Serial murder is rare, awful and, for those who would write or make films about it, lucrative. This is understandable. The idea of unnatural death — the imagining of it — reminds people that they are fortunate, because they are not eviscerated by Jack’s knives or buried under Dennis Nilsen’s floorboards. It is a protective charm that allows people to lessen their fears by placing themselves within them. It’s not a pretty thing, but it is human: a visit to the funfair, to be terrorised and soothed.
This week ITV is airing Des, a three-part dramatised account of the capture of Dennis Nilsen after he killed at least 12 men in north London in the 1970s and 80s, first at Melrose Avenue in Cricklewood, and then in Cranley Gardens in Muswell Hill. (The exact number of his victims is unknown, and only eight have been identified.) It stars David Tennant as a solitary and contemptuous Nilsen and it is based on Brian Masters’ singular book, Killing for Company, which was published in 1985 after Nilsen was convicted of murder. He lured men to his home, strangled them, and then kept them as trophies until they rotted, caressing them even then. He would then burn them (in Cricklewood), or dismember and flush them down the toilet (in Muswell Hill, and this led to his capture. He blocked the drains.) He said he did not want to be alone and he feared their leaving: hence the title Killing for Company.
True Crime is usually a murderer’s tale, with corpses in supporting roles. If we fear we enjoy true crime — and we do — it is essential to look not from the victim’s perspective, for that is shaming, but from that of the murderer. He is more interesting — anyone can be a victim — and we can feel superior to him.
This tendency was redressed last year in Hallie Rubenhold’s superb The Five, a social history and study of the five “canonical” — a grotesque phrase, implying it is not murder but myth — victims of Jack the Ripper. Rubenhold wrote a hinterland for Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Kate and Mary Jane. The faceless prostitutes — in fact, only two were, and they were of course more besides — bloom into life The Five, and so Rubenhold could write of Annie Chapman: “What her murderer claimed on that night was simply all that remained of what the drink had left behind.”
Brian Masters, for all his excellent intentions and his scholarship, could not be so humane. He was a biographer who wrote on Rabelais and Camus, but he wanted to write about Nilsen because Nilsen, like Masters, was gay: “It might require a homosexual sensitivity to unravel the sources of such derangement,” he wrote, rather primly, at the time. I sense more than social responsibility in Killing for Company, even if the tabloid coverage was homophobic, as Masters feared it would be. His subject was irresistible.
Nilsen, who died in 2018, was unusual even for a serial killer. He was a committed trade unionist; he was gay; he was a former policeman, who claims he left the Met because he would not arrest gay men for indecency; he was a gifted writer who was, according to Masters, “the first murderer to present an exhaustive archive measuring his own introspection”.
Once caught he could not stop speaking. He gave Masters more than 50 notebooks filled with his musings, Masters wrote, “not only on his crimes….but on politics, literature, childhood, the army [he had been an army cook] and scorn for organised society”. When Masters approached Nilsen, Nilsen told him: “I pass the burden of my life onto your shoulders.” Here was that fantastical creature realised so ludicrously in fiction by (Dr) Hannibal Lecter, fascinating for the combination of seeming self-awareness (and it was only seeming) and savagery: the pseudo-intellectual serial killer.
Killing for Company is a masterclass in reportage and clarity. It traces Nilsen’s life in what Masters calls an “objective” way, and it enables Nilsen to theorise on what he has done and why he has done it.
It is fascinating but it absolves us, with its quality, and that is what troubles me about Killing for Company: Masters’ very gifts present us with the opportunity for pity. It is a compassionate and immoral book, in which Nilsen quotes Spinoza to his psychiatrist and appears in such phrases as, “It sounds absurd, but Nilsen may partly have murdered in anguished assault against social injustice; he was not killing individuals, but society itself.”
That is a monstrous polemic. Or Nilsen imagines that, by killing these men — the youngest of whom was 14 — they lived on in him: “I have always believed they are, in a sense, living on within me”. Or this, to the parents of Ken Ockendon, ghastly in its duplicity: “If I had remained silent, his fate might never have been known”.
Killing for Company is an accidental masterpiece, because it allows the reader to ruminate on her own guilt as she reads. Should we seek to inhabit Nilsen’s mind, because that is what he wanted?
But 40 years on, with Des, the emphasis has changed. There is less of Nilsen’s pseudo-intellectual nonsense, and more of his victims, who appear in Killing for Company but are diminished — flattened — by Nilsen’s voice, and our keenness to hear it because we have heard nothing like it before.
The warnings of collusion are explicit now: in Des, Masters’ boyfriend counsels him not to let Nilsen write the book. The surviving victims — Nilsen would sometimes fail to kill and would even ease a man back to life — testify in court. Their trauma is obvious and shaming, and Nilsen’s self-mythologising, so carefully noted by Masters in Killing for Company, withers under a deeper truth than his artistic posturing. Nilsen can turn a phrase, but he has less empathy than you would wish for in a child. He is exposed for what he is, though educated: small.
The urge to inhabit unnatural murder from a safe distance will not end. True Crime is as hardy a genre as Romance Fiction, and they are not unrelated — both are daydreams. But if it must be done, it should be done as Hattie Rubenhold did it — and now Des too, which I think of as Masters’ unconscious atonement.