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Williams, A.H. (1986). A masterpiece on murder. Free Associations, 1(7):27-37.

(1986). Free Associations, 1(7):27-37

A masterpiece on murder

A. Hyatt Williams

Killing for Company: The Case of Dennis Nilsen. With a Postscript by Anthony Storr, by Brian Masters, Cape, 1985, xvi + 336 pages, hardback £10.95; Coronet, paperback £2.95.

Brian Masters has written a remarkable book. In his detailed account of the puzzling history of Dennis Nilsen and his murderous activities, there is a convincing portrayal of the known facts, including Nilsen's own honest account of what he knew of the forces that compelled him to do what he did in the way he did it. The account of Nilsen's earlier life — the austere background with the constant battle against poverty on the one hand and the cruel sea on the other: the uncompromising determination and adherence to truth on the one hand and the inexorable erosion of it by desire, need and determined defiance on the other — sets the stage for a drama at once frightening and fascinating. A passage from one of Keats's poems seems appropriate:

The fierce dispute

Betwixt damnation and impassioned clay

Must I burn through.

It occurred to me several times during my reading of this book.

What could make a person so willing and able to tell the awful truth, the truth about fifteen murders and seven other attempts to kill, and yet unable to develop more effective controls within himself? My first conjecture is that there was a most severe degree of splitting between the cold honest scientist Nilsen and the perverse life-destroying Nilsen.

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