Solving ‘Cain’s Jawbone’ has turned a murder mystery into an obsession
Only 100 pages? How hard can it be?
Then you start reading – and realize why only four people have solved the puzzle since it was published nearly eight decades ago.
“I stung once,” page 38 declares, “and even as I did so I thought of thin old Marat in his slipper bath, the nightcap around his forehead, the dim light of the candle, the shadow at the door , the creeping step of Charlotte Brontë with the wavy blade.”
“Did not the author of Wails of a Tayside Inn say of them that they were the living poems and that all the rest were dead?” asks page 93. “Did not the singer of Wimpole Street say that they bind their hearts away to break with a cerement of the grave?”
And yet the long-ignored novel is witnessing an unexpected explosion of mystery-solving popularity. It started when two Englishmen dug up the text and decided to republish it in 2019; about a year later, a crossword puzzle writer managed to become the fourth person in history to come up with the correct solution.
It earned some media coverage — but things really took off when a TikTok user in San Francisco picked up the slim volume at her local bookstore and started posting videos about her efforts to solve it. Her first video, published in November 2021 and titled “I fear I may have girlbossed a bit too close to the sun,” earned 6.6 million views. Within hours, “Cain’s Jawbone” sold out on Amazon.
The craze has continued: As of early December, the book has sold 325,000 copies and is being translated into 12 languages, according to John Mitchinson, one of the two Britons who discovered the text and who printed it through his crowd-funded publishing house, Unbound .
The novel united people around the world in an obsessive quest to find the answer, creating online communities, prompting many to turn rooms of their homes into “murder walls” plastered with book pages – and one woman in Colorado inspired to imagine an artificial intelligence. -based method for solving the novel, which is still in the trial phase.
“It was a bestseller in Italy, it’s selling incredibly well in France,” Mitchinson said. “I’m still just amazed that it’s being sold in these quantities.”
Patrick Wildgust, curator of a literary museum in York, who collaborated with Mitchinson to republish “Cain’s Jawbone,” added: “It hit home. I don’t know why.”
‘Cult thing for literary people’
“Cain’s Jawbone” was written by Edward Powys Mathers, who is known in Britain as the father of the cryptic crossword, a form of crosswords – largely non-existent in America – in which the crosswords themselves contain the answers, but in an encoded or encrypted form. These word puzzles are fiendishly difficult, and Mathers became the undisputed king of the genre in the early 20th century.
Under the nom de plume “Torquemada” – a pseudonym he adopted to imply that he would be as cruel to readers as the Spanish Grand Inquisitor Tómas de Torquemada – Mathers completed 670 crossword puzzles for the newspaper over the course of his career Observer wrote. His cryptic became internationally known: Every week, thousands of people would submit solutions from places as far away as Alaska and West Africa, according to the online magazine Mental Floss.
In 1934, Mathers issued a compendium of his work entitled the “Torquemada Puzzle Book.” At the end of the book was “Cain’s jaw”. Torquemada announced a contest to solve the book in the Observer, promising successful entrants a prize of 25 pounds, or about $2,500 today.
The challenge drew two solvers in its first year, according to Wildgust: “WS Kennedy” and “S. Sydney-Turner.” (In a strange quirk of literary fate, the second solver turns out to be Saxon Sydney-Turner, a friend of Virginia Woolf and the least known member of the Bloomsbury circle, a man described by the biographers of his more famous friends has been dismissed as “tacitly pedantic, clumsily funny” and “brilliant in a crossword-solving kind of way.”)
But after that the world forgot “Cain’s jaw”.
Until one wet afternoon in November 2016 when Mitchinson came to have tea with Wildgust at Shandy Hall, the museum where Wildgust had for years amassed an impressive collection of unusual literature.
That afternoon he showed Mitchinson “Cain’s jaw”. Wildgust tried to solve it a few times but got nowhere.
Mitchinson was intrigued. He tried to solve it himself, but gave up after scanning 40 pages of what appeared to be nonsense. Wildgust told Mitchinson that he had managed to track down the solution by trawling through his vast network of booksellers, eventually locating an elderly man in a nursing home who still had both his own answers and a signed note from Torquemada himself had to congratulate him on getting it right. . (The nursing home resident, whose name has not been publicly shared, brought the total number of solvers to three.)
All this gave Mitchinson an idea.
“I thought, ‘We should be able to sell this,'” Mitchinson recalled. “I was pretty sure we’d sell 5,000 copies at most … I thought it might become some sort of cult thing for literary people.”
