British comedian becomes third person in 90 years to solve difficult literary puzzle

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"Cain’s Jawbone," by Edward Powys Mathers

"Cain’s Jawbone," by Edward Powys Mathers

Courtesy of Unbound

You know those people who can solve a Rubik’s cube in seconds?

Here’s a puzzle that could give them a run for their money: It’s called "Cain’s Jawbone," in which people are challenged to put the shuffled pages of a murder mystery novel in their proper order. Since its creation in 1934, it has only been solved by two people — until now.

British comedian John Finnemore made it his quarantine project to crack "Cain’s Jawbone" — and he succeeded, making him just the third person to solve it in its nearly 90-year history.

“Then the pandemic came knocking...and suddenly said, ‘You know all that time you wanted, to do that thing? Well, here you go, knock yourself out, you’ve got as much time as you want.’”

John Finnemore, comedian and puzzle solver

“Originally I had a look at it and decided that it was too difficult for me and there was no point. So I just put it back on the shelf,” Finnemore says. “Then the pandemic came knocking...and suddenly said, ‘You know all that time you wanted, to do that thing? Well, here you go, knock yourself out, you’ve got as much time as you want.’”

The puzzle takes the form of 100 cards, each containing the page of a murder mystery novel. In order to solve the puzzle, participants must put all the cards in the proper order and determine who murders who in the story. There are 32 million possible combinations, which makes finding the correct result quite a feat. 

Finnemore said he spread the pieces out on a bed and worked on it on-and-off for about four months, including during the UK’s first lockdown. 

“It felt good because it was really difficult. But it’s a well-designed puzzle so when you start to make some headway, you know it,” he said.

“If you’ve got it right, then you’ll know,” he continued.

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"Cain’s Jawbone" was created in 1934, by Edward Powys Mathers, also known as “Torquemada,” who was famous for compiling cryptic crosswords for the British newspaper The Observer. 

When the puzzle was first released, a 25 GBP prize was offered (about $33) to whoever could solve it. The British publisher Unbound reissued the puzzle last year and they offered a new reward: 1,000 GBP, or about $1,335.

If you’re looking to undertake the puzzle yourself, Finnemore has some advice: use Google.

“It’s full of really obscure references to literature and geography and all sorts of things...You need to know about licensing laws in 1930s London, like, where, in London, you were allowed to buy a drink without a sandwich and where you could only have one with food after 10,” he said. “The history of prisons comes into it, geography...there’s references to people who turn out to be tennis players in the 1930s and when they played a particular match.”

“It’s not something you can do without a little help from your internet friends,” he added.

Related: Quarantine projects curate pandemic-inspired art

Finnemore, a comedian and crossword puzzle constructor himself, says the experience may end up in a future stand-up routine.

“There’ll be something about some obsessive recluse spending far too much time on something that happened 80 years ago and doesn't really matter, I’m sure,” he said.

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