A Strangulation of the Soul

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It was dusk on a winter’s day, many years ago now, when I settled down to read the prison letters of Dennis Nilsen, the most prolific murderer in British history. They had been donated to the Royal Society of Literature, where I worked, to raise money at an auction at Sotheby’s, and they were chilling. Written in hard-pressed-down black biro, the words were crammed on the pages with no breathing space – a graphologist had described them as indicating ‘a strangulation of the soul’ – and they bristled with contempt and fury against everything and everyone. But Nilsen’s critical savagery was never turned on himself – strange, as he had fatally strangled fifteen men.

The letters had come from, and were addressed to, Brian Masters. At the time of Nilsen’s arrest in 1983, Masters was known as the biographer of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, John Aspinall and E. F. Benson, among others. But when, one breakfast time, he read a newspaper report of the arrest of Dennis Nilsen, he was intrigued. First, here was a man who loved Shakespeare, Elgar, Mahler, Tchaikovsky, Sibelius – but who had repeatedly killed in cold blood, and then stashed the bodies under his floorboards. Second, what did it say about society, and specifically about the drifting shoals of homosexuals eddying around pubs in central London, that so many men could disappear off the face of the earth, and never be missed? So Masters wrote to Nilsen, and swiftly received a reply: ‘Dear Mr Masters, I pass the burden of my life onto your shoulder.’ This was how Killing for Company (1985) began. I am not a connoisseur of true-crime literature, but this book – consistently in print now for thirty-five years – is surely a classic.

What I admire most about Brian Masters’s writing is its restraint. A certain amount of grim detail is necessary in telling the tale, but Masters never gloats over it. Early on in his research, the police offered to show him around a hundre

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About the contributor

Maggie Fergusson Literary Editor of the Catholic weekly The Tablet, where she keeps her appetite for murder under wraps.

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