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A comedian has just solved “the world’s most difficult literary puzzle.”

Emily Temple

November 6, 2020, 10:06am

In 1934, The Observer’s crossword writer, Edward Powys Mathers, wrote a short mystery novel that was also a fantastically difficult literary puzzle. The book, Cain’s Jawbone—named after the “first recorded murder weapon” and published under his nom de plume, Torquemada—consists of 100 pages, bound out of order; the reader’s job was to put them in the correct order, solving the mystery in the process. It doesn’t seem all that hard, until you realize that there are over 32 million possible orders, and only one is correct, and until you see all of the obscure references and hints. Only two readers are known to have figured it out, back in 1935, but the answer was never published.

Here’s the description of the book from the 1934 edition:

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.

Last year, the book-puzzle was republished by Unbound, an experimental crowdfunded publisher, which held a contest to see if anyone else could crack it. Someone, it turns out, could: British comedian John Finnemore, who spent six months on the thing before submitting the correct answer. “I googled constantly,” he told The Telegraph. “I cannot imagine how the two people who did it in 1935 managed. If you were sitting in the British library and you were extremely well read and it was the same year it was written then maybe you could do it but unless you know off the top of your head the licensing laws of the 1930s then you should absolutely allow yourself to just google everything.”

Of course, Finnemore, like many of us, had some extra time on his hands. “The first time I had a look at it I quickly thought ‘Oh this is just way beyond me,'” Finnemore told The Telegraph. “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.”

He spread the puzzle, printed on 100 cards, on the spare bed, and took his time with it. “Every so often I’d potter in, stare at it till my forehead bled, spend an hour online researching the history of Shrewsbury prison or something, swap three cards, move one back, and potter off again,” he said. As you might imagine, getting to the right answer felt even better in the current moment than it might have in the before times. “The process of taking something that looks like chaos and gradually turning it into something that looks ordered and designed, and indeed is ordered and designed, that’s a very satisfying thing to do,” he said.

“This was fun,” Finnemore said afterwards in a tweet. “Ridiculously difficult, but fun. If you like puzzles, and fancy a lockdown project, I highly recommend it!” So if you need some diversion, and think you’re smart, you can try it yourself—or go head to head with a friend. Maybe then Neil Gaiman will be proud of you, too.

[via The Telegraph]

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