Death of a Murderer by Rupert Thomson

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Death of a Murderer by Rupert Thomson

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: Spare, elegant prose and a deliberate, restrained tone allow the reader a rare and intimate interaction with a character in a book that is both deceptively simple and deceptively complex. Recommended.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 256 Date: April 2007
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC
ISBN: 978-0747588047

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In late 2002, as the November evenings draw inexorably towards winter, Police Constable Billy Tyler receives a phone call from his boss. Billy has a special assignment. Moors murderer Myra Hindley has died and Billy is required to pull a seven-to-seven shift guarding her body at a hospital mortuary in Suffolk. Amidst the predictable surge of public disgust and animosity and the expected media frenzy, Billy must make sure that "nothing happens".

Billy is an experienced officer. There isn't a great deal he hasn't been asked to witness or deal with over the course of his career and he approaches this task - to the shock and dismay of his wife - as he would any other. With resigned professionalism. But as he sits in the mortuary, the sheer totemic power of the dead woman's presence sends his thoughts skittering from the job at hand to his life - an unimpressive career, a tense marriage, a disabled daughter - and to his past, not always one of which he can be proud.

Death of a Murderer really is quite a beautiful book, despite - or even because of - its rather gruesome context. Billy does make sure "nothing happens" externally. Internally, though, everything happens. As you read, you develop a rare, direct and incredibly intimate connection with this introspective policeman without interference from authorial tone.

Outwardly, this is a story of twelve hours in one man's life - how he feels, what he thinks. And it's framed in reserved, elegant prose that is equally simple on the surface and full of complexity beneath. Billy spends those twelve hours asking himself the questions he should have been asking for years. They are the same questions we should have been asking ourselves for years. In the final analysis, what is important to us? Who is important to us? Why do we do what we do? When things went wrong, what made them go wrong?

People like Myra Hindley, however heinous their crimes, however impossible they are to understand, are not, Thomson is telling us, the people who need analysing. We are. The horrible truth is that children are in more danger from their parents than from anyone else. They are in more danger from parents, extended family, adults known to them, their peers and even cars than they are from stranger danger. These are the questions we should be asking ourselves about. These are things we need to face up to.

Lord Longford gets a mention at one point. I remember his efforts to secure Myra Hindley's release from prison. The tabloid press was furious and dubbed him Lord Wrongford. Even as a child, I could see the hopeless naivety of his position, but even as a child, I couldn't help but be affected by his piercing goodness. And yet, for a while, that very goodness became almost as big a target for vitriol as Hindley herself. When we are so afraid to confront ourselves that we attack virtue in others - even if perhaps it is misguided virtue - it's time to admit that we need novels such as this one to prompt a dialogue.

Death of a Murderer is beautifully written piece of still water running deep. But it isn't for people who only want answers.

My thanks to Bloomsbury for sending the book.

Those who like fiction that addresses modern fears and taboos could look at the less elegant but equally interesting Hey! Nostradamus by Douglas Coupland.

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Buy Death of a Murderer by Rupert Thomson at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Death of a Murderer by Rupert Thomson at


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Claire said:

Me thinks this is one for me!