The Murder Room

by P. D. James
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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 378

The “murder room” of the title is a gallery of a private museum specializing in interwar Britain. This exhibition area of the Dupayne Museum includes artifacts related to famous homicides of the era. Soon after police commander Adam Dalgliesh and a friend visit the museum, one of the museum’s trustees is found dead. Neville Dupayne has been burned up in his car in the museum’s garage. He and his siblings, Caroline and Marcus, were appointed trustees by the founder, their late father. Part of the mystery revolves around the upcoming decision to close the museum, which is in financial straits. Neville alone favored closing it. Was he killed for this reason?

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On the same day as Neville’s death, the museum’s custodian had been hit by a car. Tally Clutton, who lives in a cottage on the grounds, was not seriously injured. She is the one who finds the grisly sight of Neville’s burning car. Was the person whose car struck her the same one who killed Neville?

Dalgliesh and detectives Kate Mishkin and Piers Tarrant arrive to investigate. As they interview Neville’s siblings and the museum staff, various personal details emerge that might be clues to either or both crimes. While Dalgliesh is in the Murder Room, a cellphone rings inside a trunk. They find another body inside, Celia Mellock, a former student at the school where Caroline Dupayne, Neville’s sister, is the assistant principal.

Through a random encounter, Tally recognizes a museum patron who is a possible suspect in her hit and run. Although he is cleared, it emerges that he was involved in a sexual relationship with the now-dead Celia, which extends to a secret sex club that Caroline runs, which is patronized by elite Londoners. Another attempt is made on Tally’s life before Dalgliesh and his team finally uncover the truth. Muriel Godby, the museum receptionist, is both fiercely loyal to Caroline—with whom she had formerly worked at the school—and worried that she will become unemployed when the museum closes. To prevent its closing, she had killed Neville and then killed Celia, an inadvertent witness to the murder, as well as tried to kill Tally because she thought she could identify her as the killer.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1067

Scotland Yard commander Adam Dalgliesh meets an old friend, and the two visit the Dupayne Museum. The Dupayne is a private museum that focuses on Great Britain in the years between World War I and II, and its most famous collection is the Murder Room, which contains memorabilia related to some of the most famous murder cases of the period. As he leaves, Dalgliesh notes that he is glad to have visited, but that he has no interest in returning.

The three adult children of museum founder Max Dupayne serve as trustees and hold the future of the museum in their hands. Neville Dupayne, the eldest, is a psychologist, Caroline Dupayne works as the assistant principal at a girls’ school, and Marcus Dupayne is a freshly retired civil servant. Because of low revenues and a soon-to-expire lease, the museum is at a crisis point. Caroline, who lives in a luxurious apartment located in the mansion that houses the museum, and Marcus, who wants to be more involved with the administration of the museum during his retirement, want things to continue as they have. Neville, who, of the three siblings is the least directly involved with the museum, and whose daughter needs money, makes clear his intention to vote for closure. The three meet, and although Caroline and Marcus attempt to influence Neville, the older brother stands firm.

Museum staff members include curator James Calder-Hale, who is dying of cancer. He sees the museum and the work he has done to create and sustain it as his legacy. Custodian Tally Clutton, after years of surviving in unhappy circumstances, is content for the first time in her life with her work and her cottage on the museum grounds. Muriel Godby, an officious receptionist who previously worked for Caroline at the school, comes from a dysfunctional family, has suffered a difficult life, and is loyal to Caroline. All of these museum employees have a vested interest in the continued existence of the facility.

Tally, returning to the museum grounds on a Friday evening, is struck by a car. The motorist stops to check on her, but leaves quickly after making a familiar comment, later recognized by all as the same comment Alfred Arthur Rouse, one of the murderers highlighted in the museum, said to a witness as he fled the scene of his crime. Tally is able to recover enough from the accident to continue down the road, until she finds Neville’s car ablaze, in the museum garage. Neville had burned to death inside his car.

Dalgliesh, now heading the special investigation squad, is asked to take the case, owing to its “sensitive nature.” It turns out that the curator, Calder-Hale, is a sometimes agent of MI5, the British intelligence service. A suitably vague explanation of the case is concocted to appease the local police. Dalgliesh then contacts his two top detectives, Kate Miskin and Piers Tarrant. Miskin and Tarrant happen to be dining together, discussing their possible futures with the Metropolitan Police. The trio arrives at the scene and begins the investigation. They speak to Marcus and Caroline that evening, along with Tally and Muriel, and Dalgliesh quickly recognizes the complicated situation he faces. Among their initial discoveries are that Neville had been having an affair with Angela Faraday, his secretary, who also happens to be the daughter-in-law of the gardener at the museum. Ryan Archer, the unreliable general laborer who works a the museum part-time, has disappeared, and a disgruntled patron, whose grandfather’s treasured painting had been lost to Max Dupayne, is tentatively identified as the driver who hit Tally. Dalgliesh and his team begin piecing together the facts and weaving together the strands of Marcus’s, Caroline’s, and Neville’s recent encounters.

During the investigative tour of the Murder Room, a cell phone begins ringing. The sound seems to be coming from a trunk, which is part of a display. In the trunk where murder victim Violette Kaye had been found decades earlier, another body is discovered. The victim is soon identified as Celia Mellock, who had attended Caroline’s school for a short time. Later, Celia’s belongings are uncovered in the donations bin at a thrift shop. Interviews with her mother and stepfather, who had flown to London from Bermuda to meet with the police, are less than satisfactory.

On a whim, Tally takes a trip into London, feeling the need to get away for the day. She wanders into the public gallery at the House of Lords and recognizes Lord Martlesham as the man at the museum on the night of Neville’s murder. She reports this to Dalgliesh, who now has another angle to investigate.

Lord Martlesham agrees to discuss matters with police, and it is revealed that he had known Celia and had arranged to meet her at the museum the night she was murdered. He says that she did not appear and that he could not reach her by phone. He admits they were involved in a sexual relationship, but adds that he had tried to break things off with her. Dalgliesh presses further, and Martlesham admits that they were to meet in Caroline’s flat, not the parking lot of the museum. Dalgliesh’s hunch about Caroline having something to hide is confirmed: She runs a private, exclusive sex club through her apartment. A subsequent interview with Caroline reveals details about the club, but not a strong connection to the murders.

That night, Tally is attacked and left for dead. The scene had been made to look like yet another true crime case highlighted in the museum. Luckily for Tally, Dalgliesh and Miskin had been on their way to interview her when she was attacked; her wounds were not fatal. Also, a motorcyclist had been hit by the car driven by the fleeing murderer.

Dalgliesh soon finds out that Caroline had earlier told her receptionist, Muriel, to look for other work. Muriel, extremely loyal to Caroline and in stable circumstances for the first time in her life, wanted to kill Neville—the lone sibling in favor of closing the museum. With Neville dead, she reasoned, the museum could continue on. She then killed Celia because she had witnessed the murder. Muriel then became convinced that Tally had realized the truth as well, and had attempted to kill her, too, to protect the museum and, thus, her job.

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