Tales of the city: Tamam Shud: The Somerton Man mystery
Tamam Shud: The Somerton Man mystery
by Kerry Greenwood
Published December, 2012
Somerton Man is one of Adelaide’s great cold cases. The place is built of such true crime stories. On the surface, these narratives tell us, Adelaide is a charmingly ordered, picture-book city. But step carelessly and you could fall through a hole into a parallel world of violence, murder and intrigue. Through the stories of its criminal history, Adelaide presents itself as a set of dualities: a place of light and darkness, good and evil, black and white.
The case is extraordinary. Found dead on Somerton Beach one December morning in 1948, the unidentified man, estimated to be in his mid-forties, was propped up against the sea wall, his feet crossed, a half-smoked cigarette sitting on the lapel of his coat. He wore an expression Kerry Greenwood describes as suggesting ‘the easy smugness of death’. The autopsy photograph is reproduced on the front cover of Tamam Shud, and I found myself referring back to that expression for clues as I read, but it remains relentlessly inscrutable.
The cause of death remains unproven, though poison is likely. But that’s not the most interesting part. Somerton Man wore American tailoring with all the labels cut off. Six months after his body was found, during the inquest, a piece of paper was discovered in a concealed pocket. It was a page torn from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, a popular book of Persian poetry that filled out the pseudo-spiritualist section of every Australian bookshelf of the era. The page, the book’s last, read simply ‘Tamam Shud’, which translates as ‘the end’ or ‘finished’. The rest of the book was found in a car that had been parked nearby, and in that book a code was discovered – as well as the phone number of a woman who lived at Somerton at the time. The code remains unbroken; the woman’s identity was for many years suppressed.
This is where we start to fall through Adelaide’s holes. The bizarre, spy-novel quality of the case ignited the imaginations of a generation. The story has been told and retold until it has become a piece of folklore, a sort of yarn – so much so that when Greenwood heard it when she was growing up, she thought it was another of her father’s tall tales.
Tamam Shud has two missing men at the heart of it. Greenwood’s father, who was in Adelaide that day in December 1948, figures as a sort of shadow narrative. A ‘wharfie and knockabout bloke’, she credits him with the genesis of her storytelling self, with her love of fiction. And it is her father’s death, not the unknown man’s, that is the real motive behind the writing of the book.
Somerton Man is not alone in haunting Adelaide, of course. There are also the Beaumont children, who disappeared from Glenelg beach on Australia Day 1966. There is the case of fifteen-year-old Richard Kelvin, who in 1983 was kidnapped, tortured and dumped on an airstrip, and the connected Family murders of the early 1980s, which involved conspiracy theories about high-profile paedophile rings. There are the brutal Truro killings of the late 1970s and, more recently, the infamous Snowtown murders. Adelaide’s hauntings tend to be bloodthirsty.
In a 1988 essay for the Adelaide Review, Barbara Hanrahan coined the term Weird Adelaide. The essay, which came on the heels of several of those killings, was sponsored by the South Australian Tourism Department, presumably to redress Adelaide’s growing reputation as a murderous place (Salman Rushdie had recently called the city Australia’s answer to Amityville or Salem). It didn’t help. ‘At night, Adelaide turns film noir,’ Hanrahan wrote. ‘It becomes a miniature Cornell Woolrich city, its empty side streets black and creepy, with a feel of the back lot at Paramount or Universal … it’s just the setting for midnight chimes heralding in some Dawn of the Living Dead.’ Here she prefigures the ‘Drinkwalkers’ billboards that caution motorists against running over drunk pedestrians, which everyone who isn’t from Adelaide interprets as some kind of zombie awareness campaign. Hanrahan’s short essay has earned a place in Adelaide’s narrative, in part because it goes some way to describing the genesis of the city’s dualism.
Adelaide’s evil side has been outlined in detail in Stephen Orr’s book The Cruel City (2011), and the city’s two-tone narrative is as much a part of its character as its ease and geniality. Locals get tired of their city being called the murder capital of Australia (Alice Springs has the statistical title, but Adelaide keeps the reputation) and express impatience with the clichés about violent crime it seems unable to shake off. Kerryn Goldsworthy, in her excellent contribution to the NewSouth ‘cities’ series, calls this ‘the myth of weirdness’. But there is also a psychogeography at work: there is a weirdness that breathes in the life of the city, in the intersection between the stories and the reality where human beings live. Goldsworthy writes: ‘What makes Adelaide crime so singular is not so much the crime itself as the contrast between crime … and the generally goody-goody aspect of its reputation.’
Perhaps, as local luminaries such as Goldsworthy, Hanrahan and Orr argue, that dualism was there in the town’s founding. Perhaps it is something inherited from its history of religious freedom, from its various sects and preachers. Or perhaps it is a narrative which responds to the process of colonisation itself. Adelaide’s story about its own innocence creates a flipside. The two-tone narrative is something the city celebrates or is annoyed by, without ever being able to resolve. The contrast between its conservative propriety and its repressed impulses generates the friction that drives a good story and thus comes to define the city’s identity.
