A couple of years ago I wrote a post, about the so-called Somerton Man.

Well it seems the Australian police are still digging into it (groan). In the news this morning, it was revealed that they have sought and received permission to exhume the body in an effort to solve the enduring mystery. 

Here’s my blog from September, 2019, with a link to the latest news at the end…

It is one of the most mysterious open files in criminal history.

It has everything; a murder, a romance, a secret code and a mysterious link to the Cold War world of espionage.

What it doesn’t have is a final chapter.

Just before seven o’clock on 1st December, 1948, an early morning swimmer found a body on Somerton Park beach, just south of Adelaide in South Australia.

When police arrived, they found the dead man propped against the sea wall with a half-smoked cigarette in his mouth. There was nothing to identify him; police concluded it was a suicide.

The dead man was about 50, and in top physical condition. The pathologist at the post-mortem noted that he had pronounced calf muscles, and his big and little toes met in a wedge shape, like those of a ballet dancer.

The man had been wearing heavy and expensive American-style clothes. A bus ticket showed he had taken a tram to the beach the morning he had died. What had he been doing all afternoon dressed for winter on a hot summer’s day?

And why had every identifying label been removed?

He had died from ingesting poison, but tests failed to reveal any foreign substance in the body.

So, was it a suicide – or was it murder?

There was one other clue from the autopsy that intrigued the police. Folded into his watch pocket was the last page of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. It bore the words “Tamam Shud”, which means in Persian: “It is finished”.

Two weeks later staff at the Adelaide Railway station discovered a brown suitcase which had been checked into the cloakroom the night before the man died. Police believed it belonged to the dead man.

Inside was some bright coloured pyjamas and red felt slippers, outrageous nightwear for the period. There was also some equipment that identified the man as a cargo master on a freighter. A ballet dancer working on a freighter wearing expensive tailored clothes?

Who was he?

Police looked in public libraries hoping to find the actual book from which the page stub. “Tamam Shud”, had been torn. Astonishingly, eight months later, a certain “Mr Ronald Francis”, took the very book to the police, saying he had discovered it lying in the back of his unlocked car at Glenelg beach the night before the body was found.

“Ronald Francis”, of course, wasn’t his real name. Police never revealed his true identity.

The torn-out page was matched to the book. It was an 1859 first edition. Even more curiously, the book contained a code, five lines of text, in capital letters. The second line has been struck out, perhaps an error in encryption.

The code seemed to follow the quatrain format of the Rubaiyat, which cryptographers believed was a one-time pad encryption algorithm.

Here it is:

The book also contained a telephone number, written in pencil. It led police to 28-year-old Jessica Thomson, who lived just four hundred yards from where the body was discovered. But when interviewed, she said she had no idea who the dead man was or why he would have her phone number.

Yet when they showed her a plaster cast of the Somerton Man’s body the accompanying detective thought she was going to faint.

All she admitted was that she had once owned a copy of the Rubaiyat while working at the Royal North Shore Hospital in Sydney four years before. She had given it to a man called Alfred Boxall.

Ah, at last. So, the dead man was Alf Boxall.

No, it wasn’t. It transpired that Alf was alive and well, still living in Sydney. Interestingly, he had worked in an intelligence unit during the war. Alf produced the copy of The Rubaiyat that Jessica had given to him, a 1924 Sydney edition.

Police had reached a dead end.

In the intervening years there has been persistent speculation that the dead man was a spy. Adelaide is a remote city – it is sometimes said its nearest neighbour is the 19th century.

But not far away are the Radium Hill uranium mine and the Woomera Test Range, an Anglo-Australian military research facility. During the Cold War both these sites would have interested the Soviets.

We have learned little else. In 1994, John Harber Phillips, Chairman of the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine, reviewed the case and concluded that there was little doubt that the poison used was digitalis.

The numerous attempts to crack the code, including efforts by military and naval intelligence, have been fruitless.

But there’s this: in 1945, a 34-year-old Singaporean named George Marshall was found dead in Mosman, Sydney, with an open copy of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam on his chest. His death was believed to be a suicide by poisoning. One of the witnesses who testified at his inquest was found dead 13 days later face down, naked, in a bath with her wrists slit.


Jessica Thompson never spoke about the incident again in her lifetime and took her secret to the grave.

But just last year Kate Thomson, her daughter, gave an interview to the Australian 60 Minutes program. She said her mother had told her that she did know the dead man and that his identity was also “known to a level higher than the police force”.

She also said that her mother could speak fluent Russian although she would not tell her where she had learned it, or why.

