Writing good trivia questions is harder than it looks. Some are insultingly simple: I once attended a pub quiz where the compere began with the question, ‘Did Adolf Hitler have a moustache?’, before sagely advising, ‘Don’t overthink it.’ Others are too obscure. There’s no point asking, ‘Who won the discus at the 1904 Olympic games?’ because 99.99 per cent of people won’t know. Even worse, they have no chance of working it out, or at least of making an educated guess. A good question should tease and tantalise, have you racking your brain for something you know is stored in there somewhere, and the final revelation of its answer should have you gasping, ‘Gah! Of course! I knew it!’
On that level, The Round Britain Quiz Book by Paul Bajoria (BBC Books 400pp £12.99) works very well. It tasks you not only with answering sophisticated questions, but then with forming connections between them. Such questions include, ‘Why would you look for treasure in an anchorite’s dwelling in Russia, in offices in Italy, or in an old leper colony in France?’ (Obviously, you will want to work that out for yourself, so the answers will be given only at the end of this review – that was Question 1.) Readers also get a few supplementary clues, which are written upside down so you can’t read them by accident, and the solutions are given on the very next page, so you don’t have to be constantly turning to the back of the book to find out if you’re a genius or not. It’s a classy and elevating read, which will leave you feeling both scourged by its demands and delighted by your occasional victories.
Of course, an important consideration when buying a quiz book is how you intend to read it. Will it be a solo effort, or will you be testing your family or friends at the dinner table? Divided into rounds, The Penguin Book Quiz: From the Very Hungry Caterpillar to Ulysses by James Walton (Penguin 384pp £9.99) lends itself to the latter, with each section providing a good hour of entertainment. Its subtitle alludes to the wide mix of high- and lowbrow subject matters, and this scope ensures that everyone will get a chance to feel clever, even if they don’t know Anna Karenina from Anneka Rice. The questions vary from ‘find the odd one out’ and ‘guess the author from the extract’ to standard quick-fire posers, such as (Question 2) ‘Which Haruki Murakami novel shares its name with a Beatles song?’ Getting to the answers page and back again for each round involves a bit of origami, but the solutions are embellished with supplementary facts, often of an amusing nature.
If you love quizzes, A Brief History of Puzzles by William Hartston (Atlantic Books 160pp £10.99) will let you know whom to thank. Competently charting the development of riddles, crosswords and logic problems, from the Sphinx to sudoku, it offers examples to illustrate each great leap forward in the history of brain-teasing. Rather than being straightforward trivia questions, the puzzles provided here usually require you to reach for a pencil and paper and crunch some maths. For instance (Question 3), ‘The Governor of Kgovjni wants to give a very small dinner party and invites his father’s brother-in-law, his brother’s father-in-law, his father-in-law’s brother and his brother-in-law’s father. What is the least number of guests?’ There are quite a few trusty old favourites, such as (Question 4) ‘What is bought by the yard and worn by the foot?’ However, some of the solutions might make you groan.
Abject Quizzery: The Utterly Depressing Quiz Book by Karl Shaw (Old Street 328pp £12.99) is jam-packed with obscure knowledge, ranging from Yiddish insults to the brutal torture methods of famous dictators. Probably not one for the Christmas table, then, but on the plus side there are a number of picture rounds to go along with the slew of facts. The weight of scholarship – or at least research – is remarkable, so it’s disappointing that the answers generally involve a simple ‘true or false’ or multiple choice, such as (Question 5) ‘In which great English river did Virginia Woolf drown herself? The Uck, the Arun, the Tamar or the Ouse?’ This often reduces your efforts to a random guess, and the contents might have been better presented as a QI-style compendium.
On the subject of presentation, The Royal Geographical Society Puzzle Book by Nathan Joyce (535 320pp £14.99) would have made a magnificent coffee-table book, were it the size of a gravestone and illustrated lavishly in full colour. Even in its actual form, a run-of-the-mill medium-sized paperback with mostly black-and-white maps, it offers a pleasingly new angle to quizzing. Each chapter focuses on a different explorer, from Marco Polo to Neil Armstrong, and fillets interesting facts from the bones of their voyages. These are formed into questions, such as (Question 6) ‘What popular cooking apparatus evolved from a description Dampier gave of a sleeping platform raised above the ground to minimise the danger of snake bites?’, as well as a variety of mini-crosswords and code breakers. It throws up plenty of educational facts and offers a quick and palatable way to learn about each explorer’s exotic deeds.
Mixing the mysteries of real criminal cases with word and picture puzzles, The Scotland Yard Puzzle Book by Sinclair McKay (Headline 272pp £12.99) is like a much harder version of Cluedo. The conundrums are mostly unrelated to each other and there is no overarching story line, so what we really have is a selection of puzzles shoehorned in. That said, the variety and strength of the questions are pretty good, and they rely on your powers of lateral thinking rather than a university degree, so can be tackled by younger members of the family. Or indeed by the police, as the last section includes some real exam paper problems posed to aspiring Scotland Yard detectives back in the 1930s.
And those answers? 1. Translating as Hermitage, Uffizi and Louvre, they are museums. 2. Norwegian Wood. 3. One. 4. A carpet. 5. The Ouse. 6. Barbecue. Well done!