The Strange Literary Puzzle Only Four People Have Ever Solved
If you’re a regular haunter of the halls of #BookTok, there’s a good chance you’ve seen Sarah Scannell’s murder board. It takes up nearly an entire wall of her San Francisco apartment: 100 pages with torn edges, painstakingly taped up with blue painter’s tape in a pattern that only makes sense to Scannell. Maybe you’ve even watched it evolve—at first the pages were connected with white string, but Scannell has since adopted a more user-friendly color-coding scheme involving sticky index tabs.
She’s searching for not one murderer, but as many as six. And unlike most investigators, Scannell is starting with a daunting handicap: She doesn’t even know who the victims are.
For weeks now, Scannell has been attempting to solve an excruciatingly difficult literary puzzle called Cain’s Jawbone. Written by legendary crossword innovator Edward Powys Mathers and first published in 1934, the puzzle was virtually forgotten for decades, until a chance meeting at a UK literary museum led to a 2019 reissue.
Now, thanks to Scannell’s fascinating and funny TikTok videos documenting her progress, some 80,000 freshly minted copies are making their way to bookstores and mailboxes around the world. In an industry where selling 5000 copies in one week can land a book on The New York Times bestseller list, it’s an astonishing turn of events for an 87-year-old brainteaser with ties to the birth of cryptic crosswords and the evolution of experimental fiction—and that has so far been solved by only four people that we know of.
“A Novel Problem”
The conceit of Cain’s Jawbone is both simple and intimidating: According to an epigraph at the front of the book, the slim volume’s pages have been accidentally printed out of order, and it’s up to the reader to the find the correct pagination. There are millions upon millions of possible combinations, but only one arrangement of pages is correct. Finding it will supposedly help the would-be solver identify six murder victims and their killers—provided they can sort out the story’s seemingly endless tangle of obscure literary and historical references, each of which could either be an important clue or a red herring.
And there might also be some obscure Biblical references thrown in for good measure. Mathers’s habit of including scripture-based clues in his puzzles led many to suspect (incorrectly) that he was a member of the clergy, and the title Cain’s Jawbone refers to the weapon Cain supposedly used to kill his brother: an ass’s jawbone.
Scannell didn’t know any of that when she first spotted the book at San Francisco’s Green Apple Books earlier this year; it was simply Scottish cartoonist Tom Gauld’s gothic, Gorey-esque cover art that caught her eye. She didn’t buy it right away, but found that she couldn’t stop thinking about it—and though she admits she’s never read a murder mystery, Scannell is an avid fan of logic puzzles.
Still, even after she bought Cain’s Jawbone, Scannell didn’t dive in immediately because, she tells Mental Floss, “I couldn’t think of the best way to physically tackle the project”—an undertaking that involves tearing or cutting all 100 story pages out of the book and shuffling them around until something starts to make sense. But when she rearranged her bedroom furniture and suddenly had a blank wall on her hands, Scannell knew exactly how to fill it. Insert Pepe Sylvia meme here.
But finding space for an epic murder board was only the beginning. Scannell’s first real step toward solving the puzzle was to read all 100 pages as they were printed, “to get a handle on character names and any major events,” she says. If she was hoping to piece together sentence fragments to help find the correct page order, she would’ve been disappointed—every page begins with the first word of a new sentence. And then there’s the language barrier; any contemporary solver must conquer Mathers’s florid, archaic style.
“I expected it to be confusing, but I don’t think I really anticipated how hard it would be to understand language from the 1930s,” Scannell tells Mental Floss. Google is helpful, of course, but often the challenge lies in knowing what to google. Scannell suspects that she’s missed clues that are hidden in plain sight, simply because the nearly-90-year-old British English is so foreign to her that she doesn’t recognize them as clues at all. “There are plenty examples of language and social standards that you, as a reader, are expected to just know—things that a contemporary reader wouldn’t even consider as part of the challenge,” Scannell says. “So this impossible puzzle gets even harder as it ages.”
That probably would have been music to the ears of Cain’s Jawbone’s creator, whose famously challenging crossword puzzles were once a global sensation.
Edward Powys Mathers: Father of the Cryptic Crossword
Even if you’ve never encountered Edward Powys Mathers’s work, there’s a good chance you’re familiar with his legacy. Born in 1892, Mathers was a highly regarded translator, a respected literary critic, and an accomplished poet, but he found his greatest success as a crossword constructor for British newspaper The Observer, a position he held from 1926 until his death in 1939.
