Death at the Grand: a tale straight out of Agatha Christie

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The Independent Online
SEASIDE RESORTS can be melancholy places out of season, and Torquay on the "English Riviera" is no exception.

The boarded-up ice-cream stalls, the trinket shops and the faded chalk boards promising "mystery tours round the bay" spread an air of gloom. And it is easy to imagine how this could spark the internal monologue of the depressive.

Just over a year ago, the Grand Hotel on the seafront, where Agatha Christie spent her honeymoon, was embroiled in a mystery suicide that could have been lifted from one of the queen of crime's books.

As plots go, it's not a bad one. A mysterious Asian freedom fighter is found dead in a luxury seaside hotel, his clothes neatly folded, the remains of a cyanide capsule mixed with Coke in a coffee cup.

A note in neat handwriting thanks the chefs for his last meal, but no other explanation is given. In fiction it should spark a series of crime-solving exploits. The reality is somewhat more brutal: an unmarked grave for an unknown body.

Despite the burial of the man locals call "Mr Patel from the hotel", a conclusion to the case is no closer than when the hotel's housekeeper found the naked body of the man curled up on the floor of room 131.

The man, aged around 35, had checked into the four-star hotel the night before as Mr Patel. He had no luggage and constantly wore sunglasses.

He paid the pounds 67 for the room in cash, ordered room service of a roast lamb dinner, washed it down with a bottle of Frascati, and then unclipped a black leather pouch necklace and ingested its contents. It was cyanide.

When police arrived they found a curiously ordered scene. Clothes were folded on a chair, pounds 94.12 was arranged in separate piles of notes and coins on the table together with the poisoned coffee cup, a Ronson pen- cum-lighter and an empty wine glass. Only an ashtray brimming with Benson & Hedges stubs suggested any inner turmoil. And on the desk was a message written on the hotel's pale blue notepaper.

It read: "I am very sorry for what I have done here, but this is the place. I had to be here to carry out the deed. The money for food is on the table. To the chef, the food was magnificent. Fit for the gods for a final meal. Thank you."

After exhausting all the local channels, the Salvation Army, the Missing Persons' Register, other police forces, public appeals, the man's identity remained a complete mystery.

But a chance conversation between the coroner's officer Robin Little and Guyan Fernando, a Home Office pathologist, threw up a bizarre new clue which prompted the involvement of Special Branch, Interpol and the Sri Lankan and Indian embassies.

Mr Little was puzzled by unusual scars on the body. He said: "I told him about two transverse scars on each shoulder and he told me immediately, `He's a Tamil Tiger'."

Dr Fernando is Sri Lankan, and he said it was a tribal mark. He said that he was a Hindu, because he was not circumcised, and probably came from southern India. "When I told him he had died through cyanide, he told me, "They always carry a cyanide pill around with them, no matter where they are. It is in case he gets caught. You'll never find out who he is'."

And so it remains. A suspected Tamil Tiger chose Torquay to kill himself. But for the coroner, Hamish Turner, it is an "unsatisfactory state of affairs".

Mr Turner has been at the helm for the past 32 years and not a single body has remained unidentified. Even two years ago, when a mauled body was hauled from the sea six miles out in the bay, the police still managed to track down and solve the murder of Rowland Pratt, whose identity was stolen by Canadian fraudster Albert Walker, who was convicted of his killing earlier this year - by working from the serial number of the body's Rolex watch.

Mr Turner said: "The intriguing thing is why he chose the Grand to carry out the deed. He had stayed at another hotel for a few nights but chose this one for the final act.

"One theory is that he knew about the Agatha Christie connection. I think she wrote a book called Sparkling Cyanide, and in some way he felt it was poetic. But it is very frustrating to have had this man on our hands for the past 12 months and we still do not know who he really is. In London, I am told, they get one or two of these a year, but never down here. We like to get our man."

Sentiments echoed by Constable Richard Fletcher, who said: "We've tried everything. I get a little annoyed about the Agatha Christie angle, which people go on about, and all this business about it being an exciting mystery.

"But somewhere out there is a mother who is missing a son ... and she'll never know why."