Sunday, November 15, 2020

CAIN’S JAWBONE: Torquemada’s most tortuous puzzle

Zoë Sharp


I confess that, until recently, I had never heard of CAIN’S JAWBONE. Nor – since I am not a crossword aficionado – had I ever come across a compiler by the nom de plume of ‘Torquemada’.


But his work has been hitting the headlines in the last week or so.


The man behind Torquemada was Edward Powys Mathers, born in 1892 and known to his friends as Bill. He was an English translator, poet, and literary critic, who also helped to pioneer entirely cryptic crossword puzzles. His work was published regularly in The Observer from 1926 until his demise in 1939, and such was his popularity that up to 7000 correct solutions were sent in to the newspaper each week.


Edward Powys Mathers, aka Torquemada


You get a good indication of the level of difficulty of his creations by the pseudonym he chose – that of Tomás de Torquemada, first Grand Inquisitor of the Spanish Inquisition.


"Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition..."


Mathers was not simply a fan of crosswords but puzzles of all types. In 1934, Gollancz published THE TORQUEMADA PUZZLE BOOK. This included twenty-four of his crosswords of varying degrees of difficulty (by the sound of it, ranging from Very Hard to Damn-Near-Impossible) and a Cheats’ Crossword Dictionary. There were also acrostic puzzles, where the first part is a set of lettered clues, each of which has numbered blanks representing the letters of the answer. Plus anagrams, spooneristic problems, and other verbal games.


the original Gollancz edition of Torquemada's puzzle book


And finally, the last hundred pages of the PUZZLE BOOK contained Torquemada’s Mystery Novel. The original edition describes it thus:


‘Cain’s Jawbone’, the bald narrative of a series of tragic happenings during a period of less than six months in a recent year, has met with an accident which seems to be unique in the history of the novelette. The pages have been printed in an entirely haphazard and incorrect order, a fact which reflects little credit on somebody. The author assures his readers, however, that while it is now too late for him to remedy the ordering of the pages, it is quite possible for them, should they care to take the trouble, to re-order them correctly for themselves. Before they attempt to do this, they may care to be assured that there is an inevitable order, the one in which the pages were written, and that, while the narrator’s mind may flit occasionally backwards and forwards in the modern manner, the narrative marches on, relentlessly and unequivocally, from the first page to the last.

A space for notes is provided at the bottom of each page.


The title of the novel was taken from the first murder weapon – the jawbone used by Cain to slay his brother Abel.


illustration of Cain slaying his brother Abel with a jawbone


Contained within those hundred fiendish (and yes, highly cryptic) pages were six victims and their murderers. The challenge was to provide an account of the crimes and the full names of the guilty. The number of possible combinations amounted to over 32 million, but only one was the correct solution.


Readers were challenged to solve the mystery. The publisher offered two prizes: £15 to the first to be sent in by December 15 1934, and £10 to the first correct entry received between December 16 1934 and January 15 1935.


Only two correct solutions were received – arriving on the same day. The first to be opened was that of Mr Saxon Arnold Sydney-Turner, a civil servant, crossword fan, and member of the Bloomsbury Group. The second was from Mr William Kennedy, thought to be a member of the London Stage Society. The results were printed in the March 31 1935 edition of The Observer.


original announcement of the winners in The Observer


Almost eighty-five years later, the puzzle novel was brought to the attention of Patrick Wildgust, curator of The Laurence Sterne Trust, which is based at Shandy Hall, where the author wrote TRISTRAM SHANDY. Wildgust, on behalf of The Trust, was intrigued by the abstract nature of the Torquemada piece. He approached crowdfunding publishers UnBound, with a view to printing a new edition.


Of course, first they had to solve the puzzle. Here they struck lucky. An online bookseller had acquired a Gollancz edition in the 1980s and had made widespread enquiries. He managed to track down an elderly gentleman who had solved it the first time around and still had his written congratulations from the author to prove it. Although not one of the original prize winners, he still had his notated edition, which he was able to supply.


The new book came out – in boxed loose leaf, single-sided format to allow easier study – in September 2019.


the 2019 Unbound loose-leaf edition of CAIN'S JAWBONE


Of course, it came complete with a renewed challenge – to put the pages into their correct order, to provide the names of the murdered and the murderers, and a brief explanation of how they’d reached the solution. The prize was £1000 – roughly equivalent to £15 in 1934.


In September 2020, just before the deadline, a winner came forwards. Not surprisingly, he was a crossword compiler himself. More surprisingly, perhaps, is that he was the British comedian John Finnemore.


British comedian and crossword compiler, John Finnemore


“The first time I had a look at it,” he told Susannah Goldsbrough of The Telegraph, “I quickly thought, ‘Oh, this is just way beyond me.’ The only way I’d even have a shot at it was if I were, for some bizarre reason, trapped in my own home for months on end, with nowhere to go and no-one to see. Unfortunately, the universe heard me.”


Finnemore – and here I admit to being a huge fan of his current BBC Radio 4 programmeJohn Finnemore’s Souvenir Programme – talks through some of his reasoning in solving the puzzle in his interview in The Telegraph. He is, however, not giving away the full story.


So, as we endure a second lockdown here in the UK, and with a dark winter ahead of us, perhaps now is the ideal time to see if you can solve Torquemada’s tortuous puzzle for yourself?


If you’re up for the challenge, get your copy of CAIN’S JAWBONE here. And the best of luck!

You may need it...


This week’s Word of the Week is bathybic, meaning living in the deepest parts of the sea, from the Greek bathus meaning deep.


  1. Zoë, The irony of the foreshadowing of lockdown... my mum loves cryptic crosswords - her aunt and parents taught her - I will send her your fascinating blog post and thank you for the intrigue and laugh, as we so far avoid another level of restrictions here. Very best wishes.

    1. Thanks, K. It does sound fascinating but way beyond my powers of concentration when I have so much of my own plot-untangling to do! I do hope your mum gives it a whirl, though.

  2. Replies
    1. Way above my pay grade, I fear, Michael. And when you consider that the original two winners managed it without the aid of Google!

  3. Thank goodness for my own imaginary friends! Otherwise, I would be sorely tempted to try. What an intriguing post, Zoe.

    1. Thank you, Annamaria. We are all busy talking to the friends we see on screen but talk to inside our heads rather than via zoom!

  4. Fascinating. Well, Cain's Jawbone must be doing okay because Amazon is temporarily out of stock!

    1. I'm impressed that you looked, Kwei. You are all made of sterner stuff than I!

  5. I WILL resist the temptation you dangle in front of me! I will. I will!

    1. Go on, Stan, you know you want to...

  6. I think the people who get up to this kind of thing have too much time on their hands!

  7. I'm afraid to take a look at it for I fear it's likely to remind me of the current state of my latest WIP. Hmm, Zoë, perhaps tossing my manuscript in the air and letting the resulting random order rule isn't such a bad idea!