Book Review: Death of a Murderer

Posted: October 2, 2007 in Book Review, Death of a Murderer

Death of a Murderer by Rupert Thomson; Bloomsbury Publishing, UK, 2007

Myra Hindley was a serial killer in England in the 1960s. Together with her partner Ian Brady, Hindley took part in the abduction, sexual abuse, torture, and murder of three children, aged 10 to 12, and two adolescents, aged 16 and 17, from the Manchester area. In this latest by English author Rupert Thomson (The Insult, The Book of Revelation), neither the names nor the exact facts of the killings are mentioned. There is no need. As runs through the mind of his middle-aged constable protagonist: “The series of murders had deeply embedded itself in the nation’s psyche . . . No one who had been alive at the time could ever be entirely free of it. It was one of those rare news items against which you defined yourself . . . Those children belonged to the same generation as he did. They were his exact contemporaries. We were all damaged by what happened . . . We were all changed.”

Thomson’s novel probes just that. It begins with Myra Hindley’s death, at age 60, in 2002. She had served 37 years in prison, but public fascination and repulsion never waned. Her defiant mug shot – the smug look with cold dark eyes, the bleached blond hair – had become an icon of evil that, if anything, had grown more terrifying over the years. Before her cremation, her body lay in a morgue, which required tight police security. Constable Billy Tyler is asked to work a 12-hour graveyard shift guarding the body. His wife Sue is horrified that he is to be so close to such an evil presence, even in death. Billy has misgivings, too, but, as he tells himself, it is his job. He arrives at the hospital morgue – which smells slightly of death – tired from lack of sleep due to arguing with his wife. And so the vigil begins.

Over the course of the night, Tyler will succumb to intense introspection, reviewing his life, his failings. He is aided in part by occasional visions of Myra Hindley herself, who appears to be standing in front of him, calmly smoking, knocking the ashes into her hand. Any questions? she asks at one point. Who did you love most? Billy asks. My mother, she answers; and you? Billy spits out an answer and is shocked by his response.

Billy reflects on his youth: the jazz musician father who walked out on him at age three; his friends Raymond, with whom he traipsed around Europe; and Trevor, whom he runs into later in life and who, under the influence of much drink, tells Billy that he was actually kidnapped by Hindley, but managed to escape. It is an eerie tale, frightening to the core, but is it really true or part of a collective nightmare that haunts the nation?

Then comes a look back at his wife and their daughter with Down’s Syndrome who is totally dependent on them. How does he feel about his wife now? And what is he to make of a previous revelation of hers?

And then the segue to Venetia, a strange and danger-tinted romance from his bachelor days, which put Billy to the test; along with other characters and incidents, some long buried, that come flooding his mind on this night of nights. What kind of man is he really? What is he capable of? What separates him and the bulk of humanity from the likes of Myra Hindley?

These are deep and probing questions and the reader becomes as uneasy in exploring them as the narrator. In fact, the moment Billy walks into that hospital morgue, we feel the isolation, the presence of the dead body and the spirit of Hindley embedded in the nation’s psyche which permeates the atmosphere.

This is a stunning piece of intelligent writing that bypasses all the sensationalism – which would have been so easy to draw on – and focuses on the simple yet profound examination of one man’s life and worth. At one point Billy tries to summarize the influence of an Asian man with whom he’d had a brief conversation in the hospital during a break. The same thing could be said of Thomson’s prose: That he has a “subdued, intriguing way of talking around a subject, then closing in on it and capturing it with elegant precision.” JA

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