Nation/World

A 1934 murder mystery’s pages were printed out of order. Now the world is obsessed.

books-mystery

“Cain’s Jawbone” is seductive.

The lissome little murder mystery retails for $15 and totals 100 pages. The novel’s cover, depicting a murdered man’s legs on a library floor, is an enticing blend of turquoise, bright yellow and pale orange. The book was written in 1934 by a British crossword master, and “the pages have been printed in an entirely haphazard order,” the book jacket’s cover declares, “but it is possible - through logic and intelligent reading - to sort them into the only correct order, revealing six murder victims and their respective murderers.”

Just 100 pages? How hard could it be?

Then you start reading - and realize why only four people have solved the puzzle since its publication nearly eight decades ago.

“I stabbed once,” declares page 38, “and even as I did so, I thought of skinny old Marat in his slipper bath, the nightcap about his forehead, the dim light of the candle, the shadow at the door, the stealthy tread of Charlotte Brontë with the undulled blade.”

“Had not the author of Wails of a Tayside Inn said of them that they were the living poems and that all the rest were dead?” asks page 93. “Had not the singer of Wimpole Street said that they were binding up their hearts away from breaking with a cerement of the grave?”

And yet the long-ignored novel is witnessing an unexpected explosion of puzzle-solving popularity. It began when two Englishmen unearthed the text and decided to republish it in 2019; about a year later, a crossword author managed to become the fourth person in history to come up with the correct solution.

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That earned a smidgen of media coverage - but things really took off when a TikTok user in San Francisco picked the slim volume up at her local bookstore and started posting videos about her attempts to solve it. Her first video, published in November 2021 and titled “i fear i may have girlbossed a bit too close to the sun,” earned 6.6 million views. Within hours, “Cain’s Jawbone” sold out on Amazon.

The craze has continued: As of early December, the book has sold 325,000 copies and is being translated into 12 languages, according to John Mitchinson, one of the two Britons who discovered the text and who printed it through his crowdfunded publishing company, Unbound.

The novel has united people around the world in an obsessive quest to unearth the answer, generating online communities, prompting many to turn rooms of their homes into “murder walls” plastered with book pages - and inspiring one woman in Colorado to propose an artificial intelligence-based method for solving the novel, which is still in the trial phase.

“It’s been a bestseller in Italy, it’s selling incredibly well in France,” Mitchinson said. “I am still just baffled that it’s selling in these quantities.”

Added Patrick Wildgust, curator of a literary museum in York who partnered with Mitchinson to republish “Cain’s Jawbone”: “This has hit home. I don’t know why.”

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“Cain’s Jawbone” was written by Edward Powys Mathers, known in Britain as the father of the cryptic crossword, a form of crossword - largely nonexistent in America - in which the crossword clues themselves contain the answers, but in an encoded or encrypted form. These word puzzles are devilishly difficult, and Mathers became the undisputed king of the genre in the early 20th century.

Under the nom de plume “Torquemada” - a pseudonym he adopted to imply he would be as cruel to readers as Spanish Grand Inquisitor Tómas de Torquemada - Mathers penned 670 crosswords for the Observer newspaper over the course of his career. His cryptics became known internationally: Each week, thousands of people would submit solutions from places as far away as Alaska and West Africa, according to the online magazine Mental Floss.

In 1934, Mathers issued a compendium of his work titled the “Torquemada Puzzle Book.” Tacked onto the end of the book was “Cain’s Jawbone.” Torquemada announced a contest to solve the book in the Observer, promising successful entrants a prize of 25 pounds, or roughly $2,500 today.

The challenge drew two solvers in its first year, according to Wildgust: “W. S. Kennedy” and “S. Sydney-Turner.” (In an odd freak of literary fate, the second solver appears to be Saxon Sydney-Turner, a friend of Virginia Woolf and the least-known member of the Bloomsbury circle, a man dismissed by the biographers of his more famous friends as “taciturn, pedantic, fussily jocose” and “brilliant in a crossword puzzle-solving kind of way.”)

But after that, the world forgot “Cain’s Jawbone.”

Until one wet afternoon in November 2016 when Mitchinson came to sip tea with Wildgust at Shandy Hall, the museum where Wildgust has spent years amassing an impressive collection of unusual literature.

That afternoon, he showed Mitchinson “Cain’s Jawbone.” Wildgust had attempted to solve it a few times, but gotten nowhere.

Mitchinson was intrigued. He tried to solve it himself, but gave up after scanning 40 pages of what looked like nonsense. Wildgust told Mitchinson that he’d managed to unearth the solution by trawling through his vast network of booksellers and ultimately locating an elderly man in a nursing home who still had both his own answers and a signed note from Torquemada himself congratulating him for getting it right. (The nursing home resident, whose name has not been shared publicly, brought the total number of solvers up to three.)

