The death of Helen Smith has been shrouded in controversy ever since the 23-year-old nurse allegedly fell from a sixth-floor balcony in Jeddah. Had she fallen? Or had she been pushed? Even more mysterious was the fact she had supposedly fallen to her death together with a Dutch skipper whom she had only just met at a party at the same apartment. To this day, the events of that fateful night in 1979 remain unknown.
Writing in 1983, with the co-operation of the dead woman’s father, journalist Paul Foot sets out a comprehensive analysis of the affair to that date. Indeed, the book is an account of Ron Smith’s quest to obtain justice for a daughter whom he firmly believed had been murdered. It’s a useful caveat to bear in mind while reading this book: everything that unfolds is mediated through the prism of a bereaved father. Foot’s attempts to remain impartial inevitably come to nought.
For Mr Smith had no doubt what occurred that hot and humid desert night: his daughter had attended a party where she had been likely raped and then murdered. Thereafter, in order to conceal the crime those responsible had thrown her body over a balcony to cover their tracks. Helen’s body had been discovered at the bottom of an apartment block inhabited by ex-pats working at the same private hospital. There had been a party; there had also been plenty of illicit alcohol on offer – a criminal offence under Saudi law.
The party had been hosted by a British couple, Dr Richard Arnot and his wife Penny. In attendance had been a small group of marine contractors, four Germans and a Dutch colleague, Johannes Otten. Being the only available female at the party, Helen Smith, a pretty and apparently liberated young woman, must have been much in demand. Witnesses testified that she and Otten had danced and smooched together.
Mrs Arnot alone testified that later that night the couple had disappeared onto the Arnot’s balcony to become better acquainted. The official theory went that the couple had fallen to their deaths while in the process of love-making. At 6am as the sun rose over Jeddah, Otten was spotted impaled on railings; Helen was found lying on her right-hand side a few feet from the Dutchman. Oddly, the British nurse’s body exhibited few signs of blood. The comment would later be made that she looked ‘as if she had fallen asleep.’
An intriguing tale unfolds. Ron Smith’s mind was clearly made up from the start, and it has to be said there are several anomalies that seem inexplicable if not downright suspicious: Otten was found half-naked, covered in blood but without his trousers. The missing trousers were never found – what happened to them? Why did the British Consular keep Mr Smith in the dark about the circumstances of his daughter’s death? How did the Saudi and official British autopsy fail to miss a massive injury to Miss Smith’s scalp which had resulted in brain haemorrhage and which had likely been caused by a blow to the head by a fist? Why did the Leeds Coroner’s office subsequently do everything in its power to prevent an inquest being held?
It's no surprise then that officialdom – both British and Saudi – comes in for strident criticism. Hence, the British Consular in Saudi along with the Foreign Office emerge as incompetent at best, thoroughly corrupt at worst. The same charges are laid against certain sections of Saudi law enforcement and medical practitioners.
Imbued with tenacity and inexhaustible amounts of Yorkshire grit, Ron Smith was determined to discover the truth. At the centre of this book therefore is the plight of a desperate father – a nightmare that could happen to anyone. Paul Foot’s book then is not only an account of a murky world of ex-pat ennui which found an outlet in illicit sex and alcohol, it’s about an obsessive quest of one man, a David v Goliath tale reminiscent of the father of murdered Pamela Werner in 1930s Shanghai – a bereaved father who, abandoned by officialdom, also had no choice but to seek justice alone.
Indeed, reading how Mr Smith was forced to travel to Saudi and his confrontations with obdurate British officials appears to point one way only: to a cover-up. Yet Foot does include some important context viz UK-Saudi relations, which had become strained during this time. Rather than something sinister, were the actions of officials those of individuals under pressure not to further strain relations that could cost Britain hundreds of millions of dollars in lost business revenue? Maybe.
However, following not one but three autopsies on Helen’s body by expert pathologists, two years after her death, the possibility of foul-play becomes impossible to ignore – a facet which makes British and Saudi prevarications even more suspicious in retrospect.
Paul Foot has chronicled an incredible story here. While describing a milieu of impeccable professional expats, the author also introduces a far shadier one whose actors engage in off duty games of Doctors and Nurses. Not to forget the backdrop of a brutal, repressive Saudi regime and diplomatic wrangling where image (and money) come above all else – even human life?
Even if - and it's a big if - Helen's death was accidental, there can be no doubt Ron Smith suffered a terrible injustice at the hands of bureaucracy. Indeed, it would take 30 years for his daughter's body to be finally laid to rest. After reading this I do believe the topic for my next book following my account of the equally baffling Cartland murder might just have suggested itself. There's certainly a whole lot more to be said about this case, many gaps that require filling.
The Helen Smith Story might look rather unprepossessing in its shabby red cover (no images) but it just goes to show a book should not be judged by its cover. Because Inside there be fireworks. My book of the year thus far.