Can YOU crack the most devilish whodunnit in the world? And warning – only four super sleuths have ever done that

Every group of enthusiasts needs its victorious hero, and to the bulging cryptic crossword community, theirs has always been Edward Powys Mathers.

Edward, or Bill to his friends, was a balding, bearded fellow in the 1930s who gave devilishly difficult directions as he sat in bed in his pajamas with a cigarette and a satisfied smile.

His ‘reign of terror’, which published crosswords for the Observer newspaper between 1926 and his sudden death in 1939, is still discussed with silent awe by Britain’s legions of crossword puzzles, as crossword puzzles are known. But it wasn’t just crosswords.

In 1934, he wrote a 100-page murder mystery novel called Cain’s Jawbone.

This is named after the jawbone of a donkey that according to the Bible was used by Cain to kill his brother Abel.

In Mathers’ book, which tells of “a series of tragic events in a period of less than six months,” six people are murdered in six ways by six murderers.

After writing the mystery, Mathers scrambled the pages and challenged readers to rearrange them, not only to reveal a murder mystery, but also to give an account of the crimes and the names of the killers.

And if that wasn’t tricky enough, every page was written to end at the end of a sentence.

The publishers then offered a prize of £25 (about £1,000 today) to anyone who could solve it.

Edward Powys Mathers (pictured), or Bill to his friends, was a balding, bearded fellow in the 1930s who gave devilishly difficult directions while sitting in bed in his pajamas with a cigarette and a satisfied smile. But in 1934, he wrote a 100-page murder mystery novel called Cain’s Jawbone, which only a handful of people ever cracked.

Then, apparently, almost everyone had a chance. At times it seemed as if the whole nation was struggling with Cain’s jawbone.

But since the total number of combinations of the reordered book was a number of 158 digits, solving the problem was a slow old thing.

Indeed, to date, only a handful of people have cracked it.

Two of them – Mr S Sydney-Turner and Mr WS Kennedy – did so in 1935 and claimed the original prize money. A third was John Finnemore, a comic book writer, who sorted it out during lockdown last year, to muffled fanfare.

But suddenly, and 87 years after it was first published, another Cain’s Jawbone craze is on the way.

And it’s all thanks to Sarah Scannell, a communications assistant at a nonprofit documentary company called Citizen Film in San Francisco.

She found a copy at her local bookstore, tore the pages out, taped them all over the bedroom wall, and charted her efforts to solve it on TikTok.

“I’ve decided to use this near-impossible task as an opportunity to fulfill a lifelong dream and turn my entire bedroom wall into a murder sign,” says Scannell, who is known on TikTok as @saruuuuuugh.

Her videos have been viewed by seven million people.

Used bookcases have been scoured by aficionados, and both Amazon and publisher Unbound have sold out — the latter, inundated with tens of thousands of orders from around the world, is frantically being reprinted so copies will be available before Christmas.

Only now the latest version of Cain’s Jawbone comes with the pages loose-leaf in a box so they don’t have to be torn apart.

Sarah Scannell (pictured) found a copy of Cain's Jawbone at her local bookstore, tore the pages out, taped them all over the bedroom wall, and charted her attempts to fix it on TikTok

Sarah Scannell (pictured) found a copy of Cain’s Jawbone at her local bookstore, tore the pages out, taped them all over the bedroom wall, and charted her attempts to fix it on TikTok

Born in London in 1892 and educated at Edinburgh Public School Loretto and Trinity College, Oxford, the self-effacing man behind it all was an English translator, poet, literary critic and all-round genius, creating increasingly difficult puzzles in his spare time.

At a time when crosswords only came in the succinct, literal form, Mathers—along with Adrian Bell of The Times and Afrit of The Listener—came up with an alternative approach. Using throbbing jokes, rhyming couplets, puns, anagrams and sharp humor, they pioneered the cryptic crossword.

Most good crossword puzzles work behind a nom de plume and, under the pseudonym Tomas de Torquemada – after the first Grand Inquisitor of the Spanish Inquisition – Mathers joined The Observer in 1926, where his weekly puzzles became fantastically popular.

Despite their difficulties, the newspaper received up to 7,000 correct solutions each week, while an estimated 20,000 more readers completed the puzzle but didn’t bother to sign up for the glory.

There was also frenzied speculation about who Torquemada was, especially when Cain’s Jawbone was released in 1934.

So when Mathers — after 670 puzzles in The Observer — died in his sleep at age 47, the enigmatic community was naturally devastated.

But in 1939, of course, there were other distractions, and in due course The Torquemada Puzzle Book—a compendium of his work that included the murder mystery novel—was largely forgotten.

Until, that is, about four years ago, when the Laurence Sterne Trust, based at Shandy Hall in York, received a copy of the book as a donation.

Cain's Jawbone, which describes itself as 'the world's most devilishly difficult literary puzzle'

Cain’s Jawbone, which describes itself as ‘the world’s most devilishly difficult literary puzzle’

Aside from a collection of Mathers’ most rigorous riddles, it featured Cain’s Jawbone, and Shandy Hall curator Patrick Wildgust promised to solve it.

And he did, after a public appeal and the help of an “important contact” – an elderly gentleman who apparently solved it the first time and still had his written congratulations from the author to prove it.

As the solution was a closely guarded secret, in 2019 Unbound re-released the title – and the competition – with a price tag of £1,000.

This time, however, there was little of the feverish excitement of the 1930s. Of the 12 contestants, John Finnemore, a British comedy writer – who also writes crosswords for The Times under the name Emu – was the only one to solve it after four months of lockdown, focused on 100 pages spread across his spare bedroom.

He was sworn to secrecy, and the whole thing barely caused a ripple outside the crossword cognoscenti.

But earlier this month, everything went awry when Scannell charted her progress on TikTok.

“I thought $10 wasn’t too much of a loss if I didn’t find out,” she said. “I’ve never read a murder mystery book, but I love logic puzzles, which is why I bought the book in the first place.”

The £1,000 prize is of course long gone, but Unbound is apparently still accepting and marking submissions, and anyone who solves the puzzle before December 31, 2022 will receive £250 to spend supporting other book projects on the Unbound site.

Not that anyone seems to care about the money anymore. Now it’s all about the glory.

Scannell has read the book twice so far and is confident she will be able to put the pages in the correct order, but is less confident in solving the mystery. Sure, before anyone else does.

Because thanks to her videos, there are now tens of thousands of literary sleuths around the world desperate for the glory of solving Torquemada’s devilishly difficult puzzle 87 years after he conceived it. If only he had known.

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