Dennis Nilsen, or the Pot of Basil

John Ryle

  • Killing for Company: The Case of Dennis Nilsen by Brian Masters
    Cape, 352 pp, £9.95, February 1985, ISBN 0 224 02184 2
  • Queens by Pickles
    Quartet, 289 pp, £8.95, October 1984, ISBN 0 7043 2439 3
  • Ritualised Homosexuality in Melanesia edited by Gilbert Herdt
    California, 409 pp, £19.95, October 1984, ISBN 0 520 05037 1

Murderers are frequently reported by acquaintances to be civil, diligent, pleasant in manner, if a little reserved, normal in appearance, cultivated to a degree, kind to animals and, with certain fatal exceptions, to their fellow human beings. If such characteristics were grounds for suspicion, Dennis Nilsen, who strangled and dismembered 14 or 15 youths in North London over a period of five years, would have been rounded up with the rest of us. But there were no grounds for suspecting anyone of being guilty of these murders, for until the grim day in February two years ago when a plumber found human remains in the sewer of the house where Nilsen lived in Muswell Hill there was no indication that any crime had even been committed. The victims were vagrant youths whom nobody missed, rent boys, no-hopers, waifs of the West End. They were seldom even reported missing. No wonder they went home with him. When they disappeared, nobody cared, except, perhaps, Dennis Nilsen.

I am sitting cross-legged on the carpet, drinking and listening to music ... I drain my glass and take the phones off. Behind me sits Stephen Sinclair on the lazy chair. He was crashed out with drink and drugs. I sit and look at him. I stand up and approach him. My heart is pounding. I kneel down in front of him. I touch his leg and say: ‘Are you awake?’ There is no response. ‘Oh Stephen,’ I think, ‘here I go again.’

Nilsen picked up Stephen Sinclair, a 20-year-old Scottish delinquent, near Leicester Square in January 1983. They had never met before. There was not much time to get acquainted: about four hours, by Nilsen’s own account. Once he had got Sinclair home, the next thing he did was strangle him with an old tie (after making sure his dog, Bleep, a black and white mongrel bitch, was out of the way). He washed the body and dusted it with talcum powder, then he went back to bed, where he spent the night with Bleep and the corpse.

Here in this cell he is still with me. In fact I believe he is me, or part of me. How can you feel remorse for taking his pains into yourself? I loved him much more than anyone he had ever met in his twenty years. The image of the sleeping Stephen is and will be with me for all of my life. No court or prison can ever take that from me, or this almost holy feeling.

In the morning Nilsen put the body in a cupboard and went to the Jobcentre where he worked in Kentish Town. The body stayed in the cupboard for eight days. Then he dismembered it, putting the head in a pot on the stove and the limbs in plastic bags. Disposing of bodies was a problem he had faced many times before, first in Cricklewood and now in his new flat in Muswell Hill. All his victims had been young men he met in the street or in gay pubs. They would come home with him, get drunk, go to bed and wake up dead. There was not much in the way of sex: sometimes Nilsen masturbated over the dead youths; sometimes he lay beside them and played dead, admiring the tableau in a mirror. Later he drew pictures of some or commemorated them in vers libre. But Sinclair was Nilsen’s last victim. A previous body had blocked the drain in the building where he lived, creating an urgent problem for his neighbours. The following week the men from Dyno-rod found strange flesh in a manhole near the house. It looked like pieces of chicken but was not. Nilsen tried to remove it by night; he was observed. When the police came to call on him the next day he told them everything.

Everything but the vital thing: why he did it. Not how he got away with it, which was un-problematic given the forlorn lives of his victims, most of whom still remain unidentified, but why he allowed that link in his psyche between sex and death to deliver him and them into such a mess of evil. In Killing for Company Brian Masters attempts, with the active participation of his subject, to explain how a person like Nilsen came to be; how his necrophiliac fantasies invaded real life; how, in Masters’s words, it is possible to wake up in the morning to a man’s head in a pot on the gas stove.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in