It’s a mystery as maddening as it is intriguing: Who was the still-unidentified Somerton Man, a suit-clad, 40-something man who was found dead on an Australian beach near Adelaide—possibly by poison—on the morning of Dec. 1, 1948? Graeme Wood boils 66 years of sleuthing, developments, twists, and nagging questions into a 5,000-word piece for the California Sunday Magazine. In it, he charts the odd identifying details outlined by the coroner’s office: the man’s atypical calf muscles, framed as akin to those a dancer might develop; his absent teeth, with his canines taking the place of his lateral incisors; and a small scrap of paper found hidden in a pants pocket. On it, the words, Tamám Shud, meaning The End. Police determined they were ripped from a translated copy of the Persian poet Omar Khayyám’s Rubáiyát.
That copy had been seemingly randomly thrown into a local man’s car; in it, was written a phone number and the following: WRGOABABD / MLIAOI / WTBIMPANETP / MLIABOAIAQC / ITTMTSAMSTGAB. The phone number led police to a woman, Jo, who claimed to know nothing of the man who some suspected was a Russian or American spy, though she fainted when they brought her to the morgue. From there, Wood presents us with two men on the case’s trail—each no fan of the other: physicist/engineer/amateur detective Derek Abbott and former homicide detective Gerry Feltus. He relays oddities about how the Rubáiyát copy and a second one found next to a dead man in Sydney were published; the fruitless and quirky attempts to decode those letters; and Abbott’s own insertion into the story—by "having possibly tangled his own DNA with the Somerton Man's." Read the fascinating story in full. (Read more mystery stories.)