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.
Thomson: Fascinated by marginal characters with a precarious purchase on life (Newspix/Alan Pryke)
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