he had been the night before. His childhood doctor assured him that some men grow taller until they are 22, so on the day of his 22nd birthday he measured his height against the piece of wood, and upon finding that he had not made any progress he is overtaken with depression and shoots himself.

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  12. A Reply

    The man was deeply in love with a vampire; they’d been on the run for months now, evading the Slayer and sticking to the shadows. He went out this morning to the butcher’s to buy some pig’s blood, but when he returned, instead of his true love lying there he saw only a piece of wood lying in a bit of dust. Finally that bitch Buffy had caught up. Unable to cope, the man quickly shuffled off his mortal coil in the hopes of reuniting with his love in the depths of Hell.

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  13. Savvy Reply

    He couldn’t take being a lumberjack anymore and the very sight of a block of wood depressed him so much he decided to end it all.

    Also for the one about the woman and her two sons, I just assumed they sons weren’t talking to each other because the mom was asking them each questions that didn’t really spark a conversation between the three of them – stuff like “Did you clean your room, Fred? Billy, did you do the dishes?”

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  15. allthoughtswork Reply

    These kind of “puzzlers” are why I never got into detective novels. The mystery is always solved in some convoluted way by inserting extra facts at the end that the reader was not privy to in the beginning. That’s a pretty fucked up way to present a puzzle.

    In fact, it’s not a puzzle at all, it’s just an incomplete story. It’s about as rewarding as slogging through a twenty-two chapter novel only to find the last page missing. If all you have to do is make up an ending, you’re not really solving anything.

    Kinda reminds me of Intelligent Design.

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