In December 1948, my dad told me, the body of a man was found at the bottom of the steps on Somerton Beach. He was clean, manicured, well-nourished and well-dressed and had no visible wounds. Someone had gone to the trouble of removing all the labels from his clothes, which attracted immediate attention from the constabulary. And in the fob pocket of his pleated trousers, overlooked at first, was a piece of paper with the words ‘Tamam Shud’ on it. ‘Tamam Shud’ is the last phrase of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, the works of a Persian poet translated by Edward FitzGerald, which used to be a popular Christmas gift for relatives one did not know well. My father said that the rest of the book was found in a car belonging to a doctor, parked at the top of the steps down to Somerton Beach. The phrase ‘Tamam Shud’ had been torn out of it and on the back of the page there was an unbreakable code. The autopsy determined that the man had been poisoned but the poison could not be identified. He was buried in West Terrace cemetery and the police kept a body cast, but no one ever claimed him.
Did you read the above? Because that’s basically the most you’re going to get out of this book about the mystery it’s ostensibly about. If you’re actually here for a book about the Somerton Man, leave. This is a book about Kerry Greenwood. I only finished it because it’s short enough to hate-read in around two hours with a few glasses of wine which was its own kind of fun, honestly, and possible as long as you skim longer sections that were straight-up memoir.
But in addition to being a rather narcissistic bait and switch — that is, knowing you came here for this perplexing mystery, but how about hearing minute details of the author’s life instead? — it’s a poorly researched attempt at telling this story. The author seems to just want to find ways to tell her own stories by shoehorning into this one. She flat-out refuses to do any research that would make this a worthwhile piece of journalism, and favors anecdotal evidence from people she knows or her own experience.
Extensive efforts have been made by Adelaide University to break the Tamam Shud code, using as a base the idea that it is a one-time pad encryption algorithm, but they need a copy of the first edition of The Rubaiyat and so far have not been able to find one. I would suggest they enquire at the six copyright deposit libraries in Britain, established since 1610 – The British Library in London, Cambridge University, the Bodleian, and the National libraries of Scotland, Wales and Dublin – but they have probably tried that.
Well have they or have they not? Did you even ask? Is this a published book (by a university press, no less!) or un-factchecked blog rantings (guilty)?
She mentions a marriage being public record, but “doesn’t want to pry.” So she doesn’t look it up or follow that thread. She mentions there are three different editions of the Rubaiyat book, which holds a curious, significant connection to the man. Each published edition could hint at something different about his identity if the books had been used to develop his uncrackable code. What are those points? Who knows, because after she mentions it she doesn’t bother getting into what the differences or their potential meanings are. One must assume she couldn’t find any way to relate any of them to herself, so on we must move.
The way she relates everything to herself is near-astonishing levels of ridiculousness. A particularly annoying example is a connection to the surname of Johnson. Greenwood interjects: “Oddly, when I’m writing novels I always use Johnson as my default name for a character.” She returns to this coincidence when it comes up a second time as if it’s really something significant. I mean, imagine: the surname Johnson in an English-speaking country. Uncanny! She doesn’t pursue any theoretical line about it either.
The only semi-decent research attempt made is to lay out the context of what was going on in the world in 1948 that the Somerton Man could’ve been involved with or influenced by. That is, arms dealing in Israel, Cold War spying, and the like. It’s all relevant, but it’s told as drily as possible.
So what is the original connection between the author and the Somerton Man? Her father worked as a “wharfie” in Adelaide, and she thinks the mystery man had something to do with the sea/sailing. Her father first told her about the Somerton mystery and it interested her, like it does everyone who hears it. That’s it.
If she had written a researched account of what’s known of the Somerton Man, and included a chapter about why it meant something to her — from her background in Adelaide and her father’s work on the wharves — it would’ve been fine. Instead, this reads like a lazy blog entry (complete with “Srsly”) and it’s clear that the thing Greenwood found most interesting in the Somerton Man case is herself. There’s no detail too small to be made ALL. ABOUT. HER.
The book is also padded out with some chapters of expert analysis — one on codebreaking and why the code he had is so tough to crack, and one giving commentary on the autopsy. That’s great, but why are these just whacked in at the end instead of incorporated into a narrative? It ends with her previously published short story in which a character from some of her novels is somehow involved with the Somerton Man, I don’t even know because I was not going to read this; I’d suffered enough.
Her conclusion ramps up the ridiculosity, as she says “only a novelist” could solve this puzzle without ignoring any of the inconvenient facts. And she’s a storyteller so zzzzzzz. I don’t even care anymore, and anyway she didn’t even try to solve it. But this woke my annoyance back up: “We cannot really hope to solve this mystery now, even if we dig up poor Somerton Man and trace his blood relatives by their DNA or the shape of their ears.”
Why not? If his DNA’s extracted and entered into one of the many growing databases, how wouldn’t that solve the mystery eventually? We must ponder this ourselves, as Greenwood doesn’t explain. Whether it’s a moral/ethical issue to disinter him is something else entirely, also not explored here.
Lest I sound too harsh (too late) the author mentions several times that she was recalling her father so much because he’d been dead three years and she was still missing him. That’s understandable, that she would want to think about him even if he gave her the flimsiest connection to this story and we all know writing our way through pain and grief can be therapeutic. But it had no place in THIS book.
I’ll also grant her the occasional humorous line, but they’re few and far between in a lot of try-hardy attempts at humor already buried in personal stories wholly unrelated to the mystery. Just read the Wikipedia entry.
Tamam Shud: The Somerton Man Mystery
by Kerry Greenwood
published by University of New South Wales Press (2013)