How one TikToker gave new life to ‘impossibly difficult’ murder mystery book only four people have solved

‘Cain’s Jawbone’ is a prose narrative made up of 100 pages – all in the wrong order

Clémence Michallon
New York City
Tuesday 23 November 2021 23:05 GMT
TikTok user Sarah Scannell (@saruuuuuuugh) is working to solve ‘Cain’s Jawbone’, a literary puzzle
TikTok user Sarah Scannell (@saruuuuuuugh) is working to solve ‘Cain’s Jawbone’, a literary puzzle (TikTok/@saruuuuuuugh)

A literary mystery solved by only four people over eight decades has found a new life thanks to one TikToker’s dogged investigation.

Cain’s Jawbone, originally published in 1934, is a murder mystery puzzle composed of 100 pages – all assembled in the wrong order. The only way to solve all six murders in the prose narrative is to reorder the pages and correctly identify the crimes, their victims, and who perpetrated them.

The mystery was created by Edward Powys Mathers, who composed cryptic puzzles for The Observer in in the 1920s and 1930s under the pseudonym Torquemada. Cain’s Jawbone was first published in The Torquemada Puzzle Book, which contained several of his creations. It has since been published as a standalone.

TikTok user Sarah Scannell (@saruuuuuuugh on the platform), a nonprofit worker based in San Francisco, was already an active TikTok user when she shared her first Cain’s-Jawbone-related clip on 14 November.

“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 out of order,” she explains in the video, “so I decided to take this nearly impossible task as an opportunity to fulfill a lifelong dream and turn my entire bedroom wall into a murder board.”

The clip includes a shot of Scannell’s wall on which she has pasted the book’s detached pages in order to work to reorder them.

With 32 million possible combinations, Cain’s Jawbone is widely considered to be one of the toughest literary mysteries to crack. (The book’s cover describes it as “the world’s most fiendishly difficult literary puzzle”.) Only four people are known to have solved it in its 87 years of existence.

The first two, S Sydney-Turner and W S Kennedy, cracked it in the 1930s and won £25, according to The Guardian. (That would be roughly £1,500 nowadays, or $2,000.) Eight decades later, Patrick Wildgust, the curator of the Shandy Hall museum in North Yorkshire, England, solved it after the Laurence Sterne Trust (a charity created to promote the writings of novelist Laurence Sterne) received a copy of The Torquemada Puzzle Book.

John Finnemore, the English comedy writer behind the radio programmes Cabin Pressure, John Finnemore's Souvenir Programme, and John Finnemore's Double Acts, became the fourth person to solve the puzzle in November last year. Unbound, a crowdfunding publishing company based in London, had republished Cain’s Jawbone in 2019 after Wildgust had solved the puzzle. The publisher also organised a contest with a £1,000 prize for whoever managed to solve the mystery within a year.

Finnemore was one of only 12 participants, and the only one to have found the correct answers, The Guardian reported at the time.

Cain’s Jawbone is now experiencing a remarkable surge in popularity in light of Scannell’s videos. Her first clip about the murder mystery has been viewed 4.7 million times on TikTok. Her follow-up videos, in which she has provided updates on her progress and discussed various aspects of the work, have amassed thousands of views.

The enthusiasm has been such that Unbound says it is now reprinting 10,000 copies in an effort to meet demand, The Bookseller reports. Cain’s Jawbone is listed as the top bestseller in the “puzzles” category on Amazon.

A disclaimer on Unbound’s website currently reads: “This book is sold-out almost everywhere so we are printing more copies as quickly as we can. We hope to have books back in stock in our warehouse on the 14 December and any pre-orders will be sent out as soon as the books arrive.”

The book sold out within 24 hours of Scannell’s video going viral, Unbound told The Bookseller, adding that it’s now “fielding a flurry of foreign rights queries”.

The most difficult part in solving the mystery so far has not been the fact that the pages are presented out of order, Scannell says in one of her videos – although that aspect is certainly a challenge – but rather the fact that cultural references and language have evolved significantly since the 1930s.

“The hardest part of this whole thing so far is not that it’s written out of order,” she says in the clip. “… I don’t understand what certain things mean, because I don’t know the rules for 1934.”

Scannell has made a point not to reveal the book’s secrets in her clips, and hopes others will do the same.

“Part of the mystique of this book is that the puzzle answers have never been made public,” she told SFGATE. “I feel if people start crowd-sourcing it, then at some point, the answer will be revealed. I guess for every other murder mystery book, the answer is out there and it doesn't really take away from it because people can just not look it up. But I think it's fun that people don't know.”

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