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A Case for Muriel


The farmhouse at the corner of our country road burned, but not down. You'd never guess how badly if someone who knew hadn't told you. He still lives there, alone now, no woman. The story is that it happened while he was at church on Sunday, or not at church but hanging out with the boys he hangs out with instead, or buying provisions at the store. Away not much more than half an hour, he comes back to find the place in flames and his cousin dead, not by fire but by a bullet, fired not by hand but through some mysterious action of the heat upon his rifle, left carelessly loaded, that ricocheted before it found her.

We step into his fields sometimes, but don't see him. He never was your friendly sort of farmer; and now with all the talk—mostly among strangers like ourselves, thinking, because they've heard some gossip, they own it as they own their fresh-bought land—who knows where he doesn't go to hide.

Except that he's the sort that isn't supposed to care what people think. And everyone's careful to say it could have happened that way.

At first, some days alone, walking past his place, wondering who and what was inside, I couldn't help imagining that he might come shoot me, too—because of my suspicions, because he doesn't like strangers, or just out of craziness that no one around here would think worthy of fear. Or that someone else like him would do it instead. What could be easier, if you were so inclined, than picking off a weekend visitor on one of her nights alone? Just wear gloves, don't touch anything, and leave through the woods the way you came. During hunting season they'd claim to despair of catching the right depraved out-of-stater.

But I'm not alone nights now. And now I think how much he must miss his cousin. She was all he had, invalid though she was, despite the difference in their ages, and even if they didn't speak anymore. He'd still eat her watermelon pickles without fear, though it was a full two years since she put them up, and she'd wheel herself to the kitchen now and then to fix his duck or rabbit or bear. Sometimes he even wound her yarn on his hands.

So here he is—it's so pathetic—deprived of her and suspected of murder. It's a wonder he doesn't shoot himself, or burn the place down for good, earn himself more certain local immortality.

I stop cold right here. He interests me—or rather, his circumstances do—a lot, but I don't know what to do with him. Except turn him over to Muriel.

Muriel: Could that name possibly ring a bell to you after all these years? Did I ever even tell you her name? Anyway, I'll try to invoke, or at least describe her. To start at the top, her hair's brown, with a sea-green cast, graying. Her eyes change with the light. A few distinctive lines seem pressed upon her face as decoration, rather than because of any slackening in the otherwise fresh-looking skin (Muriel's not old, but old enough: somewhere in early middle age).

She's medium tall, with strong shoulders and arms and legs—a fast walker. Her favorite garments are the gabardine shirts and flannel trousers she inherited from her maiden aunt, a biochemist whose advice she sometimes seeks about particularly difficult cases.

Muriel herself is a historian. When I first made her acquaintance, she was a medievalist but had already begun to spend much of her time studying Africa; I've lost track of her subsequent specialties. It's on breaks and holidays and sabbaticals that she most often encounters and solves the cases she writes up in her books. Not for Muriel, the campus-bound story.

Imagine her now in her study, looking troubled, even sad, as she considers to whom she should dedicate the next of her works. Dedications are a particular problem for Muriel, because ever since her first mystery she's made them not to living friends but to the memory of the dead ones. Every year the number of the dead increases, and she's begun to fear she will not be able to keep up—that the In Memory Of's in her later novels will be as full as mass graves.

A good argument for stopping such nonsense, some would say. Muriel argues that no man cared about in life and now gone should be left out of the library, where he can be imposed upon former friends and new strangers and perhaps be remembered longer (people sometimes tell her this) than any other words of her hardly deathless prose.

She'd dreamed once of having all those she'd ever loved, living and dead, in a room together. She would tell them stories about each other, and it would be as if they had all been friends.

The dead in her life get used in her books in another way—as bodies. Very few know this and none, she thinks, have guessed. Only the living can look for themselves in a book, so she confines herself to killing the dead, who can't mind.

Sometimes she does, though. After all these years, she still has trouble with the killing part. Prefers to keep it off-page, in the dark. That shouldn't be too hard with the farmer's dead cousin.

So I imagine Muriel getting my letter, much like the beginning of this to you; imagine her reading and rereading it; at last giving in; letting me know, as soon as she can arrange to get away, of her imminent arrival. I, of course, will offer her my guest room; but she, more discreet, will prefer a small hotel (a boarding house, really) in a town a few miles away.