It seemed that Thompson left Sydney North Shore Hospital in 1947 because she pregnant. Photographs of her son Robin show that he had hypodontia – he lacked both lateral incisors.

So did the man on the beach. The chance of this being a co-incidence is 20 million to one.

When he was a boy Jessica took young Robin to dance classes. He eventually became … a professional ballet dancer.

Another co-incidence?

Imagine this: a man dies alone, on a beach, just a short walk from his infant son and the mother of his child, miles from home. Was he a spy? Or did he kill himself because of a broken heart?

Unless you or someone else can break the code, we may never know.

Whatever happened – it is finished now. Tamam Shud.

Here’s the link to the latest news from 19th May, 2021.

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blackout ripper

The most famous murderer in British criminal history is probably Jack the Ripper. But he’s not the worst.

While researching Lucifer Falls, I stumbled across the story of another killer whose murders were just as frenzied and even more prolific: he was known as the ‘Blackout Ripper’.

In 1942, London was reeling from the Blitz. The streets were scarred by bomb craters, streetlights were unlit, windows painted over, and few people ventured out at night.  

But one smooth-talking sexual sadist was about to turn the blackout to his advantage.

It began one morning in February when the body of Evelyn Hamilton was found strangled in an air raid shelter. At first, she was thought to be the victim of a robbery gone wrong.

That same night, actress Evelyn Oatley was murdered in her flat in Soho.  She was one of the ‘Piccadilly Commandos’, as sex workers were then known. She had been strangled and sexually mutilated with such sickening brutality that even hardened Scotland Yard detectives were stunned. The murder scene revealed a level of sadism not seen since the Ripper’s stomach-churning crimes in Whitechapel almost sixty years before.

Fingerprints found at both scenes revealed that the killer of both these women was left-handed. But his prints did not match any on file.

blackout ripperTwo nights later, a man tried to strangle prostitute Catherine Mulcahy, but she had taken the precaution of keeping her boots on in bed. She used them to defend herself and he fled, throwing money at her as he went.

Undeterred, he met Doris Jouannet just a few hours later. He strangled her with her own silk stocking then mutilated her body.

The police had only just found her remains when they received reports of another woman, Margaret Lowe, who had been similarly butchered, but whose body had lain undiscovered for two days.

The newspapers soon gave the killer a name: the Blackout Ripper.

The press were demanding action; but catching a murderer in wartime London was not that easy. Police resources were under huge strain; crime rates had risen 50% during the blackout, and many of the younger police officers had been conscripted.

So the killing spree might have gone on much longer, but the Ripper was about to make a vital mistake.

On the night of the 13th February a delivery boy heard a commotion in a doorway and ran over to find a woman, Mary Heywood, half-throttled and unconscious. Her assailant ran off but dropped his respirator, with his service number, 525987, printed on it.

The Blackout Ripper’s bloody orgy had come to an end. The number on the killer’s respirator led investigators to an RAF billet in St John’s Wood.

A search of the suspect’s possessions uncovered a pen engraved with Doris Jouannet’s initials and a cigarette case belonging to Margaret Lowe. The money he had thrown at Catherine Mulcahy was traced to his payday records. Fingerprints tied him to the tin opener used to mutilate Evelyn Oatley and to a glass found in Margaret Lowe’s flat. Dust in the respirator was matched to the air raid shelter where Evelyn Hamilton was found.

He was also linked to the murders of at least two other women, but police could not prove their suspicions.

What they had was enough. It took a jury just half an hour to convict him.

Who was the brutal killer who murdered and mutilated four women in six days?

His name was Gordon Cummins, a Leading Aircraftman in the RAF. He had been brought up in Yorkshire, the son of a civil servant and had received a private education in Wales.

After being fired from many jobs due to insolence and dishonesty, he enlisted in the RAF in 1935, earning himself the nickname “The Count” from fellow servicemen because he wanted them to call him ‘the Honourable Gordon Cummins’, claiming to be the bastard son of an aristocrat. He even affected an upper-class drawl. 

He had been married for five years, though little is known about his wife. He never gave any reason for what he did and because of the war, neither his crimes nor his victims received the level of attention as those of his Victorian predecessor.

‘Jack’ slaughtered five women in three months; Cummins murdered four in just five nights and probably killed two others.

He was hanged on June 25, 1942, at Wandsworth Prison.

In one final irony, the execution took place… during an air raid.

If you love crime fiction, here’s my own crime series featuring DI Charlie George:


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I always want murder to be a little bit funny.

