TikTokers are filling their walls with pages from a 1934 murder mystery novel in an effort to solve a historically daunting literary puzzle.
Cain’s Jawbone was released in 1934 by writer Edward Powys Mathers, who went by the pen name Torquemada, a persona created when he compiled crosswords for The Observer. The premise: You must identify six killers and their victims, but also put the 100 pages of the novel in the right chronological order. Allegedly, only three people have ever solved the puzzle and won the cash prize: Two British men in the 1930s, and comedy writer John Finnemore in 2020. It was reprinted in 2019 by U.K. publisher Unbound, which revived the competition in 2021.
On Nov. 14, TikToker Sarah Scannell posted about picking up Cain’s Jawbone at San Francisco’s Green Apple Books and thus fulfilling her “lifelong dream” of turning her bedroom wall into a “murder board.” That initial TikTok has more than 4.8 million views. The top comment on it: “the feminine urge to make a pepe silvia wall.”
The next day, she contended that the issue with the novel isn’t necessarily the pages being out of order, but not quite grasping some of the language or subtext that was used in 1930s British literature, a thread she’s followed in her multi-part series. She also advocated that anyone looking to buy the book should do so through local or indie bookstores and not Amazon.
People definitely bought the book: Last week it was reportedly sold out through Amazon, though Scannell reported that it was eventually back in stock—at double the price. Unbound commented on the TikTok virality, and stated that they’re “reprinting as quickly as we can.” BookTok, the literary subset of TikTok, is highly influential but Green Apple Books’ co-owner told SFGate, “This is our first viral TikTok sell-out.”
While Scannell made the novel go viral, it was referenced and discussed on TikTok before this month. Scannell inspired others to join the journey, and people are documenting their own process. While many participants tacked up actual pages from the novel, others went digital. Of course, a lot of people just look like the Pepe Silvia meme.
Finnemore told SFGate it helps if you’re familiar with 1930s British literature and poetry in order to get some of the references, and says it took him four months to solve it, though the pandemic no doubt helped with free time.
Unbound is holding its current competition through December 2022.
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