Every group of enthusiasts needs its conquering hero, and for the bulging-brained cryptic crossword community, theirs has always been Edward Powys Mathers.
Edward, or Bill to his friends, was a balding, bearded chap who, in the 1930s, set fiendishly difficult clues as he sat in bed in his pyjamas with a cigarette and a contented smile.
His ‘reign of terror’, setting crosswords for the Observer newspaper between 1926 and his sudden death in 1939, is still discussed in hushed awe by Britain’s legions of cruciverbalists, as crossword fans are known. But it wasn’t just crosswords.
In 1934, he wrote a 100-page murder-mystery novel called Cain’s Jawbone.
This was named after the jawbone of an ass said to have been used by Cain to slay his brother Abel in the Bible.
In Mathers’ book, which recounts ‘a series of tragic happenings during a period of less than six months’, six people are slain by six murderers in six ways.
Having written the mystery, Mathers then jumbled the pages and set readers the challenge of reordering them, not just to reveal a murder mystery, but also to provide an account of the crimes and the names of the killers.
And if that wasn’t tricky enough, each page was written to finish at the end of a sentence.
The publishers then offered a £25 prize (about £1,000 today) to anyone who could solve it.
Edward Powys Mathers (pictured), or Bill to his friends, was a balding, bearded chap who, in the 1930s, set fiendishly difficult clues as he sat in bed in his pyjamas with a cigarette and a contented smile. But in 1934, he wrote a 100-page murder-mystery novel called Cain’s Jawbone, which only a handful of people have ever cracked
Back then, almost everyone apparently had a go. At times it seemed the entire nation was wrestling with Cain’s Jawbone.
But given that the total number of combinations of the re-ordered book was a figure 158 digits long, solving it was a slow old business.
Indeed, to date, only a handful of people have cracked it.
Two of these — a Mr S Sydney-Turner and Mr W S Kennedy — did so in back in 1935, claiming the original prize money. A third was John Finnemore, a comic writer, who solved it during lockdown last year, to muted fanfare.
But suddenly, and 87 years after it was first published, a new Cain’s Jawbone craze is afoot.
And it’s all thanks to Sarah Scannell, a communications assistant at a non-profit documentary company called Citizen Film in San Francisco.
She found a copy in her local bookshop, ripped out the pages, plastered them all over her bedroom wall, and charted her efforts to solve it on TikTok.
‘I’ve decided to take this nearly impossible task as an opportunity to fulfil a lifelong dream and turn my entire bedroom wall into a murder board,’ said Scannell, who is known on TikTok as @saruuuuuuugh.
Her videos have been watched by seven million people.
Second-hand bookshelves have been scoured by enthusiasts and both Amazon and publisher Unbound has sold out — the latter, inundated with tens of thousands of orders from around the world, is frantically reprinting so copies are available for Christmas.
Only now, the latest version of Cain’s Jawbone comes with the pages loose-leaf in a box, so they don’t need tearing apart.
Sarah Scannell (pictured) found a copy of Cain’s Jawbone in her local bookshop, ripped out the pages, plastered them all over her bedroom wall, and charted her efforts to solve 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, who set increasingly difficult puzzles in his spare time.
At a time when crosswords only came in the concise, literal form, Mathers — along with Adrian Bell at The Times and Afrit at The Listener — came up with an alternative approach. Using knock-knock jokes, rhyming couplets, puns, anagrams and sharp wit, they pioneered the cryptic crossword.
Most good crossword setters 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 difficulty, up to 7,000 correct solutions were received by the paper each week, while a further 20,000 readers were estimated to have completed the puzzle, but didn’t bother writing in for the glory.
There was also frenzied speculation as to who Torquemada was, particularly when Cain’s Jawbone was released in 1934.
So, naturally, when — after 670 puzzles in The Observer — Mathers died in his sleep aged just 47, the puzzling community was devastated.
But in 1939, there were, of course, 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 fiendishly difficult literary puzzle’
Apart from a collection of Mathers’ most rigorous riddles, it contained Cain’s Jawbone, and Shandy Hall curator Patrick Wildgust vowed to solve it.
And so he did, following a public appeal and the help of a ‘significant contact’ — an elderly gentleman who had apparently solved it the first time round and still had his written congratulations from the author to prove it.
With the solution a fiercely guarded secret, in 2019 Unbound reissued the title — and the competition — now with a £1,000 prize.
This time, however, there was little of the febrile excitement of the 1930s. Of the 12 entrants, 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 spending four months of lockdown focused on 100 pages spread around his spare room.
He was sworn to secrecy and the whole thing caused barely a ripple beyond the crossword cognoscenti.
But then earlier this month, everything went bananas when Scannell started charting her progress on TikTok.
‘I figured $10 wasn’t too big a loss if I couldn’t figure it out,’ she said. ‘I have never read a murder-mystery book before, but I do love logic puzzles, which is why I bought the book in the first place.’
The £1,000 prize, of course, is long gone, but Unbound is apparently still accepting and marking entries, 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 cash any more. Now, it’s all about the glory.
So far, Scannell has read the book twice and is confident she’ll be able to put the pages in the correct order, but rather less sure about solving the mystery. Certainly, 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 fiendishly hard puzzle, 87 years after he devised it. If only he’d known.