Cain’s Jawbone, and the challenge of a friendship

This week two people met in an upstairs lounge at the Athletic Club and Social on Buitengracht Street in Cape Town to take the first steps in solving a murder. Six murders, actually, and the case is so cold that it has defeated the most finely grinding ratiocinating minds of the past century, nearly a hundred years’ worth of Holmeses and Marples and Renkos and Maigrets and Jessica Fletchers.

As we read the opening pages of the case materials I looked up in alarm at Henrietta and she looked at me, and we both felt the winding length and unmacadammed width of the road ahead. This won’t be easy.

Henrietta is one of my oldest friends. We’ve known each other since I was seventeen and she was sixteen, and whenever we’re in the same city we meet for lunch and flagons of wine and talk about work and life and mutual friends and enemies. We’ve never before set out to solve a decades-old puzzle.

Henrietta has bought two copies of Cain’s Jawbone, one for her and one for me, the pages printed on firm, creamy cards, unbound in boxes whose lids come off like old-fashioned chocolate boxes, the kind that might contain bonbons injected with cyanide. There are 100 pages, printed out of order, written in 1934 by Edward Powys Mathers, under the pseudonym Torquemada.

Torquemada invented the cryptic crossword in 1925, the first person to devise a crossword entirely composed of clues that make no goddamned sense to anyone who doesn’t speak a hidden coded language. That wasn’t tricky enough for him, so he also devised a grid with no black spaces, and composed his clues in rhyming couplets. What a weirdo. In other ways, though, he was a man after my own heart: he used to set verbal brainteasers for dinner guests to complete after eating, just for the sheer pleasure of avoiding chit-chat and small talk; one of his crossword puzzles was made up entirely on knock-knock jokes; it took him about two hours to devise a crossword puzzle, all in all, but broken up into fifteen-minute bursts, with spells of reading or gardening or other work in between. He didn’t believe it was natural for a person to work more than fifteen minutes consecutively.

He was also a poet, who translated Asiatic and Kashmiri poetry into English. From time to time he’d slip in a poem of his own in the Kashmiri style, and no one noticed for decades. Today I suppose he’d be called a fraud and a cultural appropriator, but to my mind he is something of a delight. (His parents were married in Durban, incidentally, and his father started a magazine called South Africa, which ran from 1889 till 1961.) He compiled 670 crosswords for The Observer over a period of twelve years, before he died suddenly and mysteriously at the age of 47.

Cain’s Jawbone is a murder-mystery novella, written in prose and paragraphs but also entirely in the medium of cryptic crossword clues. It covers a hundred separate pages, but the pages are all mixed up and out of order, and each page ends with a complete sentence so that there are no run-ons. There are some 32 million possible sequences for 100 pages, but only one of them is correct. In order to figure out who was murdered, and then to follow the obscure narrative clues to try solve who did the murdering, you have to find the correct sequence of the pages, and then you have to solve 100 pages worth of cryptic clues. This was always going to be difficult for a wooly-minded ignoramus like me, who can barely get halfway through one of our dumbed-down and degraded modern cryptic crosswords, but Torquemada’s clues were written in 1934, when the expectation of a classical education and a thorough grounding in European languages and world cultures was slightly more insistent than it is today.

(“Cain’s jawbone”, by the way, is a quote from the gravedigger scene in Hamlet, referring to what is supposed in medieval iconography to be the first ever murder weapon, when Cain slew his brother Abel with the jawbone of an ass, even though the weapon itself is never mentioned in the Bible. In some branchings of the Midrash, that frequently creative and enjoyable technique and collection of rabbinic musings and marginalia on the Talmud, it’s pointed out that not merely was Cain the first murderer, but Abel was actually the first human being ever to die, so Cain probably had to try many techniques to find one that worked. So Cain’s jawbone isn’t just a reference to murder, but also a sort of tribute to human perseverance and ingenuity. Is any of this relevant to solving this damned book? I have no idea!)

Cain’s Jawbone was offered in 1934 as a public competition, with a cash prize for the first person to solve it, placing all pages in order, giving the names of victims and murderers and an explanation of the methods and motives of the crimes. In the 85 years since then, it has only been solved three times (one of them a certain Mr S. Sydney-Turner, which seems like a cryptic clue in itself.)

I will tell you this, with some certainty: I will never solve the mystery of Cain’s Jawbone, but by god, I’m going to try, and I’ll keep trying for the rest of my life. try because it’s fun. I’ll try because everyone should have an impossible life’s challenge to which they dedicate themselves, something bigger than the, something that scares and delights them and which, ultimately, deep down, doesn’t matter. “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp,” said Browning, “or what’s a heaven for?”

But mostly I’ll do it because Henrietta is doing it, and we have a bet riding on who does it first, and Henrietta is the friend of my adult lifetime, and will be the friend of my lifetime to come, and what more perfect expression of friendship is there than to be locked in loving competition, in our far-flung and separate locked rooms, working alone towards a common goal? Plus, if she gets it before I do I’ll never hear the end of it.

The Times – 11 September 2019