Books | December 26, 2022 1:02 pm

BookTok’s Latest Sensation is an Experimental Mystery From 1934

Only a handful of people have solved it correctly

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The hottest mystery of 2022 might be from 1934.
Samuel Ramos/Unsplash

There’s a mystery within Edward Powys Mathers’s 1934 book Cain’s Jawbone. In fact, it could be argued that the entire book is itself a mystery — one that a dedicated subculture has puzzled over for years. And while this differs slightly from some other works that could be said to fall into the “literal mystery book” category — unlike, say, Forrest Fenn’s book, there’s no massive treasure trove at the end of this.

As Hannah Natanson writes at The Washington Post, Cain’s Jawbone is the latest beneficiary of the ubiquitous phenomenon that is BookTok, which has catapulted both big-name books and cult works to a much larger audience. Natanson explains that Cain’s Jawbone has a number of qualities that lead to it picking up a viral audience eager to discuss and dissect it — beginning with the fact that it’s printed out of order.

This, Natanson writes, is not an error; instead, its author was best-known for creating the cryptic crossword puzzle. That Mathers did so under the pseudonym Torquemada is an indication of the level of difficulty of his work — and Cain’s Jawbone was intended as another puzzle to be solved, with a modest cash prize for anyone who discovered the answer.

So far, four people have done so. That’s not since the book was reprinted in 2019 — that’s since its initial publication in 1934. And it’s certainly found a new audience; the article cites global sales of 325,000. It’s not hard to see the appeal; the combination of an engaging and layered mystery with a growing following on social media has created something of a phenomenon.

All of this begs the question: when is BookTok going to embrace Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch? Given its reader-determined structure, this might just be its moment…