She'll begin, I should think, by preparing her backdrop, taking in the countryside for a couple of days by foot and by car. Having grown up in Kansas and become used to scary and apparently endless expanses of land, she sees through the decorative disruptions of our eastern woodlands. Considers their intimate scale to be deceptive. You only imagine you are protected by hills and trees and streams, I hear her say.

With inquiries in the town where she's staying and others around, she establishes her cover: city person looking for a country place, a type as familiar to the locals as their own. She'll spend a large portion of each day visiting properties near and far, and, in passing, she'll knock on our farmer's door. At first he won't answer, but she'll be back, and again and again, till he's finally become sufficiently irritated or curious to open.

Meanwhile she'll visit the office of the local newspaper, manage to look not only at recent issues, but at those around the time of the event—about six months ago—perhaps make the acquaintance of the reporter, if anything seems likely to be gained by doing so. In the company of some respectable local folks, she might venture into a bar. And she'll go to church, of course—the one he belongs to (Presbyterian, I should think), if there's more than one.

And there I like to think she'll see him for the first time—got up in a suit that passes for mourning though it's what he always wore on the rare occasions that he went to church before. These were mainly holidays, when his cousin, who couldn't go herself, would express more than usual curiosity about what had gone on.

So Muriel will speculate, as the locals likely do, as to why he is here now that he no longer needs to be: to show his claimed innocence, out of genuine remorse and repentance for his crime, or out of habit? Other alternatives, which Muriel may be the only one to consider, are that in church he can feel her still to be alive, waiting at home for him, or that he goes out of obligation to her, an obligation all the stronger now that she is no longer there to impose it, or simply that he is lonely and wants this company, however lacking in sympathy or understanding. Not that they treat him any differently now from how they always did, or that they've noticed any change in his manner since her death.

A few days later he will open his door to Muriel, reluctantly ask her in. She will state her feigned business first thing, beg his pardon if her inquiry seems rude or intrusive, but say she believes that one sometimes finds things by knocking on doors that can be found no other way. He will indicate right away that he has not thought of selling, but perhaps won over by the sheer novelty of a visit from anyone, let alone this gracious stranger, he'll offer her whatever emblems of hospitality he can manage, and soon she'll be sitting at his kitchen table, drinking tea, or something stronger: a strange sweet wine left over from long ago.

He can tell she's not just another tourist greedy for quaintness and the trappings of the wild, but valuing comfort above all—wishes he could help her fulfill what seems a worthy quest and turns his mind to other places than his she might try. He apologizes for the state of his house, says he's been meaning to fix it up, but that's a big job—costs a lot of money—and he isn't as strong as he used to be. She commiserates, says it must have been terrible for him, but thank goodness as much survived as did.

He lets out that someone living in the house did not survive the fire. Her words of sympathy are resonant with her own losses: does he guess she's a widow? She asks deceptively a polite question or two about the victim and waits for his answer, as if she knows it's there—however reluctant he is to say more—and will be given if she waits long enough.

Here it is that Muriel might hear the case solved simply, as he lies, or dodges, or otherwise betrays himself. (Even so, you understand, she would change places, names, identifying characteristics in her account, and his secrets would stay safe. In cases where no one but the killer himself has anything to fear, she has no truck with the law.)

Instead he tells her the whole story, just as she's heard it elsewhere—with one addition: the case is not closed, he says. He knows so because they have refused to return his cousin's effects and the gun they say was responsible. He thinks maybe they're right not to buy their own official version. He knows it couldn't have happened just that way. He might be careless about some things, but he'd never have left a gun loaded, and the gun—he's not so sure it's his—they found in the wrong corner, not where he'd have stood it.

Still, he doesn't see how it could have been murder. Who'd-a done that to her? The only thing he can think of is a ghost.

Muriel, who wishes she could believe in ghosts, thinks even a ghost would need a motive for murder. And motive is the problem here. The farmer couldn't have hoped to gain from her death, the farm being his own and she having other, distant heirs. The only other possibility would seem to be his having gone momentarily crazy, doing the only thing he could to get relief from conditions Muriel cannot imagine and does not expect to find out about.

So she believes him when he says, "She was all I had," looking down at the table as if incapable of ever again looking elsewhere.