Not real murder, of course. I’m talking fictional murder, the kind that sells millions of books and makes huge box office every year.

We all know that crime in fiction and movies is a construct. No matter how often reviewers call a novel ‘gritty and realistic’, you know it’s actually not. If a work of the imagination really was true to life, it would be like watching grass grow. Most police work is by the book. There are very few shoot-outs and even serial killers are not that common, or we wouldn’t be able to go out at night for a pizza.

Most crime fans know this and accept the sleight of hand. After all, Inspector Morse makes Oxford looks like the backstreets of Tijuana on a bad day and no one seems to mind.

The crime novels I love just aren’t too grim, and the detectives aren’t all cynical heavy-drinking loners. In my experience, a sense of humour is common to most emergency personnel. Admittedly, the humour can be quite black, but it’s a far more common way of coping with death and mutilation than whisky and depression.

The classic thrillers and crime movies like Fargo and Snatch show that the dark stuff works so well when side by side with humour.

Here’s my 14 favourite crime movie lines:


‘A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.’

Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) had all the best lines in The Silence of the Lambs.


‘They all have husbands and wives and children and houses and dogs, and, you know, they’ve all made themselves a part of something and they can talk about what they do. What am I gonna say? “I killed the President of Paraguay with a fork. How’ve you been?” ‘

Martin Q. Blank (John Cusack) talking to his psychiatrist about going to his high school reunion in Grosse Pointe Blank


Brigid: I haven’t lived a good life. I’ve been bad, worse than you could know.

Sam: That’s good, because if you actually were as innocent as you pretend to be, we’d never get anywhere.”

Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) and Brigid O’Shaughnessy (Mary Astor) in The Maltese Falcon 


‘If you take away the  horror of the scene, take away the tragedy of the death, take away all the  moral and ethical implications that have been drilled into your head since grade one, do you know what you’re left with? A 105-pound  problem that needs to be moved from point A to point B.’
Robert Boyd (Christian Slater) in Very Bad Things


Charley: Do I ice her? Do I marry her? Which one of these?

Maerose: Marry her, Charley. Just because she’s a thief and a hitter doesn’t mean she’s not a good woman in all the other departments.

Charley Partanna and MaeRose Prizzi (Anjelica Huston) in Prizzi’s Honour


Perry: How about you, Harry, did your father love you?

Harry: Ah, sometimes, like when I dressed up like a bottle. How about yours?

Perry: Well, he used to beat me in Morse code, so it’s possible, but he never actually said the words.

Gay Perry (Val Kilmer) and Harry Lockhart (Robert Downey Jnr) in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang 


Hans: As Gandhi said…’An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind’. I believe that wholeheartedly.

Bill: No it doesn’t. There’ll be one guy left with one eye. How’s the last blind guy going to take out the eye of the last guy whose still got one eye left? All that guy has to do is run away and hide behind a bush.

Hans Kieslowski (Christopher Walken) and Billy Bickle (Sam Rockwell) in Seven Psychopaths


‘You know my feelings. Every day is a gift. It’s just, does it have to be a pair of socks?’ 

Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) in The Sopranos


Cliff: “What made you join the force, Bruce?”

Bruce: “Police oppression, brother.”

Cliff: “And you wanted to stamp it out from the inside?”

Bruce: “No, I wanted to be a part of it.”

Clifford Blades (Eddie Marsan) and Bruce Robertson (James McAvoy) in Filth


Mortimer: You mean you knew what you’d done and you didn’t want the Reverend Harper to see the body?

Abby: Not at tea. That wouldn’t have been very nice.

Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant) finds out his Aunt Abby (Josephine Hull) is a murderer in Arsenic and Old Lace


Ida: Are you alone?

Gittes: Isn’t everybody?

JJ Gittes (Jack Nicholson) and Ida Sessions (Diane Ladd) in Chinatown


Postal worker: This is highly irregular.

Lorne Malvo: No, highly irregular is the time I found a human foot in a toaster oven. This is just odd.

David LeReaney and the chilling Billy Bob Thornton in Fargo: The Rooster Prince


Carmen: You’re not very tall are you?

Marlowe: Well, I, uh, I try to be.

Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) and Carmen Sternwood (Martha Vickers) in The Big Sleep


And finally, a classic moment from Snatch, when Avi (Dennis Farina) thinks the dog has eaten the missing diamond.

Avi: Look in the dog.

Bullet Tooth Tony: What you mean, ‘Look in the dog’?

Avi: I mean, open him up.

