Alex Castles






Wakefield Press, 1995. Reprint 2003
Reviewed by Sunnie Gill

True Crime

On ANZAC Day in 1935, a captured Tiger Shark on display in the disused Coogee public baths coughed up a tattooed arm. Thus began one of the more bizarre and sensational murder cases of the first half of the 20th century in Australia. THE SHARK ARM MURDERS follows the investigation team through the process of determining the identity of the arm, then trying to find out if that person was the victim of accident, suicide or foul play, and finally attempting to bring someone to account for the murder.

Although the investigation is interesting enough in itself, there is more fascination in being able to see how far crime investigation has come in the seven decades since this murder, particularly in the area of forensic and scientific testing methods that are now available to the police.

There are things in police investigations that we take for granted these days. In the Shark Arm Murders investigation, the fingers on the arm were not in a fit state for fingerprinting on their own. The skin had to be removed and placed on something more solid to get useable prints. These days it not an uncommon process, but back in 1935 it was only the second time in Australia that this procedure had been attempted. As there was no DNA testing back in the 1930ís the only way to discover the identity of the victim was by the tattoos and through medical guess work as to whether someone could have survived having an arm severed in such a manner.

Many aspects of police investigations took so much longer because of lack communications and technology. For instance, only some CIB (Criminal Investigation Bureau) cars had two-way radios. Fingerprint comparisons had to be done by sorting through a card index and there were no links to other police forces. It must have made crime investigation a long and tedious task.

There was also a measure of bureaucratic bungling in this case that made the task much more difficult. The shark that coughed up the arm died and was disposed of before the police could do further tests on it. There was disagreement between scientific experts about the arm and there certainly werenít the protections in place for suspects that there are these days.

THE SHARK ARM MURDERS stands not only as an interesting look at how police investigations were conducted in the 1930ís but also as a testimony to the dogged determination of the detectives to try and bring someone to justice despite the paucity of clues.

May 2006 review first published on Murder and Mayhem


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