"Were you all she had?" Muriel asks. The symmetrical quality of her response disguises its purpose, makes it sound natural to his ears.

He shrugs. "All that cared anything."

And those that didn't might have motives, if she'd had property to leave, or some not too obvious connection to someone else's property. But besides a small savings account and some of the furniture in this house, much of it badly damaged by the fire (but were diamonds stashed in joints or secret compartments?), her only possessions had been clothes and bottles and pots and jelly jars.

Muriel has a hankering to see those jars, asks the farmer was it his cousin, then, who put up the rhubarb wine and the jelly?

Wine, no; jelly, yes, he tells her. And there's more in the cellar. He doesn't eat it; it'll all go bad, what isn't already, from the fire. He'd be glad to give her any she could use.

Believing in his innocence—both of the crime and of her purpose—and confident in her own ability to protect herself should she be wrong, Muriel walks after him down the creaky open steps from kitchen to cellar.

She likes the cellar, cracked jars and all, but then she's never seen a cellar she didn't like. This one is small, doesn't extend under the entire house (or is there a hidden part, with access from elsewhere?), smells faintly of onions and squash, but not of fire, the fumes of which were quickly done in by cold dirt.

Down here, Muriel tries to think of a tactful, indirect way to elicit the farmer's opinion of his cousin's state of mind before her death (surely, we should consider the possibility of suicide, either more direct an act than it appears to be, or meant to cast suspicion of murder on him or others); says something to the effect that his cousin must have taken pride in her put-up foods.

He supposes she did. She used to win prizes with them all the time, got first place just last year at the state fair with her persimmon. He remembers how she'd complain there wasn't any point in entering anymore, now that they judged just on looks, not taste, but she kept entering anyway—a pie sometimes too, or cookies.

He hands Muriel an intact jar of the prize persimmon, tells her to take any and all she wants. She thanks him kindly and spends a moment exploring the shelves; finds some watermelon pickles that particularly remind her of her grandmother.

He smiles—for the first time—at her selection: not many folks eat those anymore.

Both are inclined to linger for their different reasons but for at least one in common—enjoying, like a kind of play or travel, being underground surrounded by earth and earth smells. The cellar is a room you want to lie down in, fall asleep in, dream in, despite the damp, thinks Muriel, but seldom do—maybe never. It seems a fit place to begin contemplation of the life that led to this death. Could the gentle elderly invalid have emerged out of an earlier life that included acts or oversights worthy of vengeance? Had she once destroyed the hopes of a rival in love, ruined someone's reputation with a few perfect words, abandoned an illegitimate child to almost certain death, killed a playmate, however accidentally? (Wasn't this just the sort of story you were a sucker for?)

Or maybe the house has a dangerous history. She asks the farmer if it's been in his family long.

Not that long, he says, but long for these days: going on forty years. He was nearly grown, about to move away from home, not to come back till after fifteen years too many of city life. No, he hadn't known the people who had the place before; his family hailed from across the state.

And what about her? Will he think to ask where Muriel hails from, give her a chance to draw for him the stark, wondrous landscape of her childhood?

(Have you, in all your travels, yet seen Kansas from the ground, or only the green and brown patchwork of its roads and farms from above?)

At last, they move up and out of this room that was the cousin's, and still is, no less than if she'd been buried in it. (Muriel wonders if friends somewhere have a cellar that could one day be hospitable to her own ashes.) This cellar could as well be in Kansas, I hear her say.

As if they've agreed where to go—next stop on the house tour—they pass through the kitchen into the living room, or what used to be the living room, now just a blackened cube, nearly empty of furniture.

What'd you do with this if it was yours? he asks. Just tear it down, wouldn't you, and build again?

Muriel's sigh shows she acknowledges the inevitable, but she says she never likes to see an old house torn down. She mourned for months the destruction of her grandmother's house, which this one reminds her of, especially the placement of the stairs that lead to cellar and attic.

What Muriel doesn't say, as they climb the upper flight, is that it is satisfying to see a house so reduced to some dreamlike essence—a quality heightened here by the blackening.

It is a short flight, hardly longer than that below, but this attic floor feels a long way from where they came.

