Cain’s Jawbone: A Novel Problem [Reaction]

This is a true story

“In 1934, The Observer’s crossword writer, Edward Powys Mathers, wrote a unique novel Cain’s Jawbone. The title, referring to the first recorded murder weapon, was written under his pen name Torquemada. The story was not only a murder mystery but one of the hardest and most beguiling word puzzles ever published.”

Cain’s Jawbone was a 100 page novel/ puzzle presented in loose-leaf. The book had no binding, the pages were simply stacked. The goal was to deduce the proper order of the pages… and there were 32,000,000 possible permutations of the pages.

The box art for Cain's Jawbone depicts a library with a deadman on the floor and a person in the shadows outside of the window.

Back when it was originally released, only 2 people were confirmed to have solved the puzzle. The solution, however, was never made public.

Crowdfunding A Recreation

In 2017, a crowdfunding project was launched to reproduce Cain’s Jawbone.

Along with 826 other people, I backed it. It took a few years, but it exists now.

Cain's Jawbone's box open, it contains a stack of individual book pages.

Solving Cain’s Jawbone

I’ve spent a bit of time rummaging through Cain’s Jawbone without any serious solving intent. It’s a whole lot of puzzle. It would require a level of time commitment and intensity that I simply do not have. I knew this when I backed it… My contribution was because I liked the idea of this puzzle existing.

Maybe one day in retirement I’ll find the time to solve something this deep; I mean that without a hint of hyperbole.

Cain's Jawbone open and the loose pages removed.

Reaction

Since I cannot review this product, I am going to share a few observations to help you decide if you want to buy this puzzle.

It’s from the early 1930s and that comes with a two big implications:

  • There are a lot of antiquated references that I suspect you’ll have to research if you want to solve the puzzle.
  • It uses phrases that are generally deemed offensive today.

On that note – yes – Edward Powys Mathers’ use of the moniker “Torquemada,” presumably in reference to the first Grand Inquisitor of the Spanish Inquisition, seems a strange choice almost a century later. One might call it unexpected.

Solving Cain’s Jawbone is going to require a hefty mix of obsession, time, and organization. I love that it exists, it’s fun to peruse, and I like having it on my shelf staring at me and me thinking, “maybe one day…” but that I’ll likely never solve it.

Loose pages of Cain's Jawbone.

If this sounds like the kind of challenge or conversation piece that you’d like to own, buy a copy of Cain’s Jawbone while you can.

6 thoughts on “Cain’s Jawbone: A Novel Problem [Reaction]

  1. How cool! Have you considered approaching it as a collaborative project? I feel like this could be a fun weekend-long activity to tackle with friends. or maybe find an online forum of others who own it and use a shared Google drive to organize the info?

  2. As a young teenager, I accidentally formatted the floppy disc containing the only updated copy of the book my mom was writing. (She didn’t have backups because, well, she hadn’t bothered.)

    This was pre Norton Utilities. But I knew stuff, and managed to dump the raw contents of the floppy, which I noticed contained the text, but randomly shuffled because both MS-DOS and the word processor had block-remapped storage layers.

    So, we spent a day or two going through the text and piecing it together. She’d written it, so she usually knew what came after what, and I could search for it and find the missing piece and put it in place. It was like a big word jigsaw.

    She went from steaming angry to “you know, that was actually kind of fun” over the course of the exercise. (This was memorable because well, my mom and I have a… complicated relationship; there wasn’t much co-fun.)

    With an archaic text the solvers definitely *did not* write, and perhaps designed to be rather more opaque in ordering, that seems quite a lot more difficult!

    1. That’s a delightful story.

      I love the concept of this puzzle. It’s so intriguing… and also daunting. I’d love to unravel it’s mysteries.

  3. I backed this project for the same reasons. I like the ordering the pages as a goal too.

    It would be neat for a 10 person group to take a crack. If each person were responsible for 10 pages over a 3 month period, then uploaded their research to a google doc. Then decide on a solving strategy from there.

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