According to Roger Millington, author of Crossword Puzzles: Their History and Their Cult, Mathers first encountered crossword puzzles in 1924, but he quickly grew bored with the “dictionary clues,” or clues that consist of or contain a synonym of the answer, that were popular in American crosswords. Instead, he favored so-called “cryptic clues” that required solvers to think laterally and creatively. Mathers didn’t invent cryptic clues, but he’s considered the first crossword setter to use them exclusively, abandoning dictionary clues altogether.
Besides his famously difficult clues, Mathers was known as a crossword innovator who pioneered a number of formats and styles. If you’ve ever solved a barred-grid style of puzzle, which uses thick black lines rather than black squares to indicate where an answer ends, you can thank (or perhaps blame) Mathers, who devised the format. According to Alan Connor’s 2013 book Two Girls, One on Each Knee, it was Mathers who popularized themed crosswords, and he was one of the first crossword setters to structure his clues as gimmicks such as knock-knock jokes and rhyming couplets.
Mathers created his first puzzles as games for his friends, but he quickly came to the attention of a newspaper called The Saturday Westminster. When that newspaper folded, Mathers went to work at The Observer, where he adopted the pseudonym “Torquemada”—a reference to Tómas de Torquemada, an especially cruel Grand Inquisitor of the Spanish Inquisition. It’s unclear why he chose to hide his identity, but it wasn’t the first time he’d published under an assumed name; his 1920 book The Garden of Bright Waters, a collection of poems supposedly translated from often-anonymous Asian and Middle Eastern sources, included poems written by J. Wing and John Duncan—two personas invented by Mathers to hide the fact that he’d slipped some of his own poems into the collection.
As Torquemada, Mathers became a worldwide phenomenon. The Observer offered prizes for the first three correct solutions it received to each new puzzle, and competition was fierce—as many as 7000 solutions flooded the post every week. (It’s estimated that some 20,000 other crossword enthusiasts completed Mathers’s weekly puzzles but didn’t compete for the prizes.) Solutions came in from as far away as Alaska, India, and West Africa.
Little is known about the methods Mathers used to construct his puzzles. An essay written by his widow and published in a 1942 collection of Torquemada puzzles notes that he could compose a fairly simple (by his standards) crossword in about two hours, but doesn’t go into much detail about how he did it. According to Millington’s 1977 book Crosswords, Their History and Their Cult, Mathers routinely collaborated with his wife to construct puzzles; once he had decided on a puzzle’s theme and made a list of words he wanted to use, Rosemond Crowdy Mathers would often make the diagram.
For an idea of Mathers’s style, consider this oft-cited example of his notoriously tricky clues: “Creeper formed of Edmund and his son Charles.” To arrive at the answer, you’d first need to understand the reference to Edmund and Charles Kean, a father-and-son acting team who last performed together in an 1833 production of Othello. Then you’d need to rearrange the letters in “Keans” to name the “creeper” in question: SNAKE. Imagine 100 pages of obscure, dated references like that one, and you’ve got some idea what awaits you in Cain’s Jawbone.
When it comes to how Mathers’s most puzzling puzzle came to be, however, there are few clues. Cain’s Jawbone first appeared in 1934 as the final entry in The Torquemada Puzzle Book, a collection of crosswords, anagrams, and other “verbal pastimes.” The book was published by Victor Gollancz Ltd., the same house that had published George Orwell’s memoir Down and Out in Paris and London. According to a 1934 ad in The Observer, a hefty cash prize of £25—the equivalent of more than £1800, or about $2400 USD, in today’s market—was offered to the first person to send in the correct solution.
The publisher received two correct entries, both arriving on the same day. The £25 prize went to W.S. Kennedy, whose submission happened to be opened first; the publisher awarded a “special consolation cheque” to the other solver, identified as S. Sydney-Turner. But the solution wasn’t recorded, and the puzzle was eventually lost to history—until it resurfaced several years ago at Shandy Hall, a museum that occupies the former home of Laurence Sterne, best remembered for his 1759 experimental novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman.
The Laurence Sterne Connection
How did the fortunes of an infamous 1934 logic puzzle become intertwined with the legacy of a famously confounding 18th-century novelist? To understand the connection, we need to look at Cain’s Jawbone not just as a particularly difficult puzzle, but as a work of literature.
“When I first came to Shandy Hall, I wanted visitors to understand why Tristram Shandy was an important ingredient in the history of the novel,” Shandy Hall curator Patrick Wildgust tells Mental Floss. According to the Laurence Sterne Trust’s website, readers and reviewers didn’t know what to make of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman when it first appeared. Sterne took considerable liberties with both the form and content of his novel. The book is full of lewd humor, rambling digressions, and “visual insertions” such as blank pages and entirely black pages. At one point, an entire 10-page chapter appears to be missing, ostensibly removed by the narrator because it was so good it made the surrounding chapters look bad.
