Can you crack the world’s most brutal murders? And a warning – only four of them have super espionage

Every group of nerds needs their own conqueror, and for the mysterious, bloated crossword community, Edward Boys Mathers has always been their group.

Edward, or Bell to his friends, was a bald, bearded young man who, in his thirties, put up very tricky clues while sitting in bed in pajamas with a cigarette and a satisfied smile.

The ‘Reign of Terror’, which set the Observer’s crossword puzzle between 1926 and his untimely death in 1939, is still debated in silent awe by Britain’s legions of crusaders, as crossword puzzle lovers are known. But it wasn’t just a crossword puzzle.

In 1934, he wrote a 100-page novel about murder and mystery called Cain’s Jawbones.

This is named after a donkey’s jawbone that Cain is said to have used to kill his brother Abel in the Bible.

In Mathers’ book, which recounts a “chain of tragic events over a period of less than six months,” six people were killed by six murderers in six ways.

Having written the mystery, Mathers then shuffled the pages and presented readers with the challenge of rearranging them, not only to unravel a murder mystery, but also to provide descriptions of the crimes and the names of the killers.

And if that wasn’t complicated enough, every page was written to end at the end of the sentence.

Then the publishers offered a £25 prize (about £1,000 today) to anyone who could solve it.

Edward Bowes Mathers (pictured), or Bill for his friends, was a bald, bearded young man who in the 1930s put down very difficult clues while sitting in bed in his pajamas with a cigarette and a satisfied smile. But in 1934, he wrote a 100-page novel about murder and a mystery called Cain’s Jawbone, which few people ever discovered.

At the time, it seemed like everyone was gone. Sometimes it seemed like the entire nation was grappling with Cain’s jawbone.

But given that the total number of book clusters rearranged was a number 158 digits long, solving it was old, slow work.

In fact, so far, only a few people have managed to solve the problem.

Two of these – Mr. S Sydney-Turner and Mr. W.S. Kennedy – did so in 1935, claiming the original prize money. And the third was John Fenemore, the comedian, who solved the problem during lockdown last year, to silence the fanfare.

But suddenly, 87 years after it was first published, Cain’s new jaw-bone craze is in full swing.

And all thanks to Sarah Scannell, communications assistant at a non-profit documentary company called Citizen Film in San Francisco.

She found a copy at her local library, tore up the pages, pasted them all over her bedroom wall, and sketched out her efforts to solve the problem on TikTok.

“I have decided to take this near-impossible mission as an opportunity to fulfill a lifelong dream and turn my entire bedroom wall into a murder painting,” said Scannell, better known on TikTok as saruuuuuugh.

Her videos were watched by seven million people.

Enthusiasts roamed shelves of used books, Amazon and publisher Unbound both sold out—the latter, inundated with tens of thousands of requests from around the world, is frantically reprinting so copies are available for Christmas.

Only now, Cain’s Jawbone’s latest release comes with loose-leaf in a box, so they don’t need to be shredded.

Sarah Scannell (pictured) found a copy of Cain's Jawbone book in her local library, tore up the pages and pasted them all over her bedroom wall, and sketched out her efforts to solve the problem on TikTok

Sarah Scannell (pictured) found a copy of Cain’s Jawbone book in her local library, tore up the pages and pasted them all over her bedroom wall, and sketched out her efforts to solve the problem on TikTok

Born in London in 1892 and educated at Loreto School and Trinity College, Oxford in Edinburgh, the man behind it all was an English translator, poet, literary critic, and all-round genius, who set increasingly difficult puzzles in his spare time.

At a time when crossword puzzles only came in the literal abbreviated form, Mathers — along with Adrian Bell at The Times and Afrit at The Listener — came up with an alternative approach. Using multiplication jokes, rhyming syllables, puns, anagrams and sharp wit, they pioneered cryptic crossword puzzles.

Most good crossword writers work behind a pseudonym, and under the pseudonym Tomas de Torquemada – after the first major investigator of the Spanish Inquisition – Mathers joined The Observer in 1926, where his weekly puzzles became fantastically popular.

Despite its difficulty, the newspaper received as many as 7,000 correct answers each week, while an estimated 20,000 other readers completed the puzzle, but didn’t bother writing for glory.

There has also been frantic speculation about who Torquemada was, especially when Cain’s Jawbone was launched in 1934.

So, of course, when — after 670 puzzles in The Observer — Mathers died in his sleep at the age of 47, the baffling community was devastated.

But in 1939, there were of course other distractions, and in time, Torquemada’s mystery book—a compendium of his work that included a murder mystery novel—was largely forgotten.

Until then, about four years ago, when the Laurence Sterne Trust, based in Shandy Hall in York, received a copy of the book as a donation.

The jawbone of Cain, who describes himself as

The jawbone of Cain, who describes himself as “the world’s most difficult literary puzzle”

Aside from a set of Mathers’ tougher puzzles, it contained Cain’s Jawbone, and Shandy Hall curator Patrick Wildgust vowed to solve them.

And he did, after a public plea and the help of an “important contact” – a gentleman who seems to have solved the problem the first time around and still receives written congratulations from the author for proving it.

With this solution a closely guarded secret, in 2019, Unbound re-released the title – and the competition – now with a prize of £1,000.

But this time, there was little to no febrile excitement in the 1930s. Of the 12 participants, John Finmore, a British comic writer – who also writes crossword puzzles for The Times under the name Emu – was the only one who solved this problem after spending four months of shutdown focused on 100 pages spread around his spare room.

He was sworn to secrecy, and hardly the whole thing caused a ripple behind the cognoscenti crossword clue.

But earlier this month, it all went bananas when Scannell started charting its lead on TikTok.

“I just thought $10 wouldn’t be such a big loss if I couldn’t figure it out,” she said. “I’ve never read a book on murders and mystery before, but I love logic puzzles, which is why I bought the book in the first place.”

The £1,000 prize is gone, of course, but it seems Unbound is still accepting and flagging entries, and anyone who solves the puzzle before December 31, 2022 will get £250 to spend on supporting other book projects on Unbound.

It doesn’t mean that anyone seems to care about money anymore. Now, it’s all about glory.

So far, Scannell has read the book twice and is confident that she will be able to put the pages in the correct order, but is less confident in solving the puzzle. Certainly, before anyone else.

Because thanks to her videos, tens of thousands of literary detectives around the world are now desperate for the glory of solving the difficult, diabolically difficult Torquemada mystery, 87 years after its creation. If only he knew.

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