By Peter Dewar

    Rewind to the first day of summer in 1948 when Adelaide is woken to a grisly find. In the sand by the sea wall at Somerton Beach lay a lifeless man. Nestling on the lapel of the dead soul’s classy outfit are remnants of his last cigarette. Police are unable to identify the body, so words must be chosen deftly for a graveside tribute six months later: ‘This man had someone who loved him … He is only known to God.’ 

    Solving the ‘Somerton Man’ case will involve untangling a trail of clues growing more baffling by the day: an ancient Persian poem; autopsy poison findings; and unbreakable, handwritten code. The puzzle is so perplexing, it will be regarded as one of Australia’s most profound mysteries. 

    Police receive tips by the hundreds. Enquires extend as far as top FBI man Edgar Hoover in the USA. But 10 years on, in 1958, armed with no credible explanations, the Coroner reluctantly calls an end to an inquiry. 

    Decades pass; books and documentaries propagate a range of theories; yet still, perennial questions go unanswered. Who is Somerton Man? And how does a well-dressed individual in perfect health end up dead on a suburban beach with a scrap of 12th century Persian poetry, which translates into, ‘is finished’, in his pocket.

    In mid 2022, however, there’s a startling breakthrough in an enigma that still intrigues a society in love with true-crime stories. An Australian scientist using DNA identifies Somerton Man as an electrical engineer named Charles Webb. The how and why remain stubbornly unclear, but it’s the first real break in a 74-year-old case, and makes headlines across the globe. 

    There’s one tiny detail that leaps from the page of news reports: the late Mr Webb was born in Footscray. As it turns out, Mr Webb’s place of birth is not the inner west’s only connection to the Somerton Man conundrum. 

    In 2012, Footscray’s celebrated writer, Kerry Greenwood, decided to weigh in on the case, and published a book weaving journalism, memoir and fiction. Fans and amateur sleuths can expect a compelling and revealing read from, ‘Tamam Shud: The Somerton Man’.

    Before qualifying as a lawyer, inner west resident Kerry Greenwood attended Footscray Primary School, Maribyrnong High School and Melbourne University. She has penned over 50 published works and is an acclaimed Australian author. Her Phryne Fisher detective novels were adapted for the popular ABC television series, ‘Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries’. And in 2020, Kerry Greenwood was honoured for services to literature with a Medal of the Order of Australia. 

    While it’s hardly exceptional that a whodunit author, particularly one working as a Victorian Legal Aid lawyer, be lured to an unsolved crime, Kerry Greenwood had other motivations for writing her book about the uncanny Somerton Man story.

    After leaving the army and working as a signaller at long-range weapon testing facility Woomera, Alfred Greenwood returned to his sweetheart back in Footscray. But not before spending time in Adelaide during 1948. In the years ahead, this knockabout bloke raised a family, making a living as a wharfie, and would tell seemingly-fanciful tales to his daughter Kerry about the suspicious death of a stylishly-fitted man on a beach. 

    Alf Greenwood is remembered as a wonderful storyteller, and whose memory occupied his daughter’s mind well after his passing. Writing a book about Somerton Man provided Kerry Greenwood with an opportunity to sort through these memories as well as her own recollections of working in Adelaide as a seasonal fruit picker. 

    For Kerry Greenwood, it was an exercise in understanding, and once completed, as she tells us in the Introduction: ‘… I will close the book and let them all go.’

    With a lawyer’s experience and crime-fiction author’s incisive mind, Kerry Greenwood wades through Somerton Man evidence. Police records, medical reports and Adelaide’s history are considered in the prosecution of various ideas. At one point, Cold War geopolitical jostling comes into play. No conclusion is reached. It probably never will be, notwithstanding Somerton Man’s real identity being established. All the same, I did enjoy Kerry Greenwood’s speculation. And, Phryne Fisher’s for that matter, who in a short story for the last chapter, sets out to solve the case.

    The personal anecdotes make the book special, and among my favourites are stories of a young daughter amongst wharfies on the docks. ‘I used to love watching my father handle horses,’ writes Ms  Greenwood of her dad, who was able to coax even the stroppiest creature from a ship with the aid of XXX peppermints. 

    Charles Webb — born, as it seems, in Footscray — tiptoed through life until death when he becomes famous as Somerton Man. Although, one might ask, famous for what? Unlike a good detective story, Somerton Man’s legacy has an end with no concrete answer. 

    Perhaps the final word should go to the person the book ‘Tamam Shud: The Somerton Man’ is dedicated to, Alf Greenwood, who reminded his daughter: ‘It’s because it’s a mystery, see, little mate, stories where you know the solution, you forget about them. But if you don’t know — if you can’t know — well, they stick in your mind.’ 

    Peter Dewar
    Peter Dewar
    The west is my lifelong home, and I love writing about its people, history and places of interest.

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