In the beginning, we are told, was the Word, and the word game must have arrived about ten minutes later (though it is very doubtful that "Madam, I'm Adam" was the first palindrome). Riddles are recorded in the Old Testament (the Queen of Sheba was a devotee), and in Greek mythology. oedipus began all his troubles by answering the Sphinx's riddle, and Homer died of his anger at being unable to answer a riddle posed by the fishermen of Ios: "What we caught we threw away, what we could not catch we kept." (The answer is "fleas.")
Helene Hovanec, a puzzle-addict of uncommon throughness, goes all the way to these ancient examples in her far-ranging survey of puzzles through the ages. Before we get to the varieties of crossword and rebus which are the heart of the book, there are medieval puzzles, Latin palindromes, anagrams acrostics and riddles of all kinds and vintages, with answers handily provided to spare readers a Homeric fate.
The book has a fascinating array of illustrations from almost all periods, and some of its chapters explore such related subjects as quiz shows, the use of puzzles in advertising and promotion, the difference between American and British crosswords, and the lives of some noted puzzle-makers (particularly interesting are that very strange genius Sam Loyd and the chronicler of Alice, Lewis Carroll).
But the true devotee of puzzles will find it hard to read the text straight through, since practically every page has distraccing samples of what is being discussed. These range from a highly cryptic British puzzle to very childish riddles ("When is a dog like a wandering minstrel?" "When he is a rover.").
By now, the production of puzzles has become a sizeable industry with specialized products appealing to almost any taste. Admirers of The Hulk, Spider Man and other Marvel Comics heroes, for example, will want to thread their way through Stan Lee's offering, Marvel Mazes to Drive You Mad , (Fireside/Simon and Schuster, $2.95) a series of mazes with comic-strip introductions in which the reader helps the hero to reach his objective. In maze No. 5, for example, you have 2 1/2 minutes to lead Captain America through a labyrinth to where he can find and destroy the agents of Hydra. The mazes are, for the most part, rather rudimentary, but in this they resemble the stories and they should appeal to the same readership.
Hovanec's book functions on quite a different level and somewhere in its delightfully varied pages there should be something to interest almost anyone whose dedication to puzzles goes beyond the occasional quest for a three-letter word meaning "mythical bird." (Paddington Press, $5.95)