#582: Cain’s Jawbone: A Novel Problem (1934) by Torquemada

Cain's Jawbone

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.

Cain's Jawbone (15)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.

Cain's Jawbone (13)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?

Cain's Jawbone (4)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.

Cain's Jawbone (6)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.

Cain's Jawbone (12)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.

20 thoughts on “#582: Cain’s Jawbone: A Novel Problem (1934) by Torquemada

  1. I have my copy, along with a wonderful idea: I will fly to England, move in with you, and stay until we solve this together and win that thousand pounds! The glory will be tremendous, and the money will go far in paying for your divorce fees and gluten-free cereal . . .

    Liked by 4 people

  2. I have to be curious about how good the story is if read unseen. It’s interesting that in order to solve this puzzle, you’d have to have read the bulk of each page, and so piecing it together would inevitably mean spoiling the surprise. Wouldn’t it be crazy if this was actually some classic?

    It’s a cool idea, although my mind reels at the amount of time and re-reading it would take to piece it all together.

    Liked by 2 people

    • In principle it does sound amazing, and then, yes, you see the 100 pages and know you’re going to have to read them several times each and the daunting aspect of it settles in a bit…

      I’d never considered how good the actual story might be. How hilarious. It’s difficult to judge Mathers’ prose on isolated examples, but at times it feels a but lumpy…though I suppose context might help. I guess I could take almost any 150-word sample of most books out of context and it would appear bewildering.

      Expect updates if any seem worthwhile!

      Liked by 2 people

    • I can only repeat the claim from the literature that “there is an inevitable order, the one in which the pages were written” — so until someone find that order and is then able to provide another, distinct one which <I.also makes sense…we’ll never know.


      • I think what I was trying to say is that it may be very hard to prove (in a mathematical sense) that the one “correct” solution is the “only” solution. You would have to demonstrate that all other combinations were invalid.


        • Maybe; if it was written as a “straight” 100-page whodunnit then I imagine there’s a clear plot that works in that order. You don’t normally read a book and think “Ah, yes, but if I swapped fourteen pages it would have a different outcome…” so, yeah, I guess it comes down to how Mathers wrote it in the first place.

          Although all talk of a solution seems hilariously previous at this stage… 😆


  3. Just got this one, and I’m already diving deep into it!

    One very minor criticism is that the reprinters did not include Torquemada’s original introduction, which mentions that the events take place “during a period of less than six months”–something which sounds like it could be important in putting the pages into chronological order.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hmmm, interesting. Again, it’s difficult to know, isn’t it? We can only hope that there’s no need to know the timeline, and that Unbound made a smart decision in not including it and — potentially, one supposes — dragging a false lead across the trail…


  4. Such a good post, a shout out to George for the photos. Tom Gould is such an amazing illustrator and so happy that someone of his caliber was up for this. Maybe he could be one for the cover stars series?!


  5. Public Service Announcement: I tried ordering a copy of Cain’s Jawbone from Amazon.ca and was told it could not be shipped to my location. I live in downtown Toronto, so I’d like to know exactly where in Canada they can ship it!! Anyway, I went to a local independent bookstore today, and they say they’ll have my copy ready for pickup in 7-10 days. Love your local independent bookstore, folks.


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