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Rupert Thomson: Death of a Murderer

P C Billy Tyler receives a phone call one evening from his sergeant. He has been asked to spend the night in a mortuary protecting the body of a notorious woman child killer. It is soon very clear that the woman is or, at least, is based on Myra Hindley, who died five years before this book was published. The novel tells of P C Tyler’s twelve hours keeping watch at the mortuary (with occasional breaks) but also goes back over his life.

Like Hindley herself and some of the other characters in the book, Tyler had problems with his father. Hindley’s father came back from the war a different man and she was brought up by her grandmother. Tyler’s father was an absent father. He was a jazz musician who was rarely around, putting in a brief appearance after the birth of his first son, Charlie, and then disappearing again two months before Billy was born. Billy was not a well-behaved child, getting into occasional trouble but ended up becoming a police officer. He failed his sergeant’s exam and has no ambition to be anything but a police constable. He has moved around, primarily to please his wife but also to go to a quieter area, having been traumatised at seeing the body of an eleven year old girl who had hanged herself. He is married to Sue and they have a daughter with Down’s syndrome. Their marriage is somewhat troubled, with Sue becoming depressed both because of her daughter but also because of her realisation that she will never amount to much. Billy’s inevitable absences have not helped.

Billy has long known about the Moors murders and, indeed, had something of a fascination with them. He once, on his own, went to look at the site of the graves, when he worked in Widnes, not far from the scene of the crime. He read about them in the paper and has followed the imprisonment of the two murderers. He once, by chance, bumped into a childhood friend, Trevor, in a café. (He bumps into childhood friends in all sorts of places, which is very unconvincing, not least because, particularly in this case, he has not seen the boy since he was ten, nearly thirty years ago.) The two chat and then get drunk together, at which point Trevor tells him how he was once abducted by the pair but managed to escape. This event – which he has told no-one of before, except for his wife and brother – has clearly had a huge impact on his life. Billy is therefore highly suggestible in matters relating to this crime.

While the stay in the mortuary is relatively uneventful (with one exception), he does think a lot about the crime and the woman – her body is locked in a fridge nearby. He does talk about it with the few people who come to the mortuary – his sergeant, a hospital administrator and other police officers. He also thinks a lot about his life, particularly his life with Sue and Emma, but also his early life. The one exception is when he goes out for a break and sees someone standing in the shadows. When he approaches, he realises that it is the dead woman. He talks to her then and she later joins him in the mortuary to continue their chat. Their discussions are as much about him – she chides him about his real feelings for his wife and daughter, his previous love, Venetia, and another boyhood friend – as about her. She tries to exonerate herself, saying that she did little but just waited while her partner (neither is ever named) committed the crimes.

Fathers do seem to be key. Billy, Venetia, Sue and, of course, Hindley, all seem to have father troubles. Thomson certainly does not seem to imply that these problems are the cause of the crimes – Ian Brady is barely mentioned – but it is clearly a sub-theme of the book. The ghost of Hindley is low key. She merely smokes, chides Billy somewhat and tries to tell of her life both the crimes and her life in prison. That Billy is affected by the murders, both before his duty at the mortuary and afterwards, is clear but Thomson is too good an author to make a direct, causal link, leaving it somewhat open as to just what it is that makes Billy tick. It is a fairly low key book but still very fascinating.

Publishing history

First published 2007 by Bloomsbury