Rupert Thomson’s eighth novel, Death of a Murderer, is something of a departure from his earlier work. Previously Thomson has preferred to set his stories in blurred, dreamlike alternate realities such as Moon Beach, the pseudo-Los Angeles of The Five Gates of Hell whose economy is based on funerals, or the nameless European city where The Insult‘s protagonist finds himself unable to see except, paradoxically, at night. It is Thomson’s skill in treading the line between realistic fiction and outright fantasy — never fully crossing into either territory but always staying within spitting distance — which has earned Thomson the respect and adoration of me and many other readers.
Odd, then, that he’s decided to set his latest novel in a recognizable modern-day England, complete with accurate descriptions of existing roads and highways as well as a cast of characters that can only be described as normal. And, of course, the premise of the story itself is firmly based in reality, inspired as it was by the death of the infamous killer Myra Hindley in 2002. After Hindley’s death, her corpse was placed under 24-hour police protection until the funeral, such was the vitriol of the UK public’s hatred of the woman.
In Death of a Murderer, Thomson imagines what it may have been like to be one of those constables, sitting alone in a hospital morgue with the body of a serial murderer. Sounds creepy, right? We are introduced to Billy Tyler just as he’s being offered overtime pay to do the hapless job. Billy accepts, feeling a mixture of dread and curiosity, and for the bulk of the novel we are treated to a kind of psychological case study of Billy’s reaction to the situation. In the presence of the killer’s body (Thomson never actually mentions Myra Hindley by name) he cannot help but recall certain episodes from his own past, sometimes dredging up memories directly related to the murders and at other times addressing Billy’s lingering doubts about his own moral worth.
The macabre, fascinating subject matter, paired with Thomson’s trademark precise but evocative writing style, makes for a very good read. One reason why this book works so well is that creepiness just exudes from nearly every page. There is a pervasive undertone of death and sadism throughout the book, which is quite obvious at times, as in the passages describing the killers, but more often manifests itself on a smaller, more personal level as Billy explores his past, his feelings about his family, and the recesses of his psyche. Some readers might find the ending unsatisfactory; although we’ve followed Billy into some very dark places, learning quite a bit about him along the way, as he exits the morgue at the book’s conclusion it’s unclear what, if anything, he’ll do next. But I think with Death of a Murderer Thomson has really succeeded in creating a memorable and evocative case study contrasting the dark deeds of a serial killer with those of a simple everyman. I highly recommend this novel.