The Unremarkable Nature Of The Serial Killer: Exploring Dennis Nilsen’s Autobiography

The book they wanted to ban turns out to be an unsettling look into the mind of a murderer – and just how ordinary he actually was.

There’s an interesting, and perhaps telling point early in Dennis Nilsen’s autobiography, when he talks about an incident from his army days in Germany. A local taxi driver had been shot, and Nilsen – along with the rest of his regiment – came under suspicion. The actual killer was a soldier called Leslie Grantham, who was arrested and convicted. After serving eleven years, Grantham was released, and a few years after that, he became the leading cast member of the new BBC soap opera Eastenders.

It’s intriguing because it reveals our curiously contradictory attitudes towards murderers. The posthumous publication of Nilsen’s book has been greeted with some outrage – how dare we give this monster the oxygen of publicity, even after his death? Yet Grantham was, for decades, a huge, beloved celebrity in Britain – a heartthrob who played on the bad boy nature of his character to great effect. Grantham had murdered someone in the process of robbing them – a calculated killing for personal gain. Nilsen was a man clearly unbalanced and psychopathic – his murders were the result of what seems to be an uncontrollable and inexplicable obsession. Yet, just as we see with gangland killers from the Krays onwards, there is the strange sense that murder for money and power is somehow okay – the British in particular seem very forgiving of career criminals who have killed their rivals or simply offed some poor bugger who objects to their protection rackets and criminal activity, while killers driven by overwhelming psychosis or damaged beyond belief by dysfunctional upbringing become national hate figures. I often wondered how many of the people howling outside the court for the blood of Jamie Bulger’s horrendously damaged ten-year-old killers then went home and enjoyed the entertainingly shady antics of Dirty Den.

There’s a long history of prisoners writing books, many of which have been acclaimed as classics – Jack Henry Abbott’s In the Belly of the Beast, Carl Panzram’s Killer – but the tide has somewhat turned against them in recent years. In Britain, Gitta Sereny’s 1998 book Cries Unheard: The Story of Mary Bell caused tabloid-manipulated outrage due to the fact that child killer Bell (aged ten at the time of her crimes) was paid for her participation, and Ian Brady’s The Gates of Janus caused similar fury, even though Brady studiously – some might say tellingly – avoided discussing himself in that study of serial killers. Interestingly, while the first suggestions of Dennis Nilsen’s autobiography were greeted with tabloid fury in 1999 and legal action that lasted for years afterwards to prevent it being published, the actual publication has, oddly, been met with only muted anger; possibly because Nilsen is dead and so cannot profit either financially or emotionally from the book being published.

We’re a third of the way into Nilsen’s autobiography, edited from 6000 typed pages to 333 published pages before we get onto the reason why the author is infamous. Prior to that, we get a thorough – perhaps too thorough – telling of his life from birth in 1945 to 1978. As autobiographies go, it’s a strange mix of resentment, tedium and sexual fantasy. We should remember that this was written while Nilsen was a prisoner, and the reliving of sexual conquests, masturbatory dreams and even experiences of abuse were presumably the only real outlets that he still had to live out the desires that had put him behind bars to begin with. The sexual content is oddly blunt – a series of furtive and illegal gay groupings as both a schoolboy and a soldier, usually carried out on sleeping or otherwise unconscious partners who Nilsen unconvincingly insists were willing accomplices in these secretive molestations. The truth may be less clear-cut. What becomes apparent is that Nilsen’s fascination with death, and more pointedly with compliant, unconscious partners developed early on. His fantasies seemed to involve him as a corpse – or at least unconscious figure taken for dead by gruff and filthy old men – but his sexual activity seemed to transfer this role onto his partners. His actual relationships with other men seem unsatisfactory and fleeting; his desire for pale, pretty young men who would fall asleep before they could have sex, on the other hand, seemed insatiable. Sexual intercourse seems to have been not all that interesting to Nilsen – I lost count of the number of men he simply fondled and hugged as they slept, always with erections but never actually active participants. Reading Nilsen’s own descriptions of his love life – descriptions that clearly excited him as he wrote – it is no surprise that he would take his fantasies of silent, compliant lovers to the next level.

What is interesting in reading this is that you get the impression that yes, Nilsen was indeed Killing for Company, as Brian Masters’ biography claimed; but not any old company. Nilsen didn’t necessarily want most people to stick around and chat, move in and become partners or otherwise remain in his life other than as silent fantasy figures. He took pleasure from having ownership of a body – be it unconscious or dead – rather than having an actual person with him. His killings were, it seems, about keeping people in the state that he found them most appealing – fantasy figures who were unconscious, unmoving, beautiful and compliant.

