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Sunday 27 January 2013

The Tamam Shud Mystery

I’m a sucker for any kind of mystery – the more abstruse and intellectually challenging the better. For that reason I’m a great fan of the classic puzzle-style detective novels of the 1920s and 30s, written by people like Agatha Christie and John Dickson Carr. But not everyone agrees. The commonest criticism of such fiction is that it isn’t “true to life” – real world murders don’t take the form of an enigmatic intellectual puzzle. Maybe that’s true as a general rule, but it’s a rule with one striking exception: the Tamam Shud case.

I was reminded of the case by a new blog, TAMAM SHUD, that has just been started by Gordon Cramer (who supplied the information for my recent post about Microwriting). Gordon lives in Australia, where the case is quite well known, but it’s less widely known outside Australia. I first encountered it just 18 months ago, in a blog post by Mike Dash entitled The Body on Somerton Beach. Anyone wanting a broad overview of the case should definitely read Mike’s post, while Gordon’s new blog is a great place to catch up with some recent research on the subject. All I’m going to do here is provide a quick introduction for people who may never have come across the case before, or who want to refresh their memories about it.

It started with the discovery of a dead body on Somerton Beach near Adelaide in South Australia, on the morning of 1 December 1948 (early summer in the southern hemisphere). The man was reported to have been seen sitting in the same spot the previous evening, behaving as if he was drunk. But he’d definitely been alive then – the Coroner set the time of death as some time after 2 am. To this day the victim has never been convincingly identified – he is usually referred to as “the Somerton Man”.

An autopsy revealed extensive lesions of the internal organs consistent with acute poisoning, although no trace of the poison itself was discovered. “Undetectable poisons” are extremely rare, and accident was ruled out. The official view tended towards suicide, although why a suicide should choose to employ an undetectable poison isn’t clear – especially as the extent of internal damage suggests the man died slowly and painfully. The circumstantial evidence points to murder, not suicide.

The same is true of the fact that extreme care had been taken to remove all evidence of the man’s identity. Why would a suicide do that? He was carrying a few commonplace items, but no wallet or keys that could identify him. All the labels had been carefully cut out of his clothes (which incidentally were of high quality, and in good condition – this wasn’t some homeless down-and-out). There was, however, one other item found on his person – the thing that transforms this case from a plodding police-procedural into an intellectual conundrum worthy of John Dickson Carr. And it’s the thing that gives the case its famously evocative name: TAMAM SHUD.

In the fob pocket of the victim’s trousers, there was a small, tightly rolled scrap of paper bearing the words “Tamám Shud” (pictured on the left). Now Tamám Shud is an old Persian phrase corresponding to “The End” in English or “Fin” in French – the words that are traditionally written at the end of a book. But the script isn’t Persian, although it’s printed in a mock-oriental font. The source of the phrase was less of a mystery in 1948 than it would be today. It’s the closing line of a book called The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, by a Victorian poet named Edward Fitzgerald. The book is loosely based on a mediaeval Persian work, but it belongs to the mock-oriental genre that was enormously popular in Victorian times, and remained so into the mid-20th century. At the time of the Somerton Man case, in 1948, there were thousands of copies of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam floating around the English-speaking world, in dozens of different editions. All the Adelaide police had to do was find the edition—and preferably the exact copy—that the scrap of paper bearing the words “Tamám Shud” had been torn from.

It wasn’t as easy as they thought. Of all the dozens of editions in circulation, none of them used that particular font. Then after almost eight months of searching, the book suddenly turned up. A local man claimed to have found it, around the time of the Somerton Man’s death, dumped in the back of his car a short distance from where the body was found. He only realized its significance when he saw an appeal in the press. It looked like it was the long sought-after volume all right – even down to the fact that the last page, which should have borne the words “Tamám Shud”, had been torn out. It turned out to be a very rare edition of the work – something similar had been produced by a New Zealand publisher, but it wasn’t quite the same. This copy seemed to be one of a kind.

There was another unusual thing about the book. On the inside rear cover, so faint that it could only be read in ultraviolet light, there was what appeared to be a coded message – five lines of handwritten letters with no obvious meaning. Although it’s a fascinating subject, I won’t say anything else about the code here because the fact is no-one knows what it means. It’s one of the things that particularly intrigues Gordon, and you can read about the Somerton Man Code Page on his blog.

There was also a telephone number pencilled inside the book. This turned out to belong to a young local woman named Jestyn. When questioned by police, she said she had given a copy of The Rubaiyat to a man named Alfred Boxall a few years earlier. So did that mean Alfred Boxall was the Somerton Man? No – because Alfred Boxall was still alive, and he still had his copy of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam... complete with the Tamam Shud page!

The Somerton Man case was never classified as a murder investigation, or any other kind of crime. The police were simply trying to identify an unidentified body. So their questioning of witnesses—such as Jestyn, and the car-owner who found the discarded book—wasn’t as deep or persistent as it might have been. As a result, the case remains bafflingly unsolved – a striking counterexample to anyone who claims that real life is never as mystifying as a detective novel.

Who was the Somerton Man? How did such an apparently well-to-do individual manage to die without being missed by anyone? If it was suicide, why did he use an untraceable poison? Why did he destroy all evidence of his identity? If he was murdered, who was the murderer and what was the motive? What is the significance of the scrap of paper bearing the words Tamam Shud? Was it torn from the book found in the car? If so, who put it there, and why? Who wrote the five-line coded message, and what does it mean? Why was Jestyn’s phone number written in the book? Is there any significance to the fact that it was a very rare copy of a very popular work?

There are other questions as well, that I haven’t even touched on – peculiarities of the dead man’s physiology, similarities with other unexplained deaths... even links to the murky world of Cold War espionage. Needless to say, many amateur detectives have tried their hand at solving the mystery, leading to many fascinating theories and suggestions. But there is still a shortage of hard facts – the Tamam Shud case remains tantalizingly unsolved.


Paul said...

Andrew, a great post. I had never heard of this mystery before! Time to read some more!

Andrew May said...

Thanks Paul -- I really enjoyed writing this one!

Peni R. Griffin said...

That is peculiar as heck.

And isn't it funny how people who criticize puzzle mysteries for not being true to life seldom object to sonnets on the grounds that people don't talk like that? Puzzle mysteries are a stylized art form just as much as poetry is. And we don't read them when we want slice-of-life realism, either!

Andrew May said...

Yes - the case would be ideal material for your Idea Garage Sale, wouldn't it? But whoever picked it up would have to think up a convincing ending. One thing that even I admit is unrealistic about traditional mystery fiction is the way it always manages to tie everything up in a neat solution at the end!

Peni R. Griffin said...

Unrealistic, sure. But isn't that the chief pleasure of the puzzle form? Seeing all the loose ends tied up and tucked away, as they never, ever can be in real life?

It's the opposite pleasure from that provided by Forteana, in which you can so seldom tuck away even one strand without violating all the others.

jestyntruth said...

Jestyn's name was Jessica Ellen Harkness. She was born in Marrickville in 1921. Her son was Robin Thomson, born 1947 in Mentone, Victoria and she married Prosper McTaggart Thomson, the proprietor of Prestige Motors, Adelaide, in 1950. The names Teresa Powell and Prestige Johnson are pseudonyms, and it seems particularly stupid to persist with them since the parties are all dead.

peterbowes said...

Only some of the answers, but we're working on it

Andrew May said...

Thanks - that link didn't work for me, but this one does -

peterbowes said...

thanks Andy, having a good time with it -