Bullet Tooth Tony: It’s not a tin of baked beans! What do you mean ‘open him up’?

Avi: You know what I mean.

Bullet Tooth Tony: [Appalled] That’s a bit strong, innit?

Luckily, the dog manages to escape. Because … well, otherwise, it just wouldn’t be funny. Do whatever you like to the rest of the cast, but rule #1, you leave the dogs alone.

If you’re like me and like your crime with a dash of dark humour, there’s a quick excerpt from LUCIFER FALLS here.

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When the police find a body, they usually have a main suspect.

But in the case of Kenneth Rex McElroy the suspected murderer was … an entire town.

source:: americasroof

McElroy’s murder on July 10, 1981, is one of the most bizarre cases in US criminal history. It should have been straightforward – he was shot in broad daylight in front of dozens of witnesses – but not a single resident of Skidmore was willing to talk.

How could that happen?

The victim had quite a history. He was born the 15th of 16 children to a poor, migrant tenant-farming couple from the Ozarks. He dropped out of school when he was 15, unable to read or write.

Despite his lack of education, McElroy was never short of either cash– or notoriety. The local attorney, Richard McFadin, routinely defended McElroy in three or four felonies a year. During his life McElroy was variously accused of assault, child molestation, statutory rape, arson, hog stealing, cattle rustling and burglary.

In all, he was indicted 21 times on various charges – including shooting a farmer called Romaine Henry – but escaped conviction each time. Witnesses would suddenly refuse to testify, lawyers would balk at prosecuting him, even judges were frightened of him. He was the archetype of the small-town bully. His strong-arm tactics had all of Skidmore living in fear of him.

When the parents of a fourteen-year-old girl, over twenty years his junior, refused to let him marry her, he shot their dog and burned their house down. He got off the charges – and got the wedding done, to avoid further charges of engaging with a minor.

He went on to father eleven children by a number of women.

Then in 1980, one of his daughters was caught stealing candy from the Skidmore town grocery, owned by 70-year-old Ernest “Bo” Bowenkamp. McElroy’s responded with a campaign of intimidation against Bowencamp that ended a few months later when he shot the grocer in the neck.

Bowencamp survived, and McElroy was arrested and charged with attempted murder, but the jury set a maximum sentence of two years, and the judge released McElroy on bond pending appeal.

McElroy was quickly re-arrested after he appeared in the D&G tavern the next day with a Garand M1 rifle and a bayonet, threatening to finish Bowencamp off.

Skidmore had had enough. On the morning of Friday, July 10, 1981, the townspeople held a meeting at the Legion Hall to discuss McElroy. No one knows what was decided.

McElroy’s lawyer advised his client to stay out of town for a while, but of course he ignored that kind of advice. Later that morning, he was parked in the main street in his pickup, with his wife. A group of over thirty townspeople surrounded his ride.

Moments later, several shots rang out.

McElroy was hit twice, in the head and neck. The townspeople wandered off, leaving his wife, Trena, screaming in the front seat. No one troubled themselves to call an ambulance.

Skidmore had no police force. Finally, when County deputies and Highway Patrol troopers arrived on the scene, McElroy was dead. They later found shell casings from a .22-caliber Magnum and an 8 mm Mauser, a German World War I-era long-range rifle.

In all, there were 46 potential witnesses to the shooting, but no one in Skidmore would admit to seeing anything.

McElroy’s wife, Trena, accused Del Clement, a local rancher and business owner, but not a single person would corroborate her story. The FBI got involved. They held over a hundred interviews but were unable to find enough evidence for an arrest warrant.

The county prosecutor, David A. Baird, was fresh out of law school and this was his first major case. He said he was confident that the case would finally be solved, and that justice would be served.

But for almost forty years the people of Skidmore have kept their silence.

But what is justice? Is it the system of trial and jury that so monumentally failed the people of Skidmore – or is it what happened that morning in the main street?

What do you think?

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One of the things I love about writing the DI Charlie George novels is finding little snippets about my home town that I never knew.

While writing the second in the series, Innocence Dies, I discovered that London is fast running out of burial space.

The main cemeteries, most built during Victorian times, are now largely full. Charlie and one of his DC’s, Lovejoy, discuss this during a stake-out at a funeral in Ilford, a long way from the original murder scene in Finsbury Park.

The demand for grave sites has been slightly alleviated in recent years by more people choosing cremation, but for others this choice is restricted by religious beliefs; 90% of Jews, Buddhists and Muslims opt for a conventional burial.

