Too bad the phrase “dark night of the soul” is a textbook cliché, as it fits Rupert Thomson’s new novel, Death of a Murderer, rather well. Thomson is a writer of extraordinary poetic gifts, as such works of kaleidoscopic imagination as The Insult, Soft! and Air and Fire have proved beyond doubt. In his new novel, he keeps his dreamier impulses in check, however, as he focuses on the tightly circumscribed existence of an unambitious British police constable, Billy Tyler, who has “no clear view of the value of his life” during 12 nocturnal hours when he is assigned to guard the corpse of Myra Hindley, Britain’s most notorious murderer.
The real-life Hindley, never mentioned by name in the novel, is always referred to as “she” or “that woman” or “her,” as if even to denominate would be to summon devils. For the murders committed by Hindley and her lover Ian Brady were to Britain in 1965 what the Manson murders were to Southern California in 1969. Worse, even, since the pair kidnapped, sexually abused, tortured, photographed, tape-recorded and murdered children before burying them on the moors north of Manchester, a region of almost mythological bleakness that still sends shivers through the English imagination.
The couple read de Sade, Mein Kampf and sadomasochistic pornography. Encouraged by her lover to dress in a German style, Hindley wore knee-high black leather boots and bleached her hair blond. It has been said they ushered in a new chapter in murder as self-expression, and Thomson hints as much near the close of his novel, when he writes that the couple “probably thought of themselves as mavericks, dare-devils — pioneers. They were special, in other words.”
In contrast, Billy Tyler is grindingly unspecial, his life a journal of banality pinned to a grim English landscape virtually devoid of beauty or color. Yet if Blake could see a world in a grain of sand, Thomson, like a skilled priest during a marathon confessional, coaxes an entire universe out of his tightlipped, soul-weary hero during the most extraordinary night of his life, if only because of his proximity to “her” — “the most hated woman in England” — whose corpse lies on the other side of a locked refrigerator door in a mortuary. It has been placed under round-the-clock police surveillance for fear of the retribution that might be unleashed on it should the forces of law and order choose to melt away in the night.
During her 37 years in prison (before dying there in 2002), Hindley had her sympathizers, who felt she had repented and done her time — Britain’s Lord Longford being perhaps the most famous, and the subject of a recent HBO film. But the general public’s hatred has never abated. To be not just a child-murderer, but a female child-murderer, stirs horror and revulsion too deep for even the most liberal judge to mess with.
While Thomson is certainly not in the Longford camp, it’s his intent in the novel to suggest that the fear Hindley inspired had a lot to do with the unspoken dread we have of ourselves and of our own capacity for evil. “She had shown [people] what a human being was capable of. She had given them a glimpse of the horrific and terrifying acts that lay within their grasp,” he writes.
Throughout his long sleepless night in the mortuary, with the press parked outside, Billy has plenty of time to examine his past, his character, his marriage, his only child (who has Down syndrome, and whom he has sometimes wished dead), and the moments when he too could have crossed the line between a life of legally sanctioned behavior and outright criminality, and even an occasion or two when he did.
Billy’s confessor, in a sense, is Hindley herself, who makes cameo appearances in the form of a vision or ghost, questioning him and poking the tender areas of his conscience. There was his strange teenage friendship with handsome, amoral Raymond, for instance, with its unspoken sexual undercurrent and flirtation with crime. They spent a summer in Europe together, Billy so much in his friend’s thrall that there was no saying what he might have done had Raymond asked (or ordered) him to.
It’s a common observation to say that cops are criminals who’ve decided to go straight, and Thomson makes it: “Looking at himself in the mirror, it occurred to Billy that he might have joined the police . . . to prevent himself from doing wrong. Not to protect other people, then, but to protect himself.”
If Walt Whitman contained multitudes, then the rest of us, less expansive perhaps, also carry a few extra passengers, the shadow selves and stowaways and might-have-beens, not to mention the temporary incarnations we have deliberately chosen to forget. Billy’s fate in the novel is to examine all those discarded selves in the (never so aptly named) small hours as he guards the corpse. “And you,” Hindley says to him during one of their sessions together, “are you so innocent?”
Death of a Murderer is a book to make one squirm, but that has at least as much to do with its portrait of Billy, his increasingly unhappy marriage to his wife, Sue, and the sense of existential futility that has overtaken him in middle age. There are passages in the novel that are as dreary and drained of light as anything Philip Larkin could have cooked up. Thomson has always been fascinated by marginal characters with a precarious purchase on life, and one senses that the importance of Billy’s police uniform has more to do with its ability to notify him of who he is supposed to be than to notify the public. While Hindley casts her giant shadow of evil acted upon, Billy and others like him fight to ward off temptation every day.
In large part because of the police mug shot taken of her in 1965, in which she stared at the camera under a helmet of peroxided hair like a toxic, square-jawed Marlene Dietrich, Hindley has long exerted a fascination on artists. (She reputedly had a similar effect on some of her prison guards.) Bands like the Smiths (“Suffer Little Children”) and Throbbing Gristle wrote songs about the murders, poems have been written about her and nightclubs named after her, not to mention the numerous books of journalism that have been published.
Most notoriously, for the 1997 Saatchi-sponsored “Sensation” exhibition in London, the artist Marcus Harvey reproduced the iconic photo of Hindley on a giant scale — 13 feet by 10 — replacing the enlarged dots of the newsprint with a child’s handprint. The creepiness of implicating a child in a portrait of a child-murderer was missed by London’s arts community, which defended the painting fiercely when someone threw ink at it.
As he uses Hindley to probe our own capacity for evil, Thomson does not excuse her, though he is far from blind to her spooky allure. Death of a Murderer is not a nihilistic book. Rather, it warns us of the fragility of life and the need to treat it, and each other, very tenderly. Was Hindley coerced into her crimes by a more forceful partner or was she a muse to Brady (who is still alive)? For weak, insubstantial characters such as Billy (he has never tried to rise in the police force, perhaps out of buried guilt and shame), it hardly matters. The most important thing is to guard against evil in his own life and do his fumbling, old-fashioned best to be good. Not that anything in the novel suggests that this will be easy, or even possible. Death of a Murderer ends on a note of hope, but one that is shadowed by a sense of adult disillusionment as deep as any terror.
DEATH OF A MURDERER | By RUPERT THOMSON | Knopf | 226 pages | $23 hardcover