Thanks to TikTok, Cain’s Jawbone went viral last year. If you haven’t heard of it, Cain’s Jawbone is a murder mystery ‘novel’ of one hundred pages. The author, Edward Powys Mathers (who was also known as Torquemada), published the book with the pages jumbled and challenged the public to solve it and name the victim/s and the murderer/s. A Waterstones near me had a copy of the book, and I bought it with an insane amount of optimism (which is unusual considering my everyday pessimistic approach to life). I heard ‘murder mystery’ and ‘unsolvable’, and I had the audacity to think I could actually solve it. Since its original publishing under the name The Torquemada Puzzle Book in 1934, only three people have solved it. Ever.
Now, the reason Cain’s Jawbone is a pain is not just because the language is of the 1930s. Words (and even names of things/places/events) might not have necessarily meant the same as they do now. The book is also written as a continuous cryptic crossword. If you have ever skimmed through the cryptic crossword section in any newspaper, you can imagine the sheer horror of one hundred pages of that format. The sentences are incredibly dense and tangentially cryptic (if that even makes sense). I’m pretty sure there are clues hidden in the sentence structure and sometimes even spelling (I think). Torquemada was a true master of the crossword.
I read and reread the first page of Cain’s Jawbone for over three hours until I sat down and confronted my own perceived intelligence. The book humbles you. But I did not want to give up. I went about it another way and looked up Torquemada to understand what kind of person he was. Turns out, he had created around 670 crosswords in his life. Most were printed in The Observer, and you need a subscription to access old archives. There is, however, a copy of Cross-Words in Rhyme For Those of Riper Years available on the internet. An absolute piece of luck! I decided to solve these crosswords and get a better sense of Torquemada’s clue-setting.
This is the first crossword in the book, Gingerbeer for Three. I absolutely love the design of the grid here. The format is familiar, and the clues themselves are not as obscure as one might expect. I have to say it is far easier than Cain’s Jawbone, though it did take me a solid five days since I had to keep taking breaks and coming back to it. But it is doable. There are references to poetry, literature, general knowledge, everyday knowledge (which I count as different) and even other languages. The internet was my best friend during those five days.
Solving this first crossword gives me hope. One day, I hope to solve Cain’s Jawbone. Yes, it’s an incredibly daunting task, but Torquemada does give us a break sometimes. For instance, the very first clue I solved in Gingerbeer for Three was Horizontal 23.
“Here is no subtlety,
For I am me.”
P.S: Anyone want to start a crossword club and agonize over Cain’s Jawbone?