The obvious solution to the overcrowding in London’s gardens of rest is to bury Londoners somewhere else. It’s been done before; for almost a century from 1850, the ‘London Necropolis Railway’ transported deceased persons from Waterloo station to their waterloo in leafy Surrey.

The other option is a pre-loved plot. Since 2007, burial authorities have had the power to reclaim any grave older than 75 years. So far this power has been used sparingly, although it does raise the interesting prospect of being able, at some time in the future, to be buried on top of Karl Marx or next to Charles Dickens, in Poet’s Corner. For a price.

Some people may be getting eternal rest. But the eels in the Thames aren’t getting any as I discovered while writing Angels Weep. Charlie is driving over Blackfriars Bridge and tells his sergeant how there’s so much residual cocaine in the Thames that the eels that live in the river have become hyperactive.

It sounds like a joke, but it’s not.

It’s based on research by a team of scientists at King’s College in London into the composition of waste water at a monitoring station near the Houses of Parliament.

London has water treatment stations that are tasked with purifying the city’s waste water, but these plants are overwhelmed during major storms and allow untreated sewage into the river.

The researchers found significant increases in cocaine and benzoylecgonine (a metabolite of cocaine) within 24 hours of these overflows.

Is it because Londoners are more coked up than the rest of Europe? Or is it because the monitoring station is so close to the Houses of Parliament? You’d have to think, watching the antics in Westminster over the last few years, that MP’s are consuming way too much Bolivian marching powder.

Whatever the reason, the eels are partying so hard that it’s having a deleterious effect on their physiology – they’re sweating too much and getting paranoid – and it could even threaten their future survival. Seriously.

It would be a shame if that happened. All my uncles used to love jellied eels.

These days they’d probably be arrested for taking a Class A drug.

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Scotland Yard: the name is famous around the world for Sherlock Holmes, Flying Squad police cars with sirens blaring, forensic specialists poring over fingerprint files.

But how much do you know about it?

Here’s five lesser known facts:

1.Scotland Yard is not in Scotland Yard. It never was.

The location of London’s original Metropolitan Police headquarters was at 4 Whitehall Place, which had a rear entrance on a street called Great Scotland Yard. So it was called ‘Scotland Yard’. In 1890, it moved to the Embankment. During the construction of the new building, workers discovered the dismembered torso of a female in a vault it what had been the cellar of the previous building. Ironically, the case, known as the ‘Whitehall Mystery’ was never solved.

In 1967 ‘Scotland Yard’ moved again to 10 Broadway in Westminster, where they put up the now famous revolving sign: ‘New Scotland Yard’. In summer 2013, it was announced that the headquarters would move yet again, and that the new building would be called… ‘Scotland Yard’. So the old ‘Scotland Yard’ was ‘New Scotland Yard’ and the new ‘Scotland Yard’ is just ‘Scotland Yard’. Got that?

2. Charles Dickens used to go on patrol with Scotland Yard detectives at night

The famous author of ‘Great Expectations’ and ‘Oliver Twist’ wasn’t a policeman, but he was a good friend of a Scotland Yard inspector called Charles Frederick Field, who agreed to let him join some of his patrolmen on their nightly rounds. Dickens did it for research; it helped him paint vivid descriptions of London’s most squalid and dangerous enclaves.

He also wrote about it in his magazine, ‘Household Words’. The article was called On Duty with Inspector Field. He later based a character in his novel Bleak House on Fields, giving the world one of its very first fictional detectives, ‘Inspector Bucket’.

3. Scotland Yard helped pioneer fingerprinting

In 1901, Sir Edward Henry, then the assistant commissioner of Scotland Yard, instituted the Metropolitan Police Fingerprint Bureau. The following year a small-time thief called Harry Jackson became the first criminal ever convicted in the UK using the forensic technique of lifting and matching prints. He had been charged with stealing some billiard balls from a house in Denmark Hill in London.

The investigating officer had noticed a number of fingerprints on a freshly painted windowsill, which he believed had been left behind by the burglar. The Yard’s new Bureau searched their files for known criminals with a similar print pattern and got a match. Harry had only recently served a prison term for another burglary and was effectively snookered.

While the case set a precedent for the admissibility of fingerprints as evidence, not everyone was happy about it. One letter to The Times bemoaned that “Scotland Yard, once known as the world’s finest police organisation, will be the laughing stock of Europe it if insists on trying to trace criminals by odd ridges on their skins.”

