Death of a… titles can do very well for writers – as Seamus Heaney or Arthur Miller could testify – but there’s also a danger that the phrase could lend an artificial weight to a book that doesn’t really deserve it. In addition, the word Murderer in the title of Rupert Thomson’s latest novel seems to clash oddly with Death, and to seem an almost strident or tabloidish term – even though it is merely an accurate description of one of the UK’s most notorious criminals of the last fifty years.
The words Myra and Hindley are never mentioned in Death of a Murderer, but she has a presence throughout, and even appears as a character in dream conversations with the ostensible lead character, Billy Tyler. He is a middle-aged policeman who is called upon to guard the mortuary where Hindley’s body is stored after her death in 2002. As he sits there all night, without the blessing of his wife, he floats back into memories of his childhood and youth which show that he has had more than a tangential interest in the Moors murders before now.
Thomson also brings in other elements touching on the subject, such as the blurring of right and wrong in childhood, and reflects on the iconography of Hindley’s case, not least that infamous police mugshot of her. But for my money, this latter element was dealt with better by the poet of the “psychopathology of fame,” Gordon Burn in his novel Alma Cogan, and Jill Dawson’s recent novel Watch Me Disappear addresses the whole muddy area of child sex crimes with a good deal more finesse and aplomb. Thomson does venture some editorial line on the treatment of Hindley’s case:
Over the years, there had been a number of people who had taken her side. They saw her continuing imprisonment as political, driven not by the rule of law but by popular opinion. Other murderers were freed when they had served their sentences – why not her? Clearly, she was no danger to society. In fact, the opposite was true: were she to be released, society would be a danger to her. And here was the savage irony: taxpayers’ money would have to be used to protect the woman from what the taxpayers themselves would like to do to her. No government would willingly put itself in the position of having to defend such a policy. Instead, the responsibility for her fate was handed swiftly from one Home Secretary to another, like a particularly hazardous game of pass the parcel.
But this is a viewpoint which is unlikely to seem new or challenging to anyone but Daily Mail leader writers, and as an aside, it demonstrates in the closing simile how plain the language in this book is in comparison with Thomson’s earlier novels, where he had an interesting metaphor for every situation (my favourite being a man’s moustache described as looking like “a barcode on a pint of milk”).
The danger is that people reading Death of a Murderer as their first experience of Thomson – and that shrewdly judged use of Hindley’s image on the cover is bound to attract a few browsers – are likely to dismiss him as an anodyne writer. This could not be further from the truth: his back catalogue, while wildly varying in quality, is never less than interesting and highly imaginative (this novel, for example, is his first set recognisably in a contemporary real world). For me his most satisfying works are Air & Fire, The Insult and The Book of Revelation, with the weaker links including The Five Gates of Hell, Soft and Divided Kingdom.