Tag Archives: Books

Cain’s Jawbone Literary Puzzle

Cains Jawbone
Cain’s Jawbone boxed set

So, the Cain’s Jawbone Literary Puzzle was recently solved for just the third time in almost 100 years.

Edward Powys Mathers
Edward Powys Mathers

The puzzle book was written by the cryptic crosswords pioneer Edward Powys Mathers under the pseudonym “Torquemada”. The title, Cain’s Jawbone, refers to the first ever murder weapon as described in the Bible story of Cain and Abel. Cain’s Jawbone was first published in England in 1934. The puzzle is a 100-page murder mystery, with the pages printed in the wrong order. The reader is tasked with solving the puzzle by sorting the pages in the correct order.

The puzzle has over 32 million possible combinations but only one right answer. The goal is to identify who had committed the six murders that take place within the framework of the book. Solving the puzzle grants you the bragging rights as well as a cash price. Cain’s Jawbone has only been solved by three people since it was published, the first two instances were in the 1930’s but the last one made the news only very recently.

The rediscovery of Cain’s Jawbone 

The mostly forgotten the book lingered in obscurity for decades until Shandy Hall, operated by the Laurence Sterne Trust, received as a donation a collection of Powys Mathers’s works, including Cain’s Jawbone. There Patrick Wildgust, a curator at Shandy Hall began looking into the history of the puzzle. Wildgust tracked down all known copies of the book and it became quite clear quite clear that the solution had not been published anywhere. No book had the solution written in the marginalia, no articles articles revealing the solution were to be found. After a considerable sleuthing, Wildgust eventually found the solution.

In a collaboration with the publisher Unbound the novel was re-issued in the fall of 2019, with artwork by Scottish cartoonist Tom Gauld. The publisher offered a £1,000 prize to the first person who could solve it within a year.

The original novel, printed with the pages printed recto-verso but the new version had each page printed on separate cards and put into a box. Having them on separate cards means that they can be spread out and placed next to each other which is much easier than dealing with the text in a book printed on both sides of the page.

First and Second Solve

First two persons to solve the puzzle were Mr. S. Sydney-Turner and Mr. W. S. Kennedy who in the 1930’s were awarded £25 each, and John Finnemore in 2020 who won £1,000. Today £25 would net you about about £1,800 at current value today. A tidy sum indeed.

Saxon Sidney-Turner

Of Mr. W.S. Kennedy we know little. The other, Mr. Saxon Sidney-Turner, is slightly better known.

‘There was probably no one less entertaining in the world’, is how a fellow student described him. His friend Leonard Woolf was kinder, ‘an eccentric in the best English tradition’. He was part of the Bloomsbury Group, a group of associated English writers, intellectuals, philosophers and artists in the first half of the 20th century. A collective which included Virginia Woolf, John Maynard Keynes, E. M. Forster and Lytton Strachey. His Wikipedia article, at the time of this writing, makes no mention of what I believe is his greatest claim to fame, solving the Cain’s Jawbone.

Third Solve

John Finnemore, a comedian and a crossword setter (crossword writer) recently became only the third person to officially solve the puzzle. He spread the pages out on his bed and started working on the solve. Because of the lockdown he had ample time and he spent four months working on the problem. When he had found the solution he submitted it only two days before the closing date and netted himself the £1,000 prize.

The solution has not been made public, and Mr. Finnemore has sworn to the Sterne trust that he will keep this answer a secret, so it is still out there to be found. In other words, the prize money has been collected but the bragging rights are still out there, up for grabs.

The book is out of print as of now but if anybody knows of a copy for sale, I am looking for one.

Notes

Mathew Clayton covers the history of the Puzzle and the solves in an excellent thorough, well written and quite entertaining Twitter thread.

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