In Muffled Night (1933) by D. Erskine Muir

Last week I felt like I had a pile of exciting books all clamouring to be read, yet when I finally got the chance to read one my brain flopped and couldn’t decide what it wanted to read. But over much pondering I went with this one. D. Erskine Muir is a new author to me and was the penname of Dorothy Agnes Sheepshanks Muir (1889-1977). The death of her spouse in 1932 turned her towards writing as a career, yet only three of her books were mysteries. Today’s review is one of them, with the other two being: Five to Five (1934) and In Memory of Charles (1941). All three are being reprinted by the Moonstone Press, with the latter being available on the 15th November. True crime seems to have served as inspiration for all of Muir’s mysteries. Curtis Evans writes the introductions for these three titles and in his introduction for In Muffled Night, Curtis outlines the real murder case which it is based on – the 1862 murder of Jessie McPherson in Glasgow. She was struck 40 times with a meat cleaver. Her close friend, another young woman, was convicted of the crime, despite her claiming it must have been the victim’s randy employer. Her employer spent the whole weekend at his home alone, whilst the rest of the family were away, yet he claimed he didn’t know his servant was dead. The woman’s execution was commuted to a term of life imprisonment. This is not a crime I was previously aware of, yet Curtis notes the other golden age mysteries which reference the case: Dorothy L. Sayers’ Busman’s Honeymoon (1937), Gladys Mitchell’s When Last I Died (1941) and John Dickson Carr’s Seeing is Believing (1941) as well as George Goodchild and Bechhofer Roberts’ The Dear Old Gentleman (1935).

Synopsis

‘It was not at all a suitable house for a murder. Helen Bailey is the live-in housekeeper to the wealthy Murray family. Tall, dark-haired and beautiful, the enigmatic Helen has long ensured that life at “The Towers” runs smoothly for autocratic patriarch James Murray, his widowed son John, and his grandchildren Alan and Glenda. When Helen is found dead in her blood-soaked bedroom, struck down in a horrific attack, the police must consider the family’s relationships not only with one another but with everyone close to them. Helen’s jewellery is missing, suggesting a robbery gone wrong, but the clues are confusing and contradictory. Dogged police work eventually points to one person, but have the authorities identified a cold-blooded murderer or an innocent person framed by others? This classic detective novel is now back in print for the first time.’

Overall Thoughts

It is quite pleasing when a mystery begins with a map and a character list. Even better when this list shows there aren’t 50 names to hold in your head! Moreover, the map is quite interesting as it indicates where the body will be found, and the various places blood stains will be located. Not all these locations are typical, so that gets the reader’s mind puzzling from the get-go.

The opening paragraph of the mystery steers into W H Auden’s idea that:

‘The corpse must shock not only because it is a corpse but also because, even for a corpse, it is shockingly out of place, as when a dog makes a mess on a drawing room carpet.’

Muir channels this theme when she writes: ‘It was not at all a suitable house for a murder. Of course there have been murders in the houses of the good and great. But “The Towers” seemed the embodiment of everything peaceful, sober, and respectable.’ We are introduced to the home in question through the eyes of a young female visitor, who finds it stuck in the Victorian period. It is during a breakfast scene that we find out about the household and its connections to another married couple. Interwoven into this are foreshadowing comments that hint at the way the home and its occupants will become a key subject of discussion in the newspapers.

When it comes to the murder itself, of the family housekeeper, Muir does try to add some new elements. There is the suggestion the victim did not die right away, that they had even been washed at one point and that several areas of the carpet had been washed but other places with footprints had been left untouched. Prior to that Muir throws in some suspicious behaviour from various family members.

Nevertheless, despite these efforts to expand upon the original case, the narrative closely follows its trajectory with a friend of the victim being put on trial, who is arguably condemned for her lifestyle choices, which made me think of Edith Thompson. Once the murder is discovered the story’s focus is predominantly the police detective in charge of the case, who diligently follows up clues and evidence, evidence which is then examined at the trial. It is far from cast iron.

I think this book had the ingredients of a strong mystery, but these points were not taken advantage of later in the text. The majority of the novel is a prosaic rendering of the true crime it is based on. Muir tacks on a different ending, and whilst this is an interesting solution, it is not one we are led up to effectively. The policeman’s discovery of the truth is unsatisfactory in comparison to the rest of the investigation, which is more open handed with the reader. There are several key characters who reveal important information after the fact as well. Another difficulty I had with the story was the flatness of the characters. After the mystery’s exposition we don’t really get to spend much time with the suspects and the central detective did not grab my attention. Marcus Magill seems to have enjoyed this tale more than me as for the October edition of The Bookman in 1933, he reviewed this title writing:

‘Mr Erskine Muir has staged his murder among an upper-middle class family in Highgate. Nothing out of the way here, but the book thrilled me all the more because I knew that such things might happen […] Though I knew how the book must end, I found myself sitting up till a late hour to finish it.’

Maybe Muir improved in her later books but based on this one I don’t think I am eager to find out.

Rating: 3.75/5

3 comments

  1. I seem to recall your not liking Crofts much? The police in this one and the second are a lot like Crofts’ cops. Her third one, written later, shows much more Crime Queens influence. My favorite is Five to Five but you might try the third one.

    Liked by 1 person

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