In 1934 Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express was published and became a bestseller. That same year, another mysterious murder emerged, with somewhat less fanfare, by “Torquemada”, a contributor to that newspaper famous for his impenetrable crosswords and hidden identity – he was, in fact, a poet and translator called Edward Powys Mathers.
It was a good year for modern classics with F Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the night, Evelyn Waugh’s A handful of dust and that of Robert Graves me, Claude are all making their debut. But this is the novel by Powys Mathers, titled Cain’s jawbone, which should be flying off the shelves this Christmas.
Thanks to a series of TikTok posts by Sarah Scannell, a young documentary assistant in San Francisco, which have been viewed by some seven million people, the book is out of print. It is currently unavailable on Amazon and in bookstores, with new stocks not arriving, according to its publisher, Unbound, until December 12.
The distinctive novelty, not to speak badly of the brain, of Cain’s jawbone is that its 100 pages are numbered out of order. And it is the reader’s job to find out what the real order is and thus identify six murder victims and their murderers. The number of possible page combinations is a number of 158 digits.
Scannell decided to try and come up with the right streak by realizing a “lifelong dream” of, as she put it, of turning “the entire wall of her bedroom into a murder board”. She cut out all the pages from her paperback and pasted them on her wall, rearranging them as she tried to progress through what is billed as “the most devilishly difficult literary puzzle in the world.”
What makes it, and that of all readers, so taxing is that the pages begin at the beginning of a sentence and end with a period, allowing no simple correspondence. To make matters even more difficult, prose is an enigmatic combination of literary allusions, puns, reverse divers and buried clues. It’s kind of like Agatha Christie has been rewritten by TS Eliot and then all the pages thrown from a tower and randomly collected below.
Here are some typical phrases. Farming had to come back to its own, it seemed, and I was looking forward to my last sight of the broad, hunched back. I couldn’t think of why I suddenly became aware of Yeats; and then it came to me: we find heart among men who ride on horseback. And there are a thousand more where these come from.
I spent several days reading the text, scratching my head, rubbing my temples, uttering quiet moans of despair, as I jotted down names and what I took to be possible clues; and I was no more aware of what was going on than I had been at the beginning.
At one point, I convinced myself that someone named Henry, who is most often cited, was in fact a dog. To others, it seemed that the characters’ sexuality was adventurous omnivorous. But basically, I had no idea.
The short novel was originally published with a price tag of £ 25 for whoever could solve the puzzle. Only two people managed to identify the correct page order and name the victims and killers.
The legend of Powys Mathers, who died at the age of 47, lives on among puzzle enthusiasts as he is considered by many to be the first person to compile enigmatic crosswords, with clues requiring lateral thinking as well as a general scholarship. His crosswords have become extremely popular in Observer – with thousands of solutions sent every week. Corn Cain’s jawbone – named after the supposed first murder weapon, a donkey’s jawbone – slowly faded into the remaining darkness.
Then, in the summer of 2018, on a trip to visit his father in North Yorkshire, Unbound co-founder and publisher John Mitchinson visited the Lawrence Sterne Trust at Shandy Hall in Coxwold. JB Priestley called Shandy Hall the “medieval house where the modern novel was born”, referring to Sterne Tristram Shandy, the forerunner of 1759 of the “current of consciousness” which will be the mark of literary modernism in the twentieth century.
Mitchinson spoke to Shandy Hall curator Patrick Wildgust, mentioning that he had recently done a podcast on BS Johnson, the experimental novelist who published a novel that was a collection of pages in a box. “And that’s when Patrick brought out this 1930s puzzle book called The coupleemada Puzzle Book, Mitchinson remembers.
He had the idea that it would be fun to republish it, first in paperback, then in box of 100 cards. Unbound also raised the original price, this time set at £ 1,000 indexed to inflation. The winner and, so far, the only person to have solved the puzzle of this century was the writer and comedy actor John Finnemore, who also occasionally posts crossword puzzles.
When Finnemore first read the book, he thought the challenge was “above my level”. He was ready to give up almost immediately.
“I like difficult puzzles,” he says, “but I just didn’t have the time to solve it. And then the lock came in and gave me all the time in the world. “
Without revealing any trade secrets, he started with the most obvious point of entry. There are several poems, written in italics, that span pages, and they are the easiest to match. “It’s clear he’s signaling to you that this is your free boost,” says Finnemore.
“Although it’s extremely difficult,” he says, “it’s a very well-designed puzzle that goes on and on. As you make each new breakthrough, your next task becomes clear to you.
It took Finnemore four months to come to the right conclusion, a feat he considers impossible today without the help of the internet. On the one hand, the book is full of references to British culture and literary preoccupations of the 1930s that would bring down anyone today without a search engine.
But does the book make sense when all the pages are reassembled in their correct positions? Or does it remain as opaque and baffling as it appears in its published form?
For a long time, Finnemore thought he would never find a coherent narrative because there was so much “poetic word association nonsense” to get across.
“But of course,” he said, “it tells a story. It tells a weird story but it’s a story and it works. It’s also funny in places, once you understand a little more what’s going on. going on and the characters involved.There are some good jokes in there.
Hardly can a chuckle feel as well deserved as that experienced by a reader of Cain’s jawbone who actually understands the joke. Anyone looking for that laugh should be prepared to endure tears of frustration.
In one of his TikTok videos, Scannell speculates that the narrator is gay or bisexual, which would be daring for 1930s England. Little is known about Powys Mathers other than a few evocative descriptions left by his wife. She remembers him “prowling around his shelves in loose flannel pants, his shirt open at the neck and his sleeves rolled up above the elbow, looking for a quote through which he would lead his solvers to read or reread some favorite in verse or prose “.
Although he did not have children, Powys Mathers had a nephew who is still alive. Bill Medd is now 97 years old and has suffered a few strokes, so he can’t easily talk about his uncle. However, Medd’s wife Julia told me that Powys Mathers liked to draw “the most beautiful illustrations” of lesbian figures, so maybe Scannell is on to something.
For now, the old Observer the 87-year-old mystery of the man remains surprisingly intact. And while there are people in the reddit groups who claim to have fixed it, there haven’t been any leaks on the internet – suggesting rather than not.
Most intriguing of all, the puzzle seems to have captured the imagination of a generation that is supposedly spoiled by technological ease. The whole thing is enough to make you stroke your jaw and then think about what it means that no such weapon is mentioned in the Bible, but it is in Hamlet. Hmmm, it’s time for another read.