Rupert Thomson - Book Review: Death Of A Murderer

George Bass 12/04/2007

Rating: 4/5

Having given Nineteen Eighty-Four a Swiftian colour-coding in 2005, Rupert Thomson returns to do battle with another wave of sinister forces, but this time on altogether more condensed scale. Those who felt he dropped a bollock with the epic sprawl of Divided Kingdom will be pleased to hear he's zeroed his sights into a tight reticule with Death Of A Murderer - a look at the lore of cessation as part of the cycle of life, and with the exorcism of one of the country's blackest demons as its core.

The premise of the book is straightforward enough: during the not-so-distant November of 2002, PC Billy Tyler is asked to pull an all-nighter doing guard duty in a hospital morgue - a hospital besieged by reporters and vigilantes, and one that houses the physical remains of notorious killer Myra Hindley. Billy, whose pragmatistic autopilot kicks into action as soon as he's handed the assignment, dutifully weighs up his task with a calm ambivalence. It's a twelve-hour stint, and the ideal opportunity to take a much needed breather from his cramped home life. At the request of his immediate DS (Billy's former underling who's long since shimmied up the ranks), he fills up his thermos and starts scraping the windscreen.

Hindley is never once namechecked in the course of the novel, perhaps as a riff on Billy's wife's supersticion (She wouldn't say the woman's name; she didn't want it in the house, writes Thomson at one point). Her pleas for her husband to abandon his duty fall on helmet-muffled ears, so much so that she eventually turns up at his post to kit him out with an arsenal of protective crystals. This is all a bit too much for Billy, who sees his errand as a chance to chip away at a backlog of paperwork and lose himself in some quiet moments of introspection. Scattered flashbacks reveal his own interest in the mystique of the Moors murders - idly trapsing the infamous countryside and skimming through tabloid microfiches... nothing morbid, just a matter-of-fact occupational second nature. Or so it seems.

As the hours creep deeper into the witching domain, Billy becomes increasingly captivated by the aura of the killer's corpse while questioning his own spayed thirst for violence and idealism, as well as weighing up the keystones of his life so far: the gradual entropy of his marriage, the guilty mutual ambivalence that he and his wife struggle with towards their Down's syndrome daughter, an adolescence spent desperately trying to skylark... one particular incident sees him recalling a run-in with a long-lost mate who, after sinking half a dozen pints of Wife Beater, discloses his childhood account of a horrific brush with abuse at the hands of a would-be incognito predatoress. Are these all just shards of Billy's imagination that his conscience is trying to draw a line through, or a dormant side of his psyche being nurtured by the presence of a higher evil? He keeps trying to remind himself that he's not Ben Stiller and this isn't Night At The Morgue, but when you're alone in the bowels of a hospital with only the body of Britain's most notorious child killer for company, it's not so easy. The notion that evil is a communicable infection, or, like the first conceptions of electricity, an invisible, weightless fluid that exists in almost everything and is channelled through malevolent conduits is one that underscores the plot of the novel, and as the night wears further on, the allegory of Hindley's presence begins to throw stones deeper and deeper into the pond of Billy's subconscious - dreams, mirages and eventually some Hamlet-like exchanges with her deceased chainsmoking phantom.

With a subject twist like this it would be easy to start ranting like Al Pacino after half a pound of fishscale, but Thomson handles his conceit with a deft sensitivity. His writing resonates with a humane passion, and he succeeds in conjuring intrigue for the simple reason that he is one of the few authors who can accurately record dreams - not anything to do with white picket fences or flying, but instead the murky peripheral half-world of the brain. His style is very much his own, and if you're looking for someone who can fortify misty meditation with thriller tinges more hardboiled than Kojack's lollipop then look no further.

As the ghost of Hindley begins to gently interrogate an increasingly fatigued Billy, needling the stitching that holds his uniform together, Thomson gently seals the reader in the same moral box as his protagonist, echoing the claustrophobic solitude that pervaded his 1999 sexual trauma novel The Book Of Revelation. Imagine Sigourney Weaver in the last act of Alien if her opponent could talk instead of screech and you've got some idea of the ordeal that Billy finds himself facing. 'To be part of a crowd,' speaks the murderer to her observer at one point. 'You don't know how I long for that.'

With its lateral third-person narrative organised into a bank of clipped chapters, Death Of A Murderer initially reads as the most orthodox of Thomson's novels. However, he remains every bit the linguistic stuntman, and flexes the same muscular hyperbole that he did twenty years ago in his debut (and also no doubt the years of copywriting prior to his career in fiction). Thomson doesn't just load a howitzer with vernacular grapeshot and fire it at his prose; he grouts his text with an objective but ethereal savvy, giving it the crunchy succulence of running over a burger box. 'There was a moment where nothing happened, nothing at all, but they both knew what was coming, so those few seconds were slow-motion and yet urgent, the slowness and the sense of urgency simultaneous but contradictory, like ice-cream wrapped in hot meringue.' Yum yum.

They say the mark of a good director is one who can put a monologue on celluloid and make it stick, and Thomson has essentially done just that with his eighth book. In Billy Tyler, he's forged a character whose humble nobility makes him an entirely credible working-class hero; a man slowly sucked into a dilemma that rattles every joint of his self-esteem and who turns round to backtrack via a trail of breadcrumbs. In a world that defines terrorism in terms of bearded fanatics and ticking luggage, Thomson has created a literary enigma that pits the true nature of fear - the dark unknown - against the most vulnerable prey of all: the individual. The author lets guilt and culpability bounce off each other in an airtight arena while his leading man stares diligently into the gloom, compelled to look the other way but nonetheless hoping that the batteries in his Maglite don't conk out. While the story may close on a pay-off as cheesy as a Bon Jovi encore in an Edam factory - an unfortunate trait of the author's - it's one that slides towards its conclusion like the blade on a guillotine, and you can't help but appreciate Thomson's athletic stamina as a storyteller.