A Death in London

“Your son didn’t kill himself. He was murdered…. He was strangled or suffocated, then slung up on that hook by his own belt. Last of all, his murderer painted his lips, dressed him in a woman’s underclothes and spread out pictures of nudes on the table in front of him. It was meant to look like accidental death during sexual experiment; such cases aren’t so very uncommon.”

There was half a minute of silence. Then [Sir Ronald Callender] said with perfect calmness:

“And who was responsible, Miss Gray?”

“You were. You killed your son.”

—P.D. James, An Unsuitable Job for a Woman

When the body of Stephen Milligan, MP, was discovered in similar circumstances on Monday, February 7, at his London home, there were several friends and colleagues who (like P.D. James’s detective Cordelia Gray) suspected murder. Maybe they half remembered the thriller in question. Or maybe they remembered the case of Jonathan Moyle, a British journalist who was found dead in his hotel room in Santiago in 1990; a specialist in the arms trade, he was thought by some to have been murdered and sexually framed, perhaps by agents of Iraq.

Milligan was found naked except for nylon stockings and, according to early reports, a garter belt. He had a black plastic trash bag over his head, electrical wire (“flex,” as we call it) round his neck and attached to his foot, and—as later emerged—an orange (a satsuma) in his mouth. Many of his friends seem to have thought that to be found this way you have to be gay, which they were pretty sure Milligan wasn’t. One thought it suspicious that he would have chosen to seek sexual fulfillment in the kitchen (which was drafty and had a tiled floor). Andrew Neil, the editor of the Sunday Times, also a friend and former colleague, believed that Milligan would not have heard of erotic self-strangulation, let alone indulged in it. He set six journalists on to the story, hoping to find an explanation.

This public search for a reason for such a death had an interest and urgency that went beyond the prurient—although there was that element too. I noticed how many people writing about Milligan would say, “I knew him” or “I didn’t know him” or “I only knew him in such and such a way,” as if every writer knew that every reader wanted to know exactly, not approximately, what kind of a man it is who ends in this bizarre way.

Early in the week it was established that strangling yourself in pursuit of sexual pleasure was not normally a gay foible: you could still say that Milligan was straight. And it soon emerged from concerned articles in the press that transvestism too was a straight activity—happily married, sexually fulfilled men might still enjoy dressing up in drag for private relaxation. A flurry of rumor linking Milligan with a bisexual black soccer star was also soon disposed of. So…

This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $99.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

One-Week Access — $4.99

Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.