“The fact that it was written in 1759 can present problems to the contemporary reader,” Wildgust says, “so I attempted to make comparisons with books that challenge the traditional ‘beginning, middle, end’ and present the reader with more experimental approaches.”
One of those books was B.S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates, which Wildgust says he has used “to demonstrate how a ‘book’ can also be a box with unbound pages.” According to Wildgust, Johnson borrowed the idea from Turkish-born writer Marc Saporta’s 1962 experimental novel Composition No. I, which was printed as a collection of 150 unbound, single-sided pages that can be read in any order.
Wildgust wasn’t the only Sterne fan who was taken by The Unfortunates. When John Mitchinson, co-founder of an independent press called Unbound, visited the Shandy Hall museum in 2018, he mentioned to Wildgust that he’d recently done a podcast about Johnson. This prompted Wildgust to pull out a copy of The Torquemada Puzzle Book, which had been donated by Sterne scholar and trustee Geoffrey Day—Day had had it for years but hadn’t been able to crack it. Upon receiving the book, Wildgust’s interest was immediately piqued—here was an experimental, interactive narrative that seemed right at home in Shandy Hall’s library, which also includes Raymond Queneau’s 100,000,000,000,000 Poems, a collection of 10 14-line sonnets with each page cut into 14 strips to allow readers to arrange them into a astonishing number of variations; Padgett Powell’s The Interrogative Mood, a novel composed entirely of questions; and Geoff Ryman’s 253, which was originally published on the web in the form of a collection of hypertext links.
Wildgust was captivated by Cain’s Jawbone and set out to find the solution. In 2016, he turned to The Guardian for help, and the paper put out a call for assistance on his behalf. Wildgust’s search for a solution eventually led him to a man named John Price, who had acquired a copy of The Torquemada Puzzle Book in the ’80s and placed his own S.O.S. in the pages of a crossword magazine in 1988. Price’s plea was answered by a resident of a Hampshire, England, nursing home, who sent him the solution to Cain’s Jawbone, along with the correct pagination. The man wrote that he had solved the puzzle when the book was originally published, and still had a congratulatory note from Torquemada to prove it.
Armed with the puzzle’s solution, Wildgust and Mitchinson decided to reissue Cain’s Jawbone through Unbound, which often crowdfunds its releases. The 2019 Cain’s Jawbone campaign raised more than twice its goal, with more than 900 subscribers ponying up at least $30 to receive a boxed edition of the story, printed on 100 unbound cards. In keeping with tradition, there was also a new prize: The first person to solve it would receive £1000.
Only one person succeeded: British writer, comedian, and crossword setter John Finnemore, who has since been tapped as Neil Gaiman’s co-writer on the second season of Good Omens. Finnemore initially dismissed the puzzle as too difficult for him to solve, but circumstances led him to reconsider. “The only way I'd even have a shot at it was if I were for some bizarre reason trapped in my own home for months on end, with nowhere to go and no-one to see,” Finnemore told The Telegraph in 2020. “Unfortunately, the universe heard me.”
Finnemore labored over the puzzle for about four months during 2020’s pandemic-induced lockdown, finally arriving at the correct solution and collecting the prize money. With Finnemore’s success, the grand tally of people who have conquered Cain’s Jawbone stands at just four: the two original prize-winners, the man who revealed the solution to Price, and now Finnemore.
A paperback edition of Cain’s Jawbone was published in February 2021, and that might have been the end of the story … if Scannell hadn’t walked into her local bookstore several months later and casually picked up one of those paperbacks. Scannell posted her first TikTok video about the puzzle in mid-November; that post quickly went viral and has racked up nearly 6 million views to date.
In November, Unbound set out to print 10,000 additional copies to meet the startling surge in demand. Booksellers were still overwhelmed with requests for the book, and in early December, the publisher announced an additional 70,000-copy print run. There’s even a new competition: Everyone who submits a correct answer before December 31, 2022, will receive a £250 credit (about $333) to use on other Unbound books.
Scannell is determined to meet that deadline. “People have been asking if now that 6 million people have joined me in this activity, am I nervous someone will solve it before me?” she says. “And I really don’t care. I’m doing this first and foremost for fun, and so my only goal is to submit an answer by the end of the competition next December. I’ve already gotten my special moment with all this crazy media attention so now I’m happily just along for the ride.”
Whether or not anyone else manages to solve the mystery of Cain’s Jawbone, Wildgust seems to consider its revival a win not just for word puzzle fans, but also for experimental literature that challenges our ideas about what a novel can be.
“Cain’s Jawbone plays around with language, ideas and plot, and it seemed a good idea to see if contemporary readers would find it as interesting, enjoyable and unusual,” Wildgust says. “It seems to have worked.”