4. They have a crime museum that is kept hidden from the public

It’s called the ‘Black Museum’, a macabre collection that is the result of nearly 150 years of investigative work. Established in 1875, the museum’s exhibits include some gallstones that failed to dissolve in acid along with the rest of the murder victim; a set of pots and pans that once belonged to Scottish serial killer Dennis Nilsen and were used to boil human flesh; the ricin-filled pellet that killed Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov in 1978 as well as a model of the umbrella used to fire it; and the ‘From Hell’ letter written by Jack the Ripper.

Although it’s closed to the public, visiting law enforcement officials sometimes get a viewing as do certain celebrities. Laurel and Hardy and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle both had a guided tour.

5. You could live there one day.

New Scotland Yard’s last address, 10 Broadway, was sold to Abu Dhabi investors in 2014. The developers plan to build apartments there.


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unmurderable mike

In the winter of 1933, in a ragtag little speakeasy in the Bronx, four guys were playing cards.

The boss of the joint, Tony Marino, was telling his friends how he barely made enough to stay open. This was the Depression, and times were tough.

Tony and his buddies – the barman, “Red” Murphy, a cash-strapped funeral director called Frank Pasqua, and a fruit seller called Dan Kriesberg – got to talking about money. If only one of them had a wealthy relative with a good insurance policy. One good pay-out could get them all out of the hole.

There was a loud snore from the end of the bar. They all turned and looked at the no-good drunk sleeping off another bender on the plywood bar.

“If we don’t have a sick relative,” Frank said, “maybe we could make one.”

“It’s not like anyone’s going to miss that guy,” Tony said. “He’s just a bum. He doesn’t even pay his tab.”

And the plan was set in motion …

unmurderable mike
Tony Marino

The bum’s name was Mike Malloy. A former firefighter, now pushing sixty, he lived on the streets. When he sobered up, Tony and the guys persuaded him to pose as Red’s brother and take out two life insurance policies worth $1800 – a tidy sum in today’s money. In exchange, Tony promised him free booze.

Surely, the guy would just do them all a favour and drink himself to death. After all, it was Prohibition and the city was awash with shoddy home brews, as well as whisky that had been deliberately poisoned by government agencies as part of the enforcement effort, and other equally lethal bootlegged concoctions.

Mike duly drank himself into oblivion every night, and kept coming back for more the next day. Tony couldn’t believe it. How could anyone drink that much moonshine? Tony starting replacing the liquor with anti-freeze; Mike got a taste for that as well. So Tony tried turpentine, then horse liniment mixed with rat poison.

Mike slammed his glass on the bar and asked for another.

The boys took up the challenge, feeding Mike poisonous bar snacks to wash down the poisonous liquor – bad oysters, rotten sardines mixed with carpet tacks, then sandwiches laced with metal shavings and glass.

Mike couldn’t get enough. Rediscovered his appetite, in fact.

A month later, he was still standing. They couldn’t believe it. One freezing February night, in pure desperation, the four of them waited until he passed out, then carried him to a local park. They laid him out in the snow, soaked him in ice water and left him to do the right thing and die.

That, they thought, was surely the end of Unmurderable Mike.

Nope. He didn’t even get a cold. The next night he was back at the bar, throwing back glass after glass of the moonshine that had put much younger men in the cemetery.

What to do? They hired a cab driver called Hershy Green and had him run Malloy down in the street. Green was moving at 45 mph when he hit him. A policeman found Mike lying on the road and got him to a hospital. Three weeks later, he was discharged and back in Tony’s bar, demanding more whisky on his open tab.

Enough was enough. On February 23, 1933, after he had again passed out on the bar, the guys carried him to Red’s room, put a hose in his mouth and connected it to the gas jet.

This finally did the trick.

A corrupt local doctor called Frank Manzella signed the death certificate, attributing Mike’s death to bad alcohol, and they quickly buried him and collected their windfall from the insurance company.

But rumours of the plot to murder the Unmurderable Mike had already spread through the Bronx. It was a great story, after all, and inevitably, the cops got wind of it.

They had Mike exhumed. Even back then, before CSI, forensic physicians could detect lethal levels of carbon monoxide. The cabbie and the doctor turned state’s witness to save themselves and Tony and the rest of his friends were convicted on murder one.

The four buddies went down to Sing Sing and the electric chair while their victim went down in history – as Unmurderable Mike.

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It is still the strangest – and most mysterious – crime in US aviation history.

On Thanksgiving Eve, November 24, 1971, a middle-aged man by the name of “Dan Cooper”, settled himself into seat 18C of flight 305, a North West Orient Airlines flight from Portland Oregon to Seattle.

