It says much for the notoriety and myth surrounding Myra Hindley that Rupert Thomson has written a novel with her at the centre, but never has to use her name. Child Murderer, the Moors, the mug-shot, evil personified. We don’t need her name to have our opinion on what she did and who she was and therein lies the crux of this unsettling but ultimately slight novel. This is an example, as Billy Tyler, the narrator says,
of how deeply that series of murders had embedded itself in the nation’s psyche. No one who had been alive at the time could ever be entirely free of it
For readers from outside of the UK, Myra Hindley and her lover Ian Brady were found guilty of the murders of at least 5 children and teenagers in Yorkshire in the 1960s. They buried their bodies in the desolate Moors and to this day, the body of one of their victims has never been found. Hindley met with particular hatred from the general public – for the fact that she was a woman and for her lack of contrition at the crimes she committed. She maintained her innocence of the murders and tried to appeal her sentence. Her now infamous mug shot became synonymous with evil in the minds of the population.
In Death of a Murderer, PC Billy Tyler has been tasked with guarding her body as it lies in a hospital mortuary following her death. It’s part of his job, a 12 hour shift like many others;
Now that she was dead it was no different. The police were duty bound to protect her from anyone who might want to take revenge on her or do her harm – and there were plenty of those, as a glance at the Internet would tell you.
And yet, Billy knows this is not a normal job. Twenty undertakers have refused to deal with her funeral and even the murderer’s name can evoke fear. Billy’s wife Sue begs him not to take the job;
It’s not healthy to be close to something like that. It’s just not healthy….It’s about not letting the wrong things rub off on you
Sue, it turns out, may have a point. Not so much that Hindley’s evil will rub off on those close to it, but that it will illuminate the weaker sides of our own nature. As Billy settles in to his long, boring shift his thoughts turn to his own life and his own behaviour and he starts to question his moral standing in relation to the dead woman he is guarding.
And now this job, with so much grief and terror surrounding it and so much rage – the way that could eat into your thoughts without you knowing.
As Billy tries to catch up on paperwork, he finds his mind turning to old cases, a child suicide. He remembers an old school friend who claimed to have been abducted by Hindley and Brady but despite escaping is unable to get over the guilt of not reporting them to the police. He remembers his wife admitting to a fleeting thought of violence against their daughter who suffers from Down’s Syndrome.
The main thrust of the novel focuses on the question of guilt and innocence and how we could be closer to evil than we think. Billy is a long-suffering dutiful policeman and a long-suffering dutiful father but even he has to ask himself ‘how much purity did he have in him, after everything he had been through?’ If his wife Sue can be driven by circumstance to contemplate violence against a child, how can Billy judge Hindley? Given such divisive subject matter, this is a quiet book. We are very firmly inside the mind of a normal man. There is no exaggeration in the prose, Billy is as eloquent as we would expect him to be and as morally ambiguous as most human beings. The book looks at how we try to distil experience and make sense of what we have done in life to bring us to where we are, just as Billy tries to make sense of Hindley’s life.
In a risky move, Thompson has Hindley appear to Billy as a ghost or as a manifestation of his imagination. We, like him, are never quite sure. In an attempt to ask her questions about what she has done, Billy finds the interrogation turned on himself as Hindley questions him about his teenage relationship with the charismatic and bullying Raymond Percival and his romantic relationship with the game-playing Venetia. In a subtle way, the tables are turned and Billy sees how his submissiveness to Raymond and manipulation by Venetia are the lesser extremes of Hindley’s relationship with Brady and how these troubling attachments could have taken his life in a very different direction.
The appearance of the ghost was not entirely successful for me, adding a jarring dimension to what is ultimately a very quiet, introverted book. It is a restrained story but it resonates and is beautifully and carefully plotted. I can imagine some readers feeling duped if they have picked up a copy of the book with Myra Hindley on the cover, rather than the more generic image on the copy I read as this is not really a book about her at all, but is about human nature in all its forms and how we often demonise others to protect ourselves.
That was what they meant, he realised, when they called her a monster. She had shown them what a human being was capable of. She had given them a glimpse of the horrific and terrifying acts that lay within their grasp. She had reminded them of a truth that they had overlooked, or hidden from, or lied to about themselves.
In the end, Billy seems to come to an acceptance of himself, the self he has glimpsed through the prism of Hindley’s acts and he comes to rest not on his potential for evil, but on the precious good he has created in his life instead. There but for the grace of God……
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