How on earth do you read a hundred-page novel when those pages have been published in no particular order and numbered seemingly at random? That’s the first conundrum for anyone approaching Cain’s Jawbone. The book is a much-anticipated reissue of an obscure, cult literary object that originally appeared over eighty years ago. It was the work of one Edward Powys Mathers, better known as Torquemada, The Observer’s infamous crossword compiler from 1926 until his death in 1939. Mathers, who was also a crime fiction aficionado, brought his two interests together in this unique hybrid of word puzzle and whodunnit, and in 1934 issued it alongside a selection of mind-bending verbal games, anagrams and ‘telacrostics’ in The Torquemada Puzzle Book. The intriguing premise was that this particular murder mystery had been ‘accidentally’ printed and bound in the wrong sequence. The challenge was to reorder it correctly, thus revealing the identities of the killers and their victims.
This new edition reproduces the story as a stand-alone book, and whereas original readers had to cut out the pages before rearranging them, modern ones are spared the trouble since Cain’s Jawbone is already in loose-leaf format. It’s the brainchild of Patrick Wildgust of the Laurence Sterne Trust, an organisation dedicated not only to Sterne but also to his legacy of literary game-playing and provocation. Enlisting Unbound to publish it on a subscription, crowd-funded basis, Wildgust redesigned it as a set of single-sided cards in a box, with a cover illustration by the inimitable Tom Gauld. It’s a lovely object. But as a reading experience, it’s deeply, deeply strange.
Conventionally, you might read a novel to follow the plot or characters, but not here. Both of those remain a mystery until the cards are reordered and the puzzle is solved. In their place we have to make do with a baffling stream of cryptic non sequiturs: ‘I set fire