In the 1890s, in the back garden of his elegant Victorian house on the banks of a river, unsuccessful novelist Stephen Byrne struggles with his latest manuscript. When the maid, Emily Gaunt, asks Stephen for permission to use the upstairs bath, he blithely agrees as his wife Marjorie has gone out. Emily finishes her bath, borrows one of Marjorie's bathrobes and begins down the dark stairwell. From his place in the shadows, Stephen suddenly emerges and begins kissing Emily. When Emily begins to scream, Stephen notices that his gossipy neighbor, Mrs. Ambrose, has wandered close to the front door. Fearing a scandal, Stephen grabs Emily's throat to prevent her from screaming, but strangles her instead. A few minutes later, Stephen's lame brother John arrives, and Stephen begs him for help. Together, they wrap the body in an old wood sack and dump it into the flood-prone river. That evening, at a party hosted by socialite Mrs. Whittaker, John watches with disgust as Stephen amuses the guests with his drunken merriment. By the time Stephen and Marjorie, who is pregnant, return from the party, their housekeeper, Mrs. Beach, has already informed the police of Emily's disappearance. To create suspicion against Emily, Stephen hides a pair of Marjorie's earrings and she later reports them missing. Weeks later, John's housekeeper, Flora Bantam, repeats the rumor that Emily stole the earrings before quitting and leaving town. In town, John sees a display in a bookstore window featuring Stephen's new novel, Night Laughter , a thinly veiled account of Emily's murder. Later, Mrs. Bantam phones John at the office and asks him to retrieve the wood sack that he lent to Stephen. Realizing that she is referring to the sack in which they wrapped Emily's body, John gives her an excuse. Then Mrs. Bantam tells John that before he lent the sack to Stephen, she had his name stenciled on it. Sometime later, after Mrs. Ambrose spots the sack floating in the river, Stephen frantically boards his rowboat and chases after it. The sack floats away, however, and the next day, when police inspector Sarten visits his house holding the sack in his hand, Stephen tells him that it was stolen from his shed. When the case goes to court, Marjorie testifies that around the time of Emily's disappearance, she noticed that a pair of earrings had been taken. The next witness, Mrs. Bantam, testifies that after Emily's disappearance, John became so irritable that she was forced to leave his employment. Later, because of the evidence mounting against him, Marjorie fears that John may try to commit suicide. She begs Stephen to speak with him, and the brothers meet at the boat launch. There, Stephen tells John that the notoriety of Emily's murder has turned his novel into a bestseller. Fearing that his brother will reveal their secret, Stephen beats John with a section of heavy chain link, dumps his unconscious body into the river and returns home to begin work on Death in the River . When Stephen calmly tells Marjorie that he was unable to prevent John's suicide, she realizes that her own life is in danger. Just then, John arrives, still dripping water from the river, and Stephen believes that he is seeing John's ghost. Stephen is so terrified that he becomes tangled in a heavy curtain at the top of the stairs and falls to his death below.