all the nice gulls love a sailor. Ugh

Gill Partington

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Cain’s Jawbone, one of the more demanding puzzles of the 20th century, was recently solved for the third time. Devised by the inventor of the cryptic crossword, Edward Powys Mathers (aka Torquemada), it was first published in 1934. Perhaps inevitably, it has taken another crossword buff to crack it in 2020: John Finnemore sets puzzles for the Times under the moniker Emu (when he isn’t appearing in his own Radio 4 comedy series). Cain’s Jawbone isn’t a crossword, however, even if it has some of the same cryptic, sideways logic. It’s a whodunnit mystery novel with a structural twist, in that its 100 pages appear out of sequence, making the plot unintelligible and obscuring the identities of the murderers and their victims. The task is to find the correct page order, working out in the process who dun what to whom.

Two readers, of the hundreds who tried, rose to the challenge in the 1930s, solving the mystery, by a curious coincidence, on the same day: the one whose envelope was opened first won Torquemada’s prize of £25 (the other got a ‘special consolation cheque’ donated by Victor Gollancz). After that, not only did the puzzle fade from view, but its solution seemed to have gone AWOL.

Its recent reissue was due in large part to the efforts of Patrick Wildgust of the Laurence Sterne Trust. Given a copy of the long-out-of-print Torquemada Puzzle Book, the compendium in which Cain’s Jawbone appeared, Wildgust went in search of the solution. Eventually he managed to track it down: ‘a risky venture’, he told the Guardian, ‘and one peppered with possible pitfalls’. He was less mysterious talking to the LRB: ‘I tracked down the answer thanks to the writer Craig Dworkin who alerted me to a source – a retired bookseller – who had had contact with a gentleman who had submitted a correct answer to Torquemada.’ Wildgust republished the puzzle last year in collaboration with Unbound, the crowdfunder imprint, upping the prize to £1000 for correct solutions submitted by 1September 2020.

The increased prize money isn’t the only difference. Torquemada’s original readers had to tear the pages out to rearrange them, but the new edition comes as a boxed set of unbound, single-sided cards, with a cover design by Tom Gauld. It’s a lovely object, worth having whether or not you try to solve it. If you do try, you’ll find it’s unlike any other bookish experience you’re likely to have. Reading usually involves absorption, forgetting the physical fact of the paper object you’re dealing with. With Cain’s Jawbone, you’ll find yourself surrounded by piles of loose-leaf pages covered with pencil scrawls and post-it notes, feverishly arranging and rearranging them. It’s more like being a conspiracy theorist than a reader, knee deep in jumbled sheets of paper and even more jumbled thoughts, drawing tenuous, cryptic, possibly imagined connections.

The question is how you make sense of its apparently bewildering stream of non-sequiturs, puns and innuendo: ‘He had buried the corpse; only the eyes showed’; ‘all the nice gulls love a sailor. Ugh’; ‘I made love to Flora again in the back parts; the results were satisfactory enough.’ What to do with all those literary references: the fragments of Tennyson, Wilde, Whitman and Browning all over the place? Spotting them is one thing, but then what? You could well end up feverishly jabbing at your laptop at 4 a.m., googling brands of cigar, 17th-century assassination plots, obscure botanical remedies and the history of county cricket teams. You will almost certainly find yourself chasing up blind alleys, pursuing red herrings, and wondering how on earth there can be so many Henrys.

I spent more time than I’m publicly prepared to admit attempting to solve Cain’s Jawbone, and can attest that sense does eventually emerge out of the chaos. It’s a bit like piecing together a jigsaw or, unsurprisingly, like staring at a crossword clue for ages before realising there’s another way to read it.

Twelve people entered the competition; I was one of the 11 entrants who grappled in vain with the puzzle. There are two parts to the solution. First you have to provide the full names of the six murderers and their victims, and the order in which they died. That I managed. But – mindbendingly difficult though it was – that was the easy bit. The second part involves putting every one of the 100 pages in exactly the right sequence. According to the Laurence Sterne Trust there are ‘over 32 million’ permutations, but as Wildgust says, that’s a ‘purely arbitrary number’: the actual figure is many orders of magnitude over 32 million – closer to a hundred unquinquagintillion. Hats off to Finnemore.


  • 17 November 2020 at 10:58am
    Robert Zara says:
    Indeed. As one of the other unsuccessful 11 entrants , congratulations are certainly due to John Finnemore. He has been kind enough to point out a couple of points that my collaborator (also a published crossword setter) and I had missed, meaning that we got one of the murderers wrong, and got a few pages in the wrong sequence. But there remain passages that are wholly obscure , both to him and to us. The real mystery is how anyone managed to solve it at all before the internet.