Somerton Man’s contribution to Adelaide’s dualistic narrative, and the personal nature of Greenwood’s haunting, make for a strange work of non-fiction and an unusual work of true crime. Tamam Shud is a book in three parts: it is an investigation of the case, a memoir about Greenwood’s father, and an examination of her own processes as a writer. When those three strands are braided, Tamam Shud becomes a book about why stories without endings are so frustrating, and why they haunt us for so long. Where they are separated, the text as a whole is less successful.
Greenwood is best known for her popular crime novels set in the 1920s, featuring the multi-talented and liberated detective Phryne Fisher. A lawyer by day, Greenwood writes novels with a combination of clarity and earthy humour that maintains a loyal readership. In Tamam Shud, she has departed from her usual form: it is a hybrid work, and the interaction between its personal stories and the facts of the case places the mystery of Somerton Man in an engaging and fascinating context.
There are plenty of connections to be found in that interaction, and this is a book that is not afraid to follow tangents. In the early chapters, we are treated to discourses on the treatment of second-hand clothing, yarns about hauling elephants over the docks, tales of racehorses with a penchant for peppermints and the way that a wide-eyed young Greenwood became familiar with the particular scars of cargo masters. Like a good crime novel, you never know whether what you are reading is going to be an important clue or not. But unlike a good crime novel, you also know the case will remain unsolved. Greenwood thus asks for an inordinate amount of trust as she leads the reader down investigative paths and back via memory lane – a trust that she will lead us somewhere we want to go.
As you would expect from a novelist, Greenwood’s speculations in Tamam Shud really make the case come alive, just as the conspiracy theories have kept the story of Somerton Man alive for almost 65 years. These speculations are helped along by the seemingly insurmountable lack of evidence about the man’s identity and the fact that, despite continuing efforts by a team at Adelaide University, the code he left behind remains unsolved. The police investigation seems to have been comprehensive, but when you look closely – and Greenwood does – there are some glaring mistakes. The real name of the nurse known as ‘Jestyn’ was kept from the records. Evidence was destroyed. Evidence had to be destroyed. As Greenwood says with lawyerly sympathy: ‘other writers have waxed indignant about this, but I perfectly understand. The police evidence lockers are always bulging with stuff.’ The investigation has itself been investigated in ex-detective Gerald Feltus’ book The Unknown Man: A suspicious death at Somerton beach (2010), and Feltus’ assistance is acknowledged.
So what does Greenwood offer that other theorists do not? The treasure of this book is its richly experienced and described political context, the riveting stories from the docks. Class is the invisible driver of much Australian fiction. It is there in the old, open-faced bush tales, in our battling underdogs, even where these stories descend into folksy territory; it is there in the prevalence of contemporary debut novels about the struggles of the underclass; it is there in Patrick White’s portrayal of aspirational awfulness. It is even there in the contemporary realism which pretends it doesn’t exist. And yet to declare a class allegiance in the way Greenwood does here – to drop both feet squarely on one side of the picket line and embrace a tough and active working class heritage – is something most writers shy away from. The generation that lived through the conflict on the waterfronts may have gone, but why has it disappeared from our narrative? It sometimes feels awkward to talk about it – as if, at some point during the 1990s, along with the ALP, we lost the knack.
Greenwood’s loyalty to her wharfie father is charming, and it is nostalgia for a bygone era as much as mourning for a lost man that makes her grief potent. Class fascinates her, and the political context of 1948 is significant to her story. She goes so far as to speculate on what side of history Somerton Man might have found himself – where he might have stood on issues such as Israel’s establishment, Ireland’s ongoing struggles, or spy leaks in Canberra which could have had links to Woomera rocket range, to which Adelaide is the closest city – all of which starts to accumulate significance and lend weight to theories of political intrigue.
The personal and political histories are wonderfully blended, but fact and fiction are kept quite separate. There is an aesthetic loyalty at work here as much as a social one. At Adelaide Writers Week this year, Greenwood spoke lovingly about the process of writing crime novels. ‘Think of the detective story as a sonnet,’ she urged an enthusiastic crowd. ‘It’s a verse form. It’s a box into which you can fit anything.’ Tamam Shud is an attempt to break out of that box. Greenwood is aware that the rules are very different. She writes: ‘No coincidences are allowed in fiction … It is because readers of crime fiction rightly demand three things – a crime, a detective and a solution. Crime fiction is a puzzle and the author must play fair.’
In non-fiction, the rules of storytelling and the rules imposed by the facts are often in conflict. Greenwood works in the realm of facts and theories, not of symbols. She is not as interested in the idea of Somerton Man as she is in the corpse and the clues. But there also is a parallel mystery at work, which she does not fully address, and that is the mystery of the narrative. I am fascinated as to why this story carries such symbolic weight for the city, as well as for Greenwood personally. Yet every time she gets close to saying something about this, there is another yarn to be spun. Even her discourse on Adelaide’s dark side slips into a Don Dunstan number. It’s a very good story, a laugh out loud one, but it doesn’t quite answer the question.