In a storage area at the top of the stairs, an old ironing board leans slightly—has been standing in that spot for years, guesses Muriel. Perhaps it was always left standing, since it's the kind that's tricky to keep your fingers from getting caught by as you shut it up. Or maybe a day came, or an afternoon, that the cousin didn't feel able to go upstairs, after which she never again felt able; but he let everything there, ironing board included, stay as she'd left it. Has he used it since, for her if not for himself?

All the walls up here are the same color—like yellowish split-pea soup thinned with cream but grayed by smoke and age—except in the room that had been the cousin's, which makes Muriel think of pale, homemade peach ice cream. Stale by now, of course. Someone, the farmer no doubt, dusted and swept up here not long ago in a clumsy or half-hearted fashion: there are streaks on the chenille bedspread where a touch meant to brush the dirt off had instead rubbed it in.

Nothing but some crumbling funny papers left in the low closet under the eave. It never held clothes, the farmer explains. The cousin had used a wardrobe, scarcely larger than a coffin, for her clothes.

Not much of an attic, he says. We pretty much used everything up.

The room seems to want them to leave. Muriel takes one last look through the long window, past the apple trees, at the field.

It's good land. Neighbors or developers would snap it up in a minute once he'd gone. Unless some stray heir appeared from god knows where to claim it. Muriel is reminded of how in Germany during the witch panic, accusing a neighbor of witchcraft was a common means of acquiring land or settling grudges.

They cross the hall into his room, brown and yellow. She doesn't have to ask about the gun in the corner: for birds, he tells her; the rifle they say shot his cousin was for deer. The birds aren't so good this year, but more than enough for one. He gets extra that he has to give away—grouse, pheasant, duck. He'd be more than glad to give her some. She could have them cook it for her at the hotel. Or if she wanted sometime to come have some with him here, all she has to do is say the word.

Remaining questions: How long will he live? Is he in danger? Can Muriel save him?

For he, of course, may be the real target in this case—the cousin's death, incidental, a red herring, or meant to harm or frighten him. It's he, after all, who owns this land, this house, whatever secrets they hold.

So Muriel will come again, to eat his grouse and pluck his brains. Will she come in time, learn what she needs to learn in time? Or do we need another corpse?

Are you wondering about that "we?" After all these pages, are you still with me? I might never know if you don't write back. So I'll do what I can: here's a return envelope.

I surprised you, didn't I, beginning in this fashion: launching straight off into the story, with no apologies or justification, presuming you'd stay interested, and saying nothing that would seem to be required by the occasion: no How are you, no I've missed you, and nothing at all like What happened to us? Why did we part? (Maybe you think I shouldn't need to ask.)

Ignore that for now. What about Muriel? Is this story worth her while? Is she worth ours? Will you help me bring her to life? She needs your spark.

Perhaps you're remembering now, as I am, the detectives you had in mind for yourself years ago. As I recall, your first was a woman who collected or sold or curated rare books, an offspring of Eastern European intellectuals, with a long neck, long limbs, and perfect skin. But at some point—was it as a result of going into analysis yourself?—you decided that the only means of solving a mystery you were interested in was the psychoanalytic process, so your detective had to become "patient" or "analyst" or even a patient-analyst team—whichever you decided, if you ever decided. Did you just lose interest in that notion? Was it harder than you thought it would be? Did someone else write your story first? What stories are you writing these days? Or trying to write? Or thinking you should write?

It's been a good long decade since we talked about such things. Going on two. When do you think we ceased to find those conversations beautiful?

Maybe it's too late to tempt you. Does literature need yet another detective? I can hear you say. (Any more than either of us needs to revive a dead friendship?)

To me, at least, Muriel is more than just another detective. She's someone to hang things on—other people's sorrow and loss, as well as one's own. Someone to send out into the fictional world to solve and fix things till they're almost as good as new, except for the essential corpse or two. (I don't know about you, but I've got a good few things that need fixing.)

Any death is worthy of a chronicler. Surely you know of one or two for Muriel? (If things go as they may well go, I might even offer my own, before too many months longer.)

You'll be at least as welcome a guest as she would in that house that is not quite mine on the farmer's country road. The lover whose house it really is will be happy to leave us alone for as long as we need. Come whenever you like, just let me know. Come, if you like, this fall—I mean soon. Eat his grouse, take in some stars, sit by my fire. Tell me your stories, and I'll tell you mine.

Say the word.