All of this gave Mitchinson an idea.

“I thought, ‘We ought to be able to sell this,’” Mitchinson recalled. “I was pretty sure we’d sell 5,000 copies at most . . . I thought this could become a kind of cult thing for literary people.”

In its first year on the market in 2019, “Cain’s Jawbone” sold roughly 4,000 copies. Mitchinson and Wildgust also launched a contest, offering anyone who developed the correct answers by Sept. 19, 2020, a prize of 1,000 pounds.

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It drew 12 submissions. To Mitchinson and Wildgust’s shock, one of them was right.

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British comedian, writer and crossword author John Finnemore stumbled across “Cain’s Jawbone” just before the pandemic hit.

“I swiftly concluded that it was way out of my league, and 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 Guardian. “Unfortunately, the universe heard me.”

Finnemore, who did not respond to an interview request, told the Guardian he spent about four months during lockdown working to solve the novel, laying out its pages across a spare bed in his home. He religiously Googled anything and everything referenced in the novel, but remained stymied for weeks. Eventually, something clicked - although Finnemore, wary of revealing the solution, has said little about his methods.

“There’s a major thing you realize about it, and you go, ‘Oh, I see,’” Finnemore told the podcast, “This Is Love.”

By coincidence, it was Finnemore’s birthday when he answered a phone call from Mitchinson telling him he’d gotten the answer right. Finnemore’s feat drew a buzz of media attention and reader interest, mostly in the United Kingdom, and Mitchinson decided he might as well print another round of books and open the contest again for 2021.

Almost a year later, halfway across the world in San Francisco, 25-year-old Sarah Scannell came across the novel while browsing in Green Apple Books. Scannell, who works for a documentary production company, didn’t buy it, thinking it would be too difficult.

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“But then I wound up thinking about it for a full month,” she said, “so I walked back and got it.”

Taking advantage of an empty space in her bedroom, Scannell grouped pages by what she hoped were appropriate categories and pasted bunches of them to the wall with blue tape. She pinned yarn between pages to illustrate possible connections.

She started filming and posting her progress to TikTok, the social media platform she downloaded during the pandemic and on which she had amassed 30,000 followers. Her first video is just 15 seconds.

“I found this murder mystery book from 1934 where you have to figure out the six killers and their victims but all the pages are printed out of order,” she says in the video, “so I’ve decided to take this nearly impossible task as an opportunity to fulfill a literally lifelong dream and turn my entire bedroom wall into a murder board.” Then the camera pans up to her page-splattered wall.

Within 12 hours, her video had drawn more than half a million views - and her follower count soon soared to upward of 70,000. Twenty-four hours later, the book had sold out on Amazon and was back-ordered at Green Apple Books, Scannell said.

Within a week, U.S. orders topped 10,000 and Canadian orders spiked to more than 3,000, according to the Bookseller. Scannell’s friends who work in bookstores texted her to complain about the sudden influx of frustrated customers.

But in England, Mitchinson and Wildgust were thrilled. Eleven days after Scannell published her video, they announced plans to print 10,000 paperback copies. The following month, they printed 70,000 more - followed by additional print runs in the tens of thousands. By the end of this year, Mitchinson predicts, both Unbound and Shandy House will see thousands of pounds in profits; the two entities are evenly splitting the money pot. Wildgust plans to use the windfall to augment his rare-book collection.

Mitchinson and Wildgust have also reopened the contest to solve the book, and plan to hold another in 2023. For this year, those who submit the correct answers by Dec. 31, 2022, will earn a prize of $300 to spend on other Unbound publications.

Scannell will not be entering. “I am honestly not close to submitting,” she said. But she plans to keep working on it.

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At this point, I must confess: I am one of the people who fell under the novel’s spell.

My boyfriend and I turned the walls of our staircase into a shrine to “Cain’s Jawbone,” pinning up slabs of pages. For months, we walked up and down the steps, shuffling and reshuffling the order. I downloaded a PDF of the novel onto my phone and printed out physical copies that I kept with me wherever I went. I read and reread the book everywhere: on the exercise bike, during my Metro ride to work, covertly at social gatherings.

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Hunting for clues, I read (almost) all of Shakespeare’s plays and checked out library books about 1930s-era London, and its notable figures. And we traversed odd crevices of the internet: One morning, I came downstairs to find my boyfriend poring over an online PDF of a medieval Italian manuscript about the Catholic Church.

On Friday, Oct. 28 at 4:12 p.m., after five months of obsessive effort, we emailed in what we fervently hope is the correct solution. Now we’re just waiting to find out if we’ve cracked “Cain’s Jawbone.”

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