There are attempts to make the different elements of structure blend. Quatrains from FitzGerald’s translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam are scattered throughout Tamam Shud. The poem compares individual human lives to bubbles poured out of a jug, or pebbles thrown in the sea. It emphasises the transient, fleeting nature of existence:
A Moment’s Halt – a momentary taste
Of Being from the Well amid the Waste –
And Lo! – the phantom Caravan has reach’d
The Nothing it set out from.
Theories that Somerton Man’s death might have been suicide are largely drawn from the fatalistic tone of the poem. Was ‘Tamam Shud’ a suicide note? The note of despair that runs through the narrative gives us clues about its buried emotional content – more clues than Greenwood’s contrasting good-humoured prose might suggest. When she writes about her father, whose stories ghost the book, she is using Somerton Man to work through her own grief, often in ways she does not make explicit. When she writes about his loss, it is as a loss of stories. Fear of forgetting stories is what drives some writers, and the loss of an ancestor brings with it an urgent desire to record, to preserve the identity-forming narratives that pass away with that person. And in mourning the loss of her father’s stories, Greenwood is mourning the loss of an old-school working class Australia and its stories, too. They are narratives we like to think our literature has outgrown, but if it is at the cost of something that defines us, they are worth looking back on. This is a stance implied, rather than articulated.
How to end a book which can have no ending? The endings of stories are tricky things. It could be that the difference between literature and storytelling is that the former doesn’t end properly, leaving readers unable to withdraw their investment in the narrative – leaving us haunted. Indeed, Kerry Greenwood credits the lack of an ending to the mystery of the Somerton Man – the unsolved code, the lost evidence – with its having haunted her most of her life. ‘Stories where you know the solution, you forget about them,’ she has her father saying. ‘But if you don’t know – if you can’t know – well, they stick in your mind.’
And then, abruptly, she leaves it there, just on the cusp of the idea that might pull it all together. ‘The door into Night is shut,’ she writes, drawing a line between herself and her father, letting him go. But in letting him go, she lets go too soon of the possibilities of this story. She draws a line between fiction and reality. ‘Somerton man is a mystery and he belongs much more now to fiction than to fact,’ she writes, without concern for whether that line might not be movable, imaginary, or a cultural construct. By closing that door into Night, she is doing what Adelaide does: keeping the barricades up between light and dark.
Greenwood returns to the safety of a good yarn. Finally, she is an incurable novelist who cannot resist the temptation of fiction’s neatness. Along with a lengthy appendix about the code itself, she ends with two fictions. One is a pure speculation about who the dead man might have been, with the guesses about his possible identity and the political context to his death lending weight to spy-novel theories. The other is a Phryne Fisher short story, in which the heroine, returned from the war, finds herself investigating the case of Somerton Man – and going some way to solving it.
For all its charms, tacking the Phryne Fisher story on at the end of the book seems an odd choice. After all the talk about the enduring nature of unsolved mysteries, it comes as a curious disappointment. It robs the reader of something, deflating the tension in the work as a whole. Greenwood can’t resist finishing the puzzle. It’s a betrayal of the promise of fusion the book offered in its beginning. Sure, a narrative cannot escape its core structure, and a good crime story ought to finish the job it set out to do. But this material offers more. The braid comes undone just when it is getting interesting and Greenwood lets the ends fall loose. I felt there was at least a chapter missing from Tamam Shud, a chapter that drew together the threads of fiction and memoir, a chapter that gave us a more self-conscious look at the process of writing the book. Possibly Greenwood’s aesthetic is such that she would see this as a bit of an indulgence, but it is an indulgence that such an engaging storyteller would certainly be permitted. It could be that the desire to finish with the ‘sonnet’ is a way of letting go of her father, a way of finding a conclusion where there is none. Fiction is in many ways an argument with death.
Someone in love with their form can see infinite potential within it, and Greenwood’s storytelling is impeccable, engaging, great fun. But someone in love with their form can also miss the potential that lies in breaking away from it, shifting familiar parameters to suit the demands of a different kind of story. Greenwood’s curiosity is so infectious, her stories so interesting, and the mystery of Somerton Man so fascinating, that this flaw can easily slip past us. And yet Tamam Shud strikes me as a missed opportunity to challenge the separation of fiction and non-fiction, and bring them together in some kind of whole. It’s almost as if the book is haunted by Adelaide’s psychic dualities.
Gerald Feltus, The Unknown Man: A suspicious death at Somerton Beach (2010).
Kerryn Goldsworthy, Adelaide (New South Books, 2012).
Barbara Hanrahan, ‘Weird Adelaide,’ The Adelaide Review (March 1988).
Stephen Orr, The Cruel City (Allen & Unwin, 2011).