Rupert Thomson: Death of a Murderer

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.


  1. I`m unlikely to read another word about Hindley voluntarily – I remember the Moors Murders only too well. But the image of the man guarding her body for the night is a telling one. I had never heard of Rupert Thomson until this blog and I will certainly go and look out his others.

  2. Hi Susan, thanks for dropping by. Yes, I think the idea is the strongest part of the book, but Thomson just doesn’t seem to know where to go with it (rather like his last novel Divided Kingdom, which took the concept of the UK being separated into four countries based on personality type, but didn’t really live up to its potential). I think his weakness is a tendency for forced ‘quirkiness’ (a pet hate of mine), which is an unfortunate corollary of his undoubtedly strong imagination. I think this may be one reason why he hasn’t broken into the bigger time.

  3. Death of a Murderer ends with a death that’s easy to miss.
    The end of chapter 38: “Then a lorry piled high with timber, which he overtook. Then nothing.”
    Billy Tyler will never reach his home. He died in a road accident involving a . lorry shedding its load of timber.
    The last few pages of the book give the story a supernatural twist:
    despite the accident Billy continuous his journey home and learns about his own accident at a petrol station. After that there is a series of incidents and memories that in a heartrending way refer to his death in the accident and sum up the essence of who he had been. The final symbolic scene when he kneels in front of his daughter and receives her blessing is the deeply moving end.

    Careful reading and interpretation of the end of this novel makes it into an even richer, truly human story.
    This (forced?) quirkiness adds depth to a brilliantly conceived and told story.

  4. Thanks Cees – this is a valuable observation. I read the book almost a year ago and can’t remember much about it, but I am pretty sure I didn’t pick up on this. Perhaps I would have rated the book more highly if I had. It has become quite popular recently in the UK though, as it was on a list of 10 books recommended by reading groups for World Book Day. This can only be good, as I still think Thomson is an interesting writer and should be more widely read, even though I haven’t enjoyed his last couple of titles.

  5. I think this book would have been better w/out myra’s much tabloided image pasted on. I think this image prevents people (initially, like me) buying this excellent work form this fantastic author.

  6. You could be right, Rowan. I think a much better book which not only features that image on the cover but also deals with the kind of grisly cultural iconography that it typifies – was it John Waters who said that if Myra Hindley had done her roots on the day the mugshot was taken, she wouldn’t have got life? – is Gordon Burn’s Alma Cogan. He deals with ‘the psychopathology of fame’ in all his books, and his last one Best and Edwards was my favourite book of 2006. His new book, Born Yesterday: The News as a Novel is out in a couple of weeks and I can’t wait.

    Er, so, back to Rupert Thomson… I’m glad you liked the book by the way!

  7. Susan Hill:
    Try ‘The Insult’, his masterpiece and one of the most extrordinary novels of the late C20. Thomson has what Joyce called ‘pure imagination’. ‘The Book of Revelation’ is also remarkable, but a very grim read as it takes a cliched pronogrpahic scenario and treats it seriously.

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