Reviewed by Harriet
True crime is normally not a genre that attracts me in the least, so why am I reviewing this book? Well, because it tells a fascinating, moving, though often harrowing, story, and because it has been impressively and painstakingly researched and absorbingly written by author, playwright, journalist and documentary producer Simon Farquhar. Three years went into its making, during which he combed through every available piece of evidence and talked to anyone still alive who was involved in any way in what was, and remains, a shocking case with a crucial element still unsolved.
In the late afternoon of 29 December 1969, Muriel McKay returned to the Wimbledon house she shared with her husband Alick, made a cup of tea and sat down to read the evening paper. Two hours later, when Alick came home from work, she had disappeared and the house was in disorder – Muriel’s handbag, shoes and car keys on the stairs, her spectacles on the floor, the telephone smashed and, lying on the writing table, a rusty chopper. Nobody ever saw Muriel again. Well, nobody apart from the two men who had kidnapped her.
The saga that followed would be almost funny if it hadn’t been so tragic. The two men, Arthur Hosein and his brother Nizamodeen, had come to the UK from Trinidad, where Arthur had set up a reasonably successful tailoring business. Nizamodeen, ten years younger, had arrived only months before, with apparently no clear idea of what he was going to do with his life. The only thing they did know was that they needed money, and Arthur thought of a way of easily making some. They would kidnap Anna, the wife of newspaper mogul Rupert Murdoch, and demand a million pound ransom. But unknown to them, the Murdochs were spending the winter in Australia, and had lent their Rolls Royce to Alick McKay, Murdoch’s deputy chairman. So when the Hoseins followed the Rolls from Fleet Street to Wimbledon, where the McKays lived, they had no idea that they were going to find Muriel, not Anna, at home. They were, in fact, ‘spectacularly incompetent criminals’,
but they were also violent, malevolent men whose evil persisted long after their arrest and imprisonment, with their refusal to allow Muriel McKay’s family the closure of an explanation of her death and the opportunity to have a dignified funeral.
In the days that followed the kidnapping – the first such case in the UK since the 14th century – Arthur persisted in making ransom demands, calling from telephone boxes near Rook’s Farm, his Hertfordshire home, and sending notes, sometimes purportedly written by Muriel. Alick’s insistence that he could not possibly raise a million pounds – equivalent to at least £17.5 million in today’s money – cut no ice with Arthur. He continued his demands, and set up a ridiculous failed handover attempt, for which he asked for a million pounds in £5 and £10 notes to be left in two white suitcases in a petrol station. He clumsily attempted to establish alibis for himself and his brother, and lied incessantly to the police. As time passed it became increasingly clear that Muriel had been killed. The police, on their part, acted with the utmost zeal and managed eventually to secure a conviction for murder despite her body not having been found, the one of the first ever cases of its kind in the country. Both brothers received life sentences: Arthur died in prison in 2009, and Nizamodeen served twenty years before being deported to Trinidad, where he is still living today.
Their point blank refusal to reveal the whereabouts of Muriel’s body is undoubtedly the most distressing aspect of an already appallingly distressing case. Intensive searches were made around Arthur’s property. There were alleged sightings, psychics were called in, and there was much speculation, almost certainly unfounded, that the body had been fed to Arthur’s pigs. Simon Farquhar actually visited the surviving brother in Trinidad, hoping to get some information, with no success, and though Nizamodeen told a QC in 2021 that she had died of a heart attack and was buried at Rook’s Farm, further searches of the area with equipment that had not been not available at the time of the murder revealed nothing.
So yes, this is true crime, but the quality and amount of research that went into its making is beyond impressive. Farquhar read every document, letter and report connected with the case (not an easy task as some archives were closed owing to covid), conducted numerous interviews, and has recorded the results of his research in impeccable endnotes. Of course that could have ended up as a dry academic account, but it is so much more than that. The book is written with tremendous empathy, highlighting the desperate suffering of Muriel’s family and the still present uncertainty of the survivors as to where her remains are to be found. As for Muriel herself, her absence is made more tangible by the brief extracts that head every chapter, taken from postcards she sent to family and friends from the foreign holidays she so much enjoyed. And then there are the final two chapters – some potentially extraordinary information is revealed in them, but you’ll have to read this yourself to find out what it is.
Harriet is one of the founders and a co-editor of Shiny New Books.
Simon Farquhar, A Desperate Business: The Murder of Muriel McKay (The History Press, 2022). 978-0750997232, 348pp., hardback.
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