He lit a cigarette – you could do that in those days – and ordered a bourbon and soda.

Shortly after take-off, he handed a note to Florence Schaffner, the flight attendant. He whispered, “Miss, you’d better look at that note. I have a bomb.”

To make his point, he opened the black attaché case on his lap and showed her what appeared to be eight red cylinders attached to wires coated with red insulation.

He told her his demands; $200,000 –about one and a quarter million dollars in today’s money – and four parachutes.

The stewardess told the pilot in the cockpit; he, in turn, talked to the control tower in Seattle.

Schaffner later described “Dan Cooper” as calm, polite, and well-spoken; in fact, she said, he seemed rather nice. He ordered a second bourbon, paid for his drink (and attempted to give Schaffner the change). He even offered to make a meal request for the flight crew part of his demands.

When the flight finally landed in Seattle, FBI agents had assembled the ransom money from several Seattle-area banks – 10,000 unmarked 20-dollar bills– having first recorded them on microfilm.

The cash-filled knapsack and parachutes were delivered to the plane. Cooper ordered all the passengers off and told the crew to plot a southeast course towards Mexico City at minimum airspeed and a maximum 3000 metres altitude.

Two hours later the Boeing 727 took off again, with only five people onboard: Cooper, the flight crew and one flight attendant. Meanwhile, two fighter aircraft were scrambled from nearby McChord Air Force Base and tracked the airliner, out of Cooper’s view.

He told the attendant to join the rest of the crew in the cockpit and to remain there with the door closed. Shortly afterwards, a warning light flashed in the cockpit, indicating that the aft air stair apparatus had been activated.

FBI wanted poster

“Dan Cooper” had strapped on one of the parachutes, secured the ransom money to his person and jumped into the cold, night sky over the Cascade Mountains.

The airstair was still deployed when the 727 landed at Reno Airport. FBI agents stormed the plane, but Cooper was gone.

Neither of the Air Force fighter pilots had seen a parachute open, but the extremely poor weather that night made it unlikely that they would have done.

A massive air and ground was ordered, and focused on Cooper’s supposed landing area in a wilderness area a few miles southeast of Ariel, Washington.

But no trace of Cooper or the money was ever found.

So who was the mysterious hijacker? It turned out “Dan Cooper” was the hero of a popular Belgian comic book series of the 1970s, who had many daring adventures, including parachuting out of planes.

Whoever he was, he knew something about aircraft. The 727 was ideal for such a bail-out escape, because of its ability (unusual for a commercial jet airliner) to remain in slow, low-altitude flight without stalling; he also knew that the aft airstair could be lowered during flight—a fact never disclosed to civilian flight crews, since there was no situation on a passenger flight that would make it necessary. He also knew that its operation, by a single switch in the rear of the cabin, could not be overridden from the cockpit.

Who was this knowledge unique to? CIA paramilitary units.

What happened to him? The FBI never found out.  

But they were convinced he did not survive. He jumped from 10,000 feet without proper protection against the extreme wind chill.

Even if he survived the jump, his survival in mountainous terrain at night during the onset of winter would surely have been impossible

Why do it at all? He must have known the bills would be traceable, and that he could never spend the money anyway.

The hijacking marked the end of unscrutinized commercial airline travel. In 1973, luggage searches were instigated on all commercial flights, and the FAA also required that all Boeing 727 aircraft be fitted with a so-called “Cooper vane” that prevented the lowering of the aft airstair during flight.

It didn’t stop other would-be hijackers from committing copycat crimes during the seventies – fifteen in all, none of them successful. My favourite is a desperado called Glenn Tripp.

On July 11, 1980, Tripp seized Northwest flight 608 at Seattle-Tacoma Airport, demanding $600,000, two parachutes … oh, and somebody to top his boss – please. After a 10-hour standoff, Tripp reduced his demands to three cheeseburgers and count to ten while I get away. He was apprehended. But two years later, while still on probation, he hijacked the same Northwest flight and demanded to be flown to Afghanistan. When the plane landed in Portland, he was shot and killed by FBI agents.

The Dan Cooper story has one further footnote.

In 1980, eight-year-old Brian Ingram was holidaying with his family on the Columbia River 20 miles southwest of Ariel. He uncovered three packets of the ransom cash as he raked the sandy riverbank to build a campfire. The bills were significantly disintegrated, but still bundled in rubber bands.

It was assumed the bills had floated there. But if they had, why were ten bills missing from one packet, and how did the three packets remain together after separating from the rest of the haul?

