How TikTok revived interest in an almost 90-year-old book

Cain’s Jawbone is a literary puzzle book that was released in 1934. It has only been solved by four people to date. Now, almost 90 years later, the book has been given new life to the book with a little help from TikTok. 

Cain’s Jawbone is a murder mystery book that was released by Edward Powys Mathers (aka Torquemada). Mathers was The Observer’s cryptic clue compiler – making complete sense as to why he compiled and released the book. The book is described at being “simultaenously a murder mystery and the most fiendishisly difficult literary puzzle ever written”. 

The book is compiled in such a way that the pages are printed in a completely confusing way without any order. The point of the book is that through logic and intelligent reading, the person needs to sort the pages into the correct order. Once the pages are sorted into the correct order, it is supposed to reveal the six murder victims and their respective murderers. The book is only 100 pages but there are millions of different combinations to get to the correct combination. 

So how did TikTok lead to a renewed interest in the book?

All it took was one person posting about it on TikTok for the book to get a lot of attention. American TikTok user Sarah Scannell (@saruuuuuuugh) shared her attempts to solve the puzzle. Each page in the book can be removed to make it easier to solve the mystery. Scannell thus decided to stick the book’s pages all over her room as she tried to solve it. The video is currently sitting at over 6.5 million views. 

@saruuuuuuugh too early to tell but i fear i may have girlbossed a bit too close to the sun #fyp #mystery #cainsjawbone ? Knives Out! (String Quartet in G Minor) – Nathan Johnson

Scannell’s further attempts to solve the puzzle saw the book being sold out on the Unbound website as well as Amazon. She has yet to solve the mystery.

But TikTok wasn’t the only one repsonsible for the attention…

In 1934, when the book was first published a prize of 15 pounds was offered to the first reader who would be able to reorder the pages and reveal the murder victims and their murderers. Two people were able to solve the mystery in the 1930s. The book then went out of print for years. This was until the Laurence Sterne Trust was presented with a copy of The Torquemada Puzzle Book, which contains its text. Shandy Hall curator Patrick Wildgust then set out to solve it. 

After Wildgust solved the mystery, publisher Unbound reissued the title with a £1,000 prize in 2019. Only one person was able to get the correct answer. Comedy writer and actor John Finnemore is the only person who has managed to solve it in this century. Speaking to The Guardian, Finnemore said: “Although it is extremely difficult […]  it is a very well designed puzzle that continually unfolds. As you make each new breakthrough, then your next task becomes clear to you.” It took him four months to solve. The Trust and Unbound decided not to reveal the solution. Instead Unbound reissued the book in paperback in July 2021. 

Unbound has also revived the competition. They are offering 250 pounds/350 dollars to anyone who can solve the mystery of the book. The person will need to provide the names of the murdered and their murderers, the correct order of the pages and an explanation of how the solution was obtained. They will then receive the money to spend supporting other book projects on the Unbound site. The competition is due to close on December 31 2022.

This book is also not the only one that TikTok has helped fuel greater attention and sales for. According to NPD Bookscan, a data provider for the publishing industry, in the United States, readers purchased 825 million copies of print books in 2021. This is all due to the sub-section of the app known as “BookTok”. TikTok users who post about books have been a major factor in boosting book sales. Many bookstores in the US have started putting up book displays dedicated to books that are specifically popular on “BookTok”.