Book and Puzzle Review: Cain’s Jawbone: A Novel Problem
Cain’s Jawbone is a unique book and puzzle. The title comes from the first recorded murder weapon. The premise is irresistible. A one hundred page-long novella, with all of the pages out of order. The goal is to rearrange the pages into the correct order– and there is only one perfect order– and then study the text to identify the six murder victims, and their killers. When the puzzle was first released in 1934, there was a contest to solve the case. Supposedly, only two people came up with the fully correct answer. The prize was fifteen pounds. Nearly eighty-five years later, the case has been reopened, and there’s now a prize of one thousand pounds (roughly the equivalent of the original prize after inflation) going begging, if you can be the first to solve it before the end of the summer.
The author, Ernest Powys Mathers, was an acclaimed puzzler who often published his work under the pseudonym “Torquemada.” He was best known for his crosswords and mystery reviews, but Cain’s Jawbone is his masterpiece, which originally appeared in The Torquemada Puzzle Book.
It is impossible to describe the plot of Cain’s Jawbone because it is not a lucid, linear narrative. It’s a quasi-stream of consciousness tale, told from the perspective of an unknown (at least at first) number of narrators, stuffed to the bursting point with literary and historical references. The contemporary player has a huge advantage over those who tried to solve the mystery in the 1930’s, as the Internet allows people who do not have the same breadth of general knowledge as Mathers to look up important facts and references.
Another advantage comes from the newly published edition. The hundred pages are each printed on individual cards, as opposed to the original edition, where the novella was published on double-sided, bound pages. Now players can rearrange the pages however they like, with space at the bottom to make notes. The cards are stacked in a book-shaped box with a Goreyesque illustration on it, along with a little booklet with the rules of the game and the procedure for entering the contest.
Nothing comes easy in Cain’s Jawbone. The names of the characters are rarely provided straight out, and often a puzzle or reference has to be unscrambled in order to figure out a character’s identity. Additionally, each page beings with the start of a fresh sentence, and ends with a completed sentence. There’s no obvious clue like a page ending with “I made myself a cheese and tur-” and the sequential page starting with “-key sandwich on rye.” The determined solver must examine each page, and figure out which of the remaining ninety-nine pages comes before it, and which comes after it, assuming, of course, that the page in question isn’t the true first or last page. Each page is peppered with clues to the mystery and oblique references that must be solved in order to figure out what’s happening.
Words like “challenging,” “exhausting,” and “mind-blowing” aren’t enough to describe the experience that is Cain’s Jawbone. It’s a mental challenge unlike anything else one is likely to find, but the solving process is, for me at least, always exhilarating rather than frustrating.
Cain’s Jawbone: A Novel Problem
By Ernest Powys Mathers, aka “Torquemada”