The case remains the one of the most enduring mysteries in criminal history.

What did happen to Dan Cooper and the $200,000?

Unlike fiction, it’s a story without a satisfying ending. The truth is – we’ll probably never know.

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At quarter to ten on the evening of Friday, December 3, 1926, an up and coming crime writer left her home in Berkshire, England, saying she was going out for a drive.

She first went upstairs to kiss her sleeping daughter, Rosalind, then got into her Morris Cowley and left.

The next morning the car was found several miles away, abandoned.  Where was she?

She left behind a letter, addressed to the local constable, saying she feared for her life.  Had she been murdered?

To add to the intrigue, the writer’s mother had died just a few months earlier and she was said to be severely depressed. There was a lake called Silent Pool just a quarter of a mile from where her car was found. A character in one of her books had drowned there.  Must be suicide then.

The police started dredging the lake. Fifteen thousand volunteers joined the search of the surrounding countryside. 

The writer’s name? You might have heard of her. It was Agatha Christie.

The plot thickens…

photo: violetriga

The police discovered that Agatha’s husband, Archie, a handsome fighter pilot and war hero, had been having an affair with a woman named Nancy Neele. He had told Agatha he was going to spend the weekend with Nancy at their love nest in Surrey.

He had asked for a divorce, but she had refused to give him one.

Was this the reason she feared for her life?  Had he murdered his wife so he could marry his mistress?

The police started following him, even tapped his phone.

Perhaps the butler did it.

The police investigated further. The family didn’t have a butler. Damn.

For eleven days in 1926, all England was abuzz with the mystery of what had happened to the woman who was to become the greatest mystery writer in literary history.  What had happened to Agatha Christie?

The story made the front page of the New York Times. The British Home Secretary, William Joynson-Hicks, demanded answers. Even celebrated crime writers such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Dorothy L. Sayers got involved; Doyle took one of Agatha’s discarded gloves to a medium; Sayers spent days inspecting the scene of the crime and then announced that she had now enough material to write another book.

A typical writer.

If Agatha was dead – where was her body?  Her body was still breathing and sitting in a cane chair reading magazines in Yorkshire.

In fact Agatha’s brother-in-law, Campbell, had already told the police that Agatha had written to him the week before she disappeared, saying she was going to a spa in Yorkshire. But the police didn’t believe him – they thought it was a red herring.

In the denouement, it was revealed that he was right after all. She had checked in – disappointingly not under the name Miss Marple – but the name Theresa Neele, the same surname as her husband’s paramour.

Like any good crime writer, she had even left clues; she had placed an advertisement in the London Times saying Mrs. Theresa Neele’s relatives could find her at the Hydro in Harrogate.  But the Poirots at Scotland Yard missed that.

Finally, some of the spa’s other guests compared the photographs in the newspaper with their own Mrs Neele, gathered everyone in the dining room, and solved the case.

It seemed that after she had dumped her car, she had simply walked into town and caught a train to London. Once there, she did a little retail therapy, posted the letter to Archie and took the train to Yorkshire.

Elementary my dear Watson.

When the press got wind of the fact that Mrs. Agatha Christie was not dead in a ditch but had been relaxing for eleven days at a spa, they were outraged. They demanded answers; why had she done it?  

She refused to say.  In fact, she kept silent about the whole episode her entire life. Her most enduring mystery died with her, unsolved.

The official line was that she had amnesia brought on by grief over her mother’s death, or that she was in a fugue state, a rare psychogenic condition brought on by trauma and depression.

Another theory was that her devious writer’s mind contrived the whole affair to ruin her husband’s dirty weekend.

No! I believe the real culprit is right here in this room, I say, pointing my finger accusingly at Agatha herself, and that she did it to boost sales of her new book, ‘The Murder of Roger Ackroyd’!

* The rest of the cast gasp, in horror at the deviousness of the plot and in admiration of my brilliant detective work. *

If I’m right, and it was all an elaborate publicity stunt, then it was a stroke of genius, because Ms Christie went on to sell around a billion copies of her eighty novels in English, and another billion in 103 other languages. (I didn’t know there were that many languages.)

She and Archie were divorced in 1928 and Agatha later married archaeologist Max Mallowan, 15 years her junior. She reportedly said that the great thing about marrying an archaeologist was that the older she got, the more interested he was in her.

She finally died in 1975, aged 86, from natural causes.

At least that’s what she wants us all to think.

If you love crime fiction as much as I do, here’s my crime series featuring my London detective, DI Charlie George…


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