Jeff Armstrong makes his NYT debut with today's Monday puzzle (answers) and it's remarkable for the number of theme entries; eight long starred clues plus the AIR that lets them all breathe together. (It's an even 100 occurrences for AIR now in my database making it the 140th most popular word in NYT crosswords. I knew you were wondering.)
Suppose you're a new constructor wanting to break into the Majors. You sit down with a blank 15 by 15 grid and the first question that confronts you is: themed or themeless? For a rookie, the right answer is almost certainly the former. Late-week puzzles can be sans theme but the price you pay is a ridiculously high expectation for density and cleverness that seems difficult to manage without significant experience. Yesterday's constructor managed to slightly reduce the degree of difficulty, but today's was especially clever.
Yesterday, Paula Gamache used circles to identify emotions but she gave herself some leeway by allowing, actually insisting, that the letters used to form each emotion would not be in the correct order within the theme words. This simplifies the task because far more theme word possibilities are suddenly available. She had a nice hook. The title was Mixed Emotions which was clever enough to justify the letter shuffling, and we got the added bonus of an anagram puzzle after the main crossword was completed.
Today's puzzle manages his 8 long answers each tied to the key word AIR. Often in such themes, only the first part of the long answers will fit with the key. This makes the whole construction much simpler because many more theme answers are possible. Mr. Armstrong, however, pulls off a trifecta: the first part of each long answer goes with AIR, the second part goes with AIR, and the two parts go together to make a compound word that answers each clue. Lovely.
I wonder if today's author is a sci-fi fan with FORCEFIELD, AIRLOCK and SPACECRAFT. I'm going to choose to take this as a bit of a homage to Arthur C. Clarke who I like to imagine would have enjoyed this puzzle.