In 1934 Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express was published and became a bestseller. That same year another murder mystery appeared, to rather less fanfare, by “Torquemada”, a contributor to this newspaper famed for his inscrutable crosswords and his concealed 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 Robert Graves’s I, Claudius all making their debuts. But it’s Powys Mathers’s novel, entitled Cain’s Jawbone, that is set to fly off the shelves this Christmas.
Thanks to a series of TikTok postings by Sarah Scannell, a young documentary assistant in San Francisco, which have been watched by some seven million people, the book has sold out. It is currently unavailable on Amazon and in bookshops, with new stocks not arriving, according to its publisher, Unbound, until 12 December.
The distinctive, not to 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 discover what the real order is and thereby identify six murder victims and their killers. The number of possible combinations of pages is a figure that is 158 numbers long.
Scannell decided to try to find the right sequence by fulfilling a “lifelong dream”, as she put it, to turn her “entire bedroom wall into a murder board”. She cut all the pages out of her paperback copy and pasted them on her wall, rearranging them as she attempts to make progress in what is billed as “the world’s most fiendishly difficult literary puzzle”.
What makes her task, and that of all readers, so taxing is that the pages begin at the start of a sentence and end on a full stop, allowing no simple matching up. To make matters even more challenging, the prose is an enigmatic combination of literary allusions, word plays, spoonerisms and buried clues. It’s a little as if Agatha Christie had been rewritten by TS Eliot and then all the pages thrown off a tower block and randomly collected below.
Here’s a typical couple of sentences. “Agriculture was to take back her own, it seemed, and I rejoiced to have my last sight of the bent broad back. I couldn’t think why I became suddenly aware of Yeats ; and then it came to me : we find heartedness among men that ride upon horses.” And there are a thousand more where those came from.
I spent several days reading the text, scratching my head, rubbing my temples, emitting quiet groans of despair, as I marked down names and what I took to be possible pointers; and I was no wiser as to what was going on than I had been at the beginning.
At a certain point, I convinced myself that someone called Henry, who gets the most mentions, was in fact a dog. At others, it seemed that the sexuality of the characters was adventurously omnivorous. But essentially I hadn’t a clue.
The short novel was originally published with a £25 prize for whoever could solve the puzzle. Only two people managed to successfully identify the correct page order and name the victims and killers.
The legend of Powys Mathers, who died aged 47, lives on among puzzle lovers because he is seen by many as being the first person to compile cryptic crosswords, with clues requiring lateral thinking as well as general erudition. His crosswords became enormously popular at the Observer – with thousands of solutions sent in each week. But Cain’s Jawbone – so named after the supposed first murder weapon, an ass’s jaw – slowly faded into remaindered obscurity.
Then, in the summer of 2018, on a trip to visit his father in North Yorkshire, Unbound’s co-founder and publisher John Mitchinson dropped in on the Lawrence Sterne Trust at Shandy Hall in Coxwold. JB Priestley called Shandy Hall the “mediaeval house where the modern novel was born”, referring to Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, the 1759 precursor to the “stream of consciousness” that would be the mark of literary modernism in the 20th century.
Mitchinson got talking to Shandy Hall’s curator, Patrick Wildgust, mentioning that he’d recently done a podcast on BS Johnson, the experimental novelist who famously published a novel that was a collection of pages in a box. “And that was when Patrick got out this 1930s puzzle book called The Torquemada Puzzle Book,” remembers Mitchinson.
He got the idea that it would be fun to republish it, first as paperback and then as a box of 100 cards. Unbound also revived the original prize, this time set at an inflation-linked £1,000. The winner and, so far, sole person to solve the puzzle this century was the comedy writer and actor John Finnemore, who also sometimes sets crosswords.
When Finnemore first read the book he thought the challenge was “above my level”. He was ready to give up almost immediately.
“I like a tough puzzle,” he says, “but I just didn’t have the time it would take to solve it. And then lockdown came along and gave me all the time in the world.”
Without giving away any trade secrets, he began at the most obvious entry point. There are several poems, written in italics, that run over pages, and they are the most easy to match. “It’s clear that he’s signalling to you that this is your free leg-up,” says Finnemore.
“Although it is extremely difficult,” he says, “it is a very well designed puzzle that continually unfolds. As you make each new breakthrough, then your next task becomes clear to you.”
It took Finnemore four months to come to the right conclusion, an achievement that he considers to be impossible nowadays without the aid of the internet. For one thing, the book is full of references to British culture and literary concerns of the 1930s that would defeat 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’d never find a coherent narrative because there was so much “poetic word association nonsense” to get through.
“But sure enough,” he says, “it does tell a story. It tells a bizarre story but it’s a story and it works. It’s funny in places as well, once you understand a bit more about what’s going on and the characters involved. There are some properly good jokes in it.”
Scarcely can a chortle have felt as well-earned as that experienced by a reader of Cain’s Jawbone who actually gets the joke. Anyone in search of that laughter should be prepared to endure some tears of frustration.
In one of her TikTok videos, Scannell speculates that the narrator is gay or bisexual, which would be bold for 1930s England. Little is known about Powys Mathers, other than some evocative descriptions left by his wife. She recalled him “prowling around his shelves in baggy flannel trousers, his shirt open at the neck and sleeves rolled above the elbow, in search of a quotation through which he would lead his solvers to read or reread some favourite in verse or prose.”
Although he didn’t have any children, Powys Mathers did have a nephew who is still alive. Bill Medd is now 97 and has suffered a couple of strokes, so he isn’t readily able to talk about his uncle. However Medd’s wife Julia told me that Powys Mathers liked to draw “the most lovely illustrations” of lesbian figures, so maybe Scannell is on to something.
For the time being, the former Observer man’s 87-year-old mystery remains surprisingly intact. And although there are people in reddit groups claiming to have solved it, there has been no leakage on the internet – which rather suggests they haven’t.
Most intriguingly of all, the puzzle seems to have captured the imagination of a generation that is supposedly spoilt by technological ease. The whole thing is enough to make you stroke your jawbone and then ponder what it means that no such weapon is mentioned in the Bible, but it is in Hamlet. Hmmm, time for another read.