Cain’s Jawbone: how crime novel’s puzzling plot still keeps us guessing | Crime fiction

In 1934 Agatha Christie’s Homicide on the Orient Categorical was revealed and have become a bestseller. That very same yr one other homicide thriller appeared, to somewhat much less fanfare, by “Torquemada”, a contributor to this newspaper famed for his inscrutable crosswords and his hid identification – he was, in reality, a poet and translator referred to as Edward Powys Mathers.

It was a great yr for contemporary classics with F Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night time, Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Mud and Robert Graves’s I, Claudius all making their debuts. Nevertheless it’s Powys Mathers’s novel, entitled Cain’s Jawbone, that’s set to fly off the cabinets this Christmas.

Because of a collection of TikTok postings by Sarah Scannell, a younger documentary assistant in San Francisco, which have been watched by some seven million individuals, the guide has bought out. It’s at present unavailable on Amazon and in bookshops, with new shares not arriving, in accordance with its writer, Unbound, till 12 December.

The distinctive, to not say brain-aching, novelty of Cain’s Jawbone is that its 100 pages are numbered out of sequence. And it’s the reader’s job to find what the true order is and thereby establish six homicide victims and their killers. The variety of attainable mixtures of pages is a determine that’s 158 numbers lengthy.


Scannell determined to attempt to discover the suitable sequence by fulfilling a “lifelong dream”, as she put it, to show her “total bed room wall right into a homicide board”. She reduce all of the pages out of her paperback copy and pasted them on her wall, rearranging them as she makes an attempt to make progress in what’s billed as “the world’s most fiendishly tough literary puzzle”.

Edward Powys Mathers.
Edward Powys Mathers. {Photograph}: Public Area

What makes her job, and that of all readers, so taxing is that the pages start at first of a sentence and finish on a full cease, permitting no easy matching up. To make issues much more difficult, the prose is an enigmatic mixture of literary allusions, phrase performs, spoonerisms and buried clues. It’s just a little as if Agatha Christie had been rewritten by TS Eliot after which all of the pages thrown off a tower block and randomly collected under.

Right here’s a typical couple of sentences. “Agriculture was to take again her personal, it appeared, and I rejoiced to have my final sight of the bent broad again. I couldn’t assume why I grew to become out of the blue conscious of Yeats ; after which it got here to me : we discover heartedness amongst males that journey upon horses.” And there are a thousand extra the place these got here from.

I spent a number of days studying the textual content, scratching my head, rubbing my temples, emitting quiet groans of despair, as I marked down names and what I took to be attainable pointers; and I used to be no wiser as to what was happening than I had been initially.

At a sure level, I satisfied myself that somebody referred to as Henry, who will get probably the most mentions, was in reality a canine. At others, it appeared that the sexuality of the characters was adventurously omnivorous. However basically I hadn’t a clue.

The brief novel was initially revealed with a £25 prize for whoever might remedy the puzzle. Solely two individuals managed to efficiently establish the proper web page order and identify the victims and killers.

The legend of Powys Mathers, who died aged 47, lives on amongst puzzle lovers as a result of he’s seen by many as being the primary individual to compile cryptic crosswords, with clues requiring lateral pondering in addition to normal erudition. His crosswords grew to become enormously standard on the Observer – with hundreds of options despatched in every week. However Cain’s Jawbone – so named after the supposed first homicide weapon, an ass’s jaw – slowly light into remaindered obscurity.

Cain’s Jawbone by Edward Powys Mathers ‘the world’s most difficult literary puzzle’.
Cain’s Jawbone by Edward Powys Mathers ‘the world’s most tough literary puzzle’. {Photograph}: Unbound

Then, in the summertime of 2018, on a visit to go to his father in North Yorkshire, Unbound’s co-founder and writer John Mitchinson dropped in on the Lawrence Sterne Belief at Shandy Corridor in Coxwold. JB Priestley referred to as Shandy Corridor the “mediaeval home the place the fashionable novel was born”, referring to Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, the 1759 precursor to the “stream of consciousness” that will be the mark of literary modernism within the twentieth century.

Mitchinson bought speaking to Shandy Corridor’s curator, Patrick Wildgust, mentioning that he’d not too long ago finished a podcast on BS Johnson, the experimental novelist who famously revealed a novel that was a group of pages in a field. “And that was when Patrick bought out this Thirties puzzle guide referred to as The Torquemada Puzzle Ebook,” remembers Mitchinson.

He bought the concept that it could be enjoyable to republish it, first as paperback after which as a field of 100 playing cards. Unbound additionally revived the unique prize, this time set at an inflation-linked £1,000. The winner and, thus far, sole individual to unravel the puzzle this century was the comedy author and actor John Finnemore, who additionally typically units crosswords.

When Finnemore first learn the guide he thought the problem was “above my degree”. He was prepared to surrender virtually instantly.

“I like a troublesome puzzle,” he says, “however I simply didn’t have the time it could take to unravel it. After which lockdown got here alongside and gave me on a regular basis on this planet.”


With out gifting away any commerce secrets and techniques, he started at the obvious entry level. There are a number of poems, written in italics, that run over pages, and they’re probably the most simple to match. “It’s clear that he’s signalling to you that that is your free leg-up,” says Finnemore.

“Though this can be very tough,” he says, “it’s a very effectively designed puzzle that frequently unfolds. As you make every new breakthrough, then your subsequent job turns into clear to you.”

It took Finnemore 4 months to come back to the suitable conclusion, an achievement that he considers to be inconceivable these days with out the help of the web. For one factor, the guide is filled with references to British tradition and literary considerations of the Thirties that will defeat anybody in the present day and not using a search engine.

However does the guide make sense when all of the pages are reassembled of their appropriate positions? Or does it stay as opaque and baffling because it seems in its revealed type?

For a very long time, Finnemore thought he’d by no means discover a coherent narrative as a result of there was a lot “poetic phrase affiliation nonsense” to get by.

“However certain sufficient,” he says, “it does inform a narrative. It tells a weird story however it’s a narrative and it really works. It’s humorous in locations as effectively, when you perceive a bit extra about what’s happening and the characters concerned. There are some correctly good jokes in it.”

Scarcely can a chortle have felt as well-earned as that skilled by a reader of Cain’s Jawbone who really will get the joke. Anybody searching for that laughter must be ready to endure some tears of frustration.

In one in every of her TikTok movies, Scannell speculates that the narrator is homosexual or bisexual, which might be daring for Thirties England. Little is understood about Powys Mathers, apart from some evocative descriptions left by his spouse. She recalled him “prowling round his cabinets in dishevelled flannel trousers, his shirt open on the neck and sleeves rolled above the elbow, searching for a citation by which he would lead his solvers to learn or reread some favorite in verse or prose.”

Though he didn’t have any youngsters, Powys Mathers did have a nephew who’s still alive. Invoice Medd is now 97 and has suffered a few strokes, so he isn’t readily in a position to discuss his uncle. Nonetheless Medd’s spouse Julia advised me that Powys Mathers appreciated to attract “probably the most beautiful illustrations” of lesbian figures, so possibly Scannell is on to one thing.

In the interim, the previous Observer man’s 87-year-old thriller stays surprisingly intact. And though there are individuals in reddit teams claiming to have solved it, there was no leakage on the web – which somewhat suggests they haven’t.

Most intriguingly of all, the puzzle appears to have captured the creativeness of a era that’s supposedly spoilt by technological ease. The entire thing is sufficient to make you stroke your jawbone after which ponder what it implies that no such weapon is talked about within the Bible, however it’s in Hamlet. Hmmm, time for an additional learn.

Show More

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Back to top button