Nilsen doesn’t spend too long on the murders – twenty-six pages in total. Even the most morbid of readers might feel a sense of relief at this, as those pages leave nothing to the imagination. Nilsen explains, in forensic detail, exactly what he did to his victims while killing them and afterwards. I won’t go into it here, other than to say that it is a bleak study in necrophile fantasy, told with a certain eagerness – there seems little doubt that Nilsen, long removed from the events in his prison cell, is still excited by the memories. Perhaps that’s predictable – I mean, why wouldn’t he be, given that he had essentially had no rehabilitation treatment during his years inside? But it’s a bleak, matter-of-fact chapter that might leave you in need of some mind cleansing afterwards, though the images it lodges in your head will linger far too long afterwards anyway, I suspect. I’ve read grosser, nastier descriptions of violence and depravity, of course – but that tends to be fiction, or at least in the distanced examination of a true-crime writer. Hearing it directly from the killer is something else – like seeing video footage of real death, there’s an immediate authenticity and lack of detachment to this that no fiction can match, and it’s unnerving, to say the least.

Autobiographies are, by their very nature, slices of egotism – nobody writes one because they believe their lives are average and ordinary – and are usually unreliable historical documents. Most people writing their own life stories will take a very subjective and self-important approach to it, even if they don’t mean to. Our perceptions of reality and our memories of past events might not be the unvarnished truth, but rather an interpretation or a false memory that we believe and want to be true. They can be amusing, informative and revelatory, but we should never assume that an autobiography is completely true. Nilsen’s book is no different – it is his life, from his perspective.

Is Nilsen a more reliable narrator of his own story than anyone else? Perhaps not, though he arguably has less to lose by telling the truth – at least his version of the truth. His time as a police officer seems the most interesting point of his pre-murder life. If we are to believe those who have written about Nilsen, and the police officers who they interviewed, then he was an abject failure in the job – he quit because he couldn’t hack it. Nilsen states that he left because of the homophobia, racism and corruption endemic in the force, Who is more credible here? I suspect it is the gay man who watched prisoners beaten up in cells, bribes accepted and minorities abused, but who can say? The fact that Nilsen is a serial killer does not automatically make his thoughts and observations on other aspects of life untrue. His anger at the tabloids making up stories about him might be something we could scoff at – how dare a serial killer be upset that newspapers are slandering him? But of course, Nilsen’s experiences with the British press are a symptom of a wider problem, the cynical invention of stories to titillate readers for profit, with little regard for the people at the sharp end of such behaviour. I suspect that Nilsen would have felt a sense of vindication at seeing the News of the World brought down for phone hacking and outright lying.

Similarly, his commentary on the British prison system – the thuggish screws, the violent felons, the arbitrary punishments and petty brutality – rings rather too true. From a less notorious inmate, the descriptions of prison life might be hailed as a much-overdue expose of a system long in need of change. But I fear most readers will still be too aghast at Nilsen’s crimes – and his all-too-vivid memories of them – to feel much sympathy for him, and so by default will ignore the fact that the institutional problems that he discusses will also affect every other prisoner, including those who have not been convicted of any violent crime. His autobiography is a study in narcissism and anger, but it’s also an unexpectedly well-written and unsettlingly informative look at the prison system. That it is scattered with unsettling moments of reminiscence – and for every moment that he accepts the horror of what he’s done, there is another that feels like wistful nostalgia for the bodies of his victims – is ultimately neither here nor there.

From the photo section of History of a Drowning Boy

The fact is that the Nilsen story that most people know is one told by tabloid newspapers, police officers looking to make themselves look important and clear up cold cases (better to connect old crimes to imprisoned felons than admit that they remain unsolved), ex-cons keen to sell their stories – be they true or false – and TV broadcasters who want to pull in viewers by dramatising sensational cases yet pretend to be making sensitive, non-exploitative productions. All these stories tell us that people like Nilsen are removed from normality, abnormal, even demonic – ‘evil’, as the label so often says, and so not like us. The reality is that while Nilsen may have been mad – and regardless of what the jury, the judge and even Nilsen himself might say, for the life of me I can’t see how a sane person could not only kill so many people but also keep their bodies under the floorboards, taking them out enact warped versions of domestic situations with them for weeks – he was also human. We should never forget that Nilsen is seen as monstrous because he committed monstrous acts – but when we mythologise and demonise such people, we remove them from humanity and pretend that they have nothing to do with the rest of us.

We like to forget that, but it’s something that we really ought not to. We tend to make these people into monsters, which not only demonises them but in many ways makes them larger than life – extraordinary and remarkable characters who are somehow removed from the rest of us. To hear his petty complaints about annoying cell neighbours, his thoughts on TV shows (including his excitement at being namechecked in Psychoville) and movies, his irritation at bad food and nonsensical prison rules, and every other minor triumph, tedious annoyance and pithy observation that are scattered throughout his book is to remind us that he is, ultimately, no different to anyone else – that killers are generally very, very unremarkable people. As Nilsen himself says:

I have lived with many prisoners, some well known, others not so, but all convicted of serious offences. In all these men, I divined substantial human degrees of conscience, guilt-feeling, caring, warmth, humour, resilience, morality, and all such factors within the human condition; an amalgamation of human strengths and weaknesses as in any cross-section of society.

We like to pretend that these killers are far removed from us. The truth is, they are not. Nilsen’s book serves as a reminder of just how utterly, terrifyingly ordinary murderers actually are.

DAVID FLINT

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