In its first year on the market in 2019, “Cain’s Jawbone” sold around 4,000 copies. Mitchinson and Wildgust also launched a competition, offering a £1,000 prize to anyone who developed the correct answers by 19 September 2020.
It attracted 12 submissions. To Mitchinson and Wildgust’s shock, one of them was right.
‘Nearly impossible task’
British comedian, author and crossword puzzle writer John Finnemore came across “Cain’s Jawbone” just before the pandemic hit.
“I quickly came to the conclusion that this was way out of my league, and the only way I would even have a chance was if for some bizarre reason I was trapped in my own home for months on end , with nowhere to go and no one to see,” Finnemore told the Guardian. “Unfortunately, the universe heard me.”
Finnemore, who did not respond to an interview request, told the Guardian that he worked on the novel for about four months during the lockdown, laying out its pages over a spare bed in his home. He religiously googled anything and everything referenced in the novel, but remained silent for weeks. Finally, something clicked — though Finnemore, wary of revealing the solution, said little about his methods.
“There’s a big thing that you realize about it, and you go, ‘Oh, I see,'” Finnemore told the podcast, “It’s love.”
Coincidentally, it was Finnemore’s birthday when he answered a phone call from Mitchinson and told him he got the answer right. Finnemore’s performance attracted a flurry of media attention and reader interest, mostly in the UK, and Mitchinson decided he might as well print another round of books and reopen the competition for 2021.
Almost a year later, halfway around the world in San Francisco, 25-year-old Sarah Scannell came across the novel while browsing Green Apple Books. Scannell, who works for a documentary production company, didn’t buy it because he thought it would be too difficult.
“But then I thought about it for a full month,” she said, “so I went back and got it.”
Using an empty space in her bedroom, Scannell grouped pages into what she hoped were appropriate categories and taped bunches of them to the wall with blue tape. She pinned yarn between pages to illustrate possible connections.
She began filming and posting her progress on TikTok, the social media platform she downloaded during the pandemic and on which she has amassed 30,000 followers. Her first video is only 15 seconds.
“I found this murder mystery book from 1934 where you have to figure out the six murderers and their victims, but all the pages were printed out of order,” she says in the video, “so I decided to take on this almost impossible task as a opportunity to fulfill a literally lifelong dream and turn my entire bedroom wall into a killing board.” Then the camera pans to her page-splattered wall.
Within 12 hours, her video attracted more than half a million views – and her follower count soon rose to 70,000. Twenty-four hours later, the book was sold out on Amazon and was back-ordered from Green Apple Books, Scannell said.
Within a week, US orders reached more than 10,000 and Canadian orders rose to more than 3,000, according to the Bookseller. Scannell’s friends who work in bookstores texted her to complain about the sudden influx of frustrated customers.
But in England, Mitchinson and Wildgust were excited. Eleven days after Scannell published her video, they announced plans to print 10,000 paperback copies. The next month they printed another 70,000 – followed by additional print runs in the tens of thousands. By the end of this year, Mitchinson predicts, both Unbound and Shandy House will see thousands of pounds in profits; the two entities split the pot equally. Wildgust plans to use the windfall to add to his rare book collection.
Mitchinson and Wildgust have also reopened the competition to solve the book, and plan to hold another in 2023. For this year, those who submit the correct answers by December 31, 2022 will earn a prize of $300 to spend on other unrelated publications.
Scannell will not enter. “I’m honestly not close to submitting,” she said. But she plans to keep working on it.
At this point I must confess: I am one of the people who fell under the novel’s spell.
My boyfriend and I turned the walls of our staircase into a shrine to “Cain’s Jaws,” pinning up pages of pages. For months we walked up and down the stairs, shuffling and reshuffling the order. I downloaded a PDF of the novel onto my phone and printed out physical copies that I kept with me wherever I went. I read and re-read the book everywhere: on the exercise bike, during my Metro ride to work, secretly at social gatherings.
Looking for clues, I read (almost) all of Shakespeare’s plays and checked out library books about 1930s-era London, and its notable figures. And we traversed strange rifts of the Internet: One morning I came downstairs to find my boyfriend searching for an online PDF of a medieval Italian manuscript about the Catholic Church.
On Friday, October 28 at 4:12 p.m., after five months of obsessive efforts, we emailed what we fervently hope is the correct solution. Now we are just waiting to find out if we have cracked “Cain’s jaw”.