Why TikTok Is Obsessed With This 92-Year-Old Murder Mystery Novel
Only four people in history have solved it since 1930; reckon you'll be the fifth?
Do you reckon you can solve Cain’s Jawbone, a murder mystery novel from 1935? Well, you would only be the fifth person ever to do so if you did.
What Is Cain’s Jawbone?
Cain’s Jawbone is a narrative-driven puzzle novel first published in 1930 that, to date, only four people have solved. Written by inventor of cryptic crosswords Edward Powys Mathers under the pseudonym “Torquemada”, the book is a complex puzzle that promises prize money to whoever can work it out.
Just to add to its enigmatic nature, the book takes its name from the iconic cemetery scene in Shakespeare’s Hamlet when the titular character cries:
“That skull had a tongue in it and could sing once. How the knave jowls it to th’ ground, as if it were Cain’s jawbone that did the first murder!”
Interest piqued in the book after a series of TikToks by an assistant documentarian went viral last year. So, what do you have to do to solve Cain’s Jawbone?
What Do You Have To Do To Solve Cain’s Jawbone?
The murder mystery of Cain’s Jawbone is far trickier than your average game of Cluedo. To win the prize money offered by the publisher, the reader must solve the three puzzles it throws up.
Firstly, none of the pages in the book are in order. Thus, the reader has to number the 100 pages of the novel in the correct order, from one to 100.
Secondly, there are six murder victims in the novel. To claim the prize, the reader must correctly identify all six victims.
And finally, the reader must, of course, identify the killers. Like the victims, there are six in total and all must be correctly identified.
With over 30 million potential combinations, it’s one of the most challenging puzzles in literary history, and TikTokers are leveraging everything they can — from spells to poetry — to try and solve it. One user has been faithfully diarising their progress, even dedicating their account to the cause, since March this year.
Who Has Solved It, and How Do We Even Know They Did?
In the 90+ years since the puzzle’s publication, only four have officially solved the mystery. Two of these people solved Cain’s Jawbone in 1935. During its original contest run, Mr S. Sydney-Turner and Mr W. S. Kennedy both won £15 for their troubles.
It was then thought that the solution to Cain’s Jawbone was lost to time. However, in 2016, a resident of a Hampshire nursing home answered a call-out from the curator of the historical Library of Shandy Hall for anyone who had previously solved the novel.
The nursing home resident allegedly solved the book back in 1935 during its original competition run and had a congratulatory note signed by Torquemada himself. With the puzzle’s correct answer affirmed and authenticated once again, a new contest was finally made possible.
Cain’s Jawbone was then reprinted in 2019 after a crowdfunding effort by Unbound Publishers. In 2020, British writer and comedian John Finnemore became the fourth ever person to decipher the novel. According to The Guardian, Finnemore solved the mystery over four months during a COVID-19 lockdown.
An Old Mystery Sparks A New Contest
In December 2021, Unbound published 70,000 more copies with the latest competition, due to demand created by the mystery’s popularity on TikTok.
Those who submit the correct answers to the novel’s three-fold mystery by December 31, 2022, win a £350 (about $445 AUD) credit to Unbound books. More importantly, you would earn the glory of knowing you are only the fifth person in all of known history to have solved it.
With just over a month until the deadline, anyone looking to solve the famous novel better start channelling their inner Sherlock Holmes, stat!