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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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 hundred photographs of the body parts they had discovered in Nilsen’s attic flat. After eleven, he could look no more: his appetite for horror was limited. He never uses tabloid ‘trigger’ words like ‘repellent’, ‘disgusting’, ‘horrifying’. His style is more Dostoevsky than Daily Mail. He hopes not to shock, but to comprehend Nilsen’s place in the ‘jumbled kaleidoscope of the human condition’. And because he remains, in his own words, ‘a relatively quiet narrator’, readers are ‘obliged to use their imagination in order to provide the shocks which I neglected’. Not surprising, then, that after the book was published, many people wrote to Masters to say they no longer dared switch off their bedroom lights at night.

The drama begins on the freezing, snowy morning of 9 February 1983 – which Nilsen later described as ‘the day that help arrived’. Nilsen arrived home from work – he was employed at a JobCentre in Kentish Town – to find two policemen waiting for him. He had, in fact, engineered his own arrest by writing to the landlord of his flat at 23 Cranley Gardens, Muswell Hill, to complain of blocked drains. On investigating, Michael Cattran, a plumber from DynoRod and new to the business, found that the drains were clogged up with slimy quantities of human flesh. Nilsen told the policemen that if they would just take him to the police station, he would explain everything – ‘I want to get it all off my chest.’ In the car, DCI Peter Jay asked, ‘Are we talking about one body or two?’ ‘Fifteen,’ said Nilsen, killed over nearly five years.

During the ensuing thirty hours of interviews, the whole grisly story tumbled out. If Nilsen showed no remorse, he also astonished the police by going to great lengths to help them with their inquiry. He told them where, exactly, they might find body parts in his flat: in a wardrobe, a tea chest, under the bath, under the floorboards. Masters is good at detail: these corpses had not been cut up with a knife and stuffed into carrier bags, they had been cut up with ‘a long kitchen knife with a brown handle’ and stowed in bags from Woolworths. The large bones had been put out with the rubbish; the heads, most difficult to dispose of, had been boiled down in a large cooking pot Nilsen had originally bought to do the catering for an office party, and had later used as a home for goldfish.

At his trial, Nilsen expressed surprise that anyone should find these details upsetting – ‘a corpse is a thing, and it cannot hurt or suffer’; the men he had murdered were now ‘beyond pain, problems and sorrow’. But the jury didn’t see it like this. Some felt so physically ill they were barely able to stay in their seats. ‘I remember a woman in the front row . . . staring at him in the dock with visible blunt incredulity,’ writes Masters, ‘unable to attach the bureaucrat before her to the evidence she was hearing.’ Yet Nilsen was not only adjudged sane but also ruled not to be suffering from diminished responsibility. ‘I am an ordinary man,’ he said of himself, ‘come to an extraordinary conclusion.’ Dr Bowen, the psychiatrist brought in to assess him, admitted that he ‘felt strong sympathy for the defendant’.

In an email correspondence with Masters, during lockdown, I asked whether he had liked Nilsen. He had, after all, continued to visit him for years after the trial, and after the book was published – up until the moment, in fact, when Nilsen decided to cut him off. No, said Masters, he never liked him, and ‘he would never have been a friend in the normal happenstance’. Despite this, he believed that Nilsen was not a ‘stranger among us’, but ‘an extreme instance of human possibility’. ‘If he were a monster,’ Masters writes, ‘we should learn nothing by studying his deplorable behaviour; it is because he is also human that we must make the attempt.’ What drove him on as he wrote the book was an urge to understand, if imperfectly, one dark and mysterious aspect of the human condition’; what forces had been at work to disfigure Nilsen’s emotional grasp of the world about him.

And so Masters plunges back into Nilsen’s Scottish childhood, in the fishing village of Strichen in Aberdeenshire, where he grew up in a community ‘turned in on itself’, and troubled with much mental disorder. Nilsen never once met his Norwegian father, and his mother, Betty, admitted to Masters that she had felt unable ever to cuddle her son – ‘he seemed to repel demonstrations of affection’. And so he became ‘a “skowkie” child, unsmiling and resentful of questioning by adults, to whom he gave a clear impression of distrust and reserve’. His one true companion was his maternal grandfather, Andrew Whyte; but Whyte died when Dennis Nilsen was not yet 6, and at this point, Masters believes, ‘death and love’ became entangled in his mind.

As a cadet in the Army Catering Corps, where his conduct was considered ‘exemplary’, Nilsen learned his butchering skills. Then, after brief service in the police force, he joined the Civil Service, employed initially at a JobCentre in Denmark Street, Soho. The staff working with him considered him good-humoured, straightforward and kind – he once baked a birthday cake for a colleague nobody much liked – but some conceded that there was ‘a lingering hint of despair about him’, and he later admitted that, even in company, he felt desperately alone. He had by now accepted his homosexuality, but anonymous sex, easily available, only aggravated his sense of ‘corrosive loneliness’.

On 30 December 1978, at the Cricklewood Arms, Nilsen picked up an Irish youth, 14-year-old Stephen Holmes. He took him back home and welcomed him into his bed. At first light, Nilsen woke and strangled Holmes. ‘I had started down the avenue of death,’ he later wrote, ‘and possession of a new kind of flat-mate.’ All fifteen of Nilsen’s victims were strangled – but that was only the beginning. After they were dead, he would whisper to them ‘words of solace’: he felt he had ‘somehow released them’. Then he would bathe them, dress them, cuddle up with them on the sofa,
listen to classical music, chat. He told the police that he did not consider himself a murderer, ‘although I have killed’. And asked by his solicitor why he had done what he had, he replied: ‘I am hoping you will tell me that.’

And yet to Brian Masters, in masses of letters and fifty prison notebooks crammed with reminiscence and reflection, Nilsen got as close as he could to revealing himself. ‘All of us conceal in conversation clues to personalities which we happily reveal on paper,’ he wrote, ‘because the added distance of writing lends protection and encourages the risks of intimacy.’ To Masters, Nilsen was able to explain that he had been ‘killing for company’.

In the end, Sotheby’s wouldn’t touch Nilsen’s letters, and they were returned to Brian Masters. We’re now several years on from Nilsen’s death in HMP Full Sutton, and it unsettled me to think that Masters might still be living with this macabre package of correspondence. But no, he says; he’s not. The letters are in a bank vault and will eventually pass to the librarian at the Garrick Club. ‘I don’t know what David Garrick would have made of that,’ says Masters. ‘But some of my fellow members in the acting profession will appreciate the haul.’

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 71 © Maggie Fergusson 2021


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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