No, this is not a review of Cain’s Jawbone (1934) by Torquemada, a.k.a. Edward Powys Mathers. In order to review it, I must first read it, and reading it presents a difficulty as many of you will be aware…
For those who don’t know, Cain’s Jawbone was a literary puzzle of sorts published in The Torquemada Puzzle Book (1934) — which self-identifies as A Miscellany of Original Crosswords, Acrostics, Anagrams, Verbal Pastimes and Problems Etc. — written by Mathers under the nom de plume via which he would regularly taunt readers of the Observer newspaper with his cryptic crosswords. The premise of Cain’s Jawbone is that a mystery novel has been written but, on the way to the printers, the pages were dropped and had to be printed out of order. It falls to you, dear reader, to read the pages in the supplied order and to figure out the solutions to its various mysteries.
Be assured there there is an inevitable order, the one in which the pages were written, and that, while the narrator’s mind may flit occasionally backwards and forwards in the modern manner, the narrative marches on, relentlessly and unequivocally, from the first page to the last.
Please note: this puzzle is extremely difficult and not for the faint-hearted.
The novella was published as the last 100 pages of The Torquemada Puzzle Book, and I first heard of it when Martin Edwards made mention of it at (I think) my second Bodies from the Library conference. Imagine my joy, then, when I later found out a crowd-funding attempt was being made on Unbound to get Cain’s Jawbone republished. I pledged money, waited a couple of years, and it arrived about five weeks ago.
This new edition is published not as a book, but instead as a hundred loose pages in a specially-made box, with art by the very talented Tom Gauld. This has the advantage over its original incarnation that the pages can be moved around as you figure out which order they come in — though, as in the original incarnation, the bottom quarter of each page is left blank and headed NOTES for any observations you wish to add on your way to untangling the mess.
And some untangling it will take, since each page begins with a new sentence and ends on a full stop (well, page 100 ends with an ellipsis, and one of the earlier pages ends in the middle of a piece of verse — but, trifles, Watson, trifles!) meaning that there’s far more to this than simply tracing the sentence continuation from one card to the next. You didn’t expect it to be that easy, did you?
In 1934, a £15 prize was offered to anyone who could solve Mathers’ puzzle, and for this 2019 reprint the prize has been appropriately inflation’d up to £1,000 — provided you get your solution in by 19th September 2020. Supposedly only two correct solutions were ever submitted, and since there are a possible 9.333 × 10^157 combinations of these 100 pages — that’s 9333 followed by 154 zeroes, or “quite a few” in common parlance — the chances of you stumbling into this without a bit of effort is, well, rather small.
The good news is that, if you fancy a pop at this one, it’s no longer limited to those people who pitched in via unbound. It’s now available to buy in various book-selling places and hopefully the photos above — taken of my own copy by my friend George — give you an idea of what you’re getting. Do I need to point out that, since this post is essentially an advert, I’m not being paid of remunerated in any way? In these suspicious times, yes, I probably do: I’m receiving no remuneration or consideration for writing and posting this, I just think what Unbound have done is really damn cool, and figure it’s of interest to fellow puzzle/detection nerds.
So, well, that’s it. The only area of doubt I must confess is that I don’t know if the mass market version will contain the booklet mine does, containing the names of all the people who pledged to get this back in print — including one Moira Redmond, a name that will be familiar to many of you. In such discerning company, how can you resist the charms of this most obscure and infuriating of puzzles?
Okay, the race for that £1000 is on…!
I must just impose on your patience for another minute to sincerely thank George for finding the time to take these photos, doing this undertaking considerably more justice than my own paltry photography skills would have allowed. He’s a very talented young man, and you can find more of his work on Twitter and Instagram.