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Death of a Murdererby Rupert Thomson
Synopses & Reviews
Rupert Thomson — "a true master," according to the San Francisco Chronicle — now gives us his most powerful work yet: the story of a woman who, even after her death, inflames an entire nation, and of the man who comes under her spell.
Having spent decades in prison for crimes gruesomely familiar to everyone in England, this murderer has finally died of natural causes but is no less notorious in death than she was in life. Billy Tyler, a career policeman, has been assigned the task of guarding her body — to make sure, he's told, that nothing happens. But alone on a graveyard shift his wife begged him not to accept, Billy has occasion to contemplate the various turns his life has taken, his complicated thoughts about violence in himself and society, the unease that distances him from marital disappointment and a damaged daughter, and, finally, why it is that this reviled murderer, in the eerie silence of the hospital morgue, seems to speak to him directly and know him more fully than anyone else. In this dark night of the soul, his own problems and anxieties gradually acquire a new and unexpected significance, giving rise to questions that should haunt us all: Whom do we love, and why? How do we protect our children? And what separates us from those we call monsters?
A gripping revelation of crime, of punishment — and of what we desperately seek to hide from ourselves.
"'Thomson (The Insult) takes the death of real-life British serial sex murderer Myra Hindley, who died of natural causes in prison years after her crimes, as the starting point for his riveting eighth novel. Billy Tyler, an underachieving, unambitious policeman, gets the night shift guarding the killer's body, which lies in a hospital morgue before cremation. During Billy's 12-hour vigil, he reflects on his troubles with his wife, Sue; their Down syndrome child, Emma; lost love, friendship and death. In several perfectly drawn scenes, the ghost of 'Britain's most hated woman' (Hindley is never named) appears, drawing Billy into discussions that leave him troubled and confused about the nature of evil and the possibility that it exists within us all. The writing is quietly brilliant: 'The night smelt musty, thrilling. Cow parsley, fox fur. The breath of owls.' At one point Billy thinks to himself, 'Certain stories lodge like rusty hooks in the soft flesh of the mind. You cannot free yourself.' Readers will agree; this fine novel is one of those unforgettable stories. Author tour.' Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)"
"Though less well-known in the United States, the title character of Rupert Thomson's eighth novel will be familiar to anybody in Great Britain, particularly those alive in the 1960s. The murderer, Myra Hindley, has achieved iconic significance in the psyche of all Britons. Her story has inspired films, books and a smattering of punk songs. The details of her crimes are so infamous in Britain that... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) Thomson doesn't even name her directly, in part because he doesn't need to and in part to achieve a far more haunting and universal effect: Her name has become somehow unspeakable. She is 'the woman' or 'that woman.' Her crimes come to us as matter-of-fact summary: 'Children had been savagely abused in front of her by her own boyfriend, and she had gone along with it; she had even, possibly, tortured one of them herself.' She and her lover, 'the psychopath from Glasgow,' buried their victims in the moors west of Manchester. The novel's setup is simple enough: After 36 years of incarceration, the murderer dies of natural causes in prison. Her body lies in the mortuary of a local hospital, locked away inside a steel drawer, awaiting cremation. For a 12-hour night shift, Billy Tyler, career beat cop, is given the job of guarding the body. It's standard procedure, but in this case the task is complicated by fears of trophy seekers, hovering reporters and the hatred and fascination of a public that can neither forgive nor forget. Billy's own wife pleads with him not to go, stating in plain language the novel's central thematic conflict: 'What she did...it's not healthy to be close to something like that.' That 'something' is little short of pure evil. For Billy's wife, the killer is a monster and a presence — dead or alive — that can 'rub off on you.' But Billy is not superstitious, not the kind to shirk duty or deny a superior, even if he must deny his own wife. Their marriage is already pushed almost to the breaking point by Billy's lack of ambition, his wife's lost dreams, infidelity and the strain of raising an 8-year-old child with Down syndrome. When his wife text-messages him, Billy turns off the phone and keeps his head in the job. When she appears at the hospital to deliver charms to protect him from 'the soaking up of some dark influence,' he is merely annoyed. Yet Billy harbors his own dark fascination, born of connections to the killer both actual and psychological. A childhood friend once claimed to have been abducted by the pair, narrowly escaping with his life. Billy has visited the moors where the killers buried their victims. He has read all that he can find about the case. When the murderer appears before Billy, he is somehow unsurprised. She seems to be a ghost, but over time Billy's vision shows all the earmarks of a full-blown hallucination. She is young, as she was when arrested so many years before, with the dyed-blond hair her lover demanded of her, the remorseless eyes that condemned her as much as the evidence, which included pornographic photographs and tape-recorded torture. Bored, she chain-smokes and goads Billy with comments and questions that cut to the bone: 'Who did you love most?' and 'Are you so innocent?' She knows Billy better than he knows himself. Her prodding hastens Billy's journey into the moors and buried bodies of his own precarious past. He recalls a flurry of friendships complicated by sexual ambiguity and victimization. There's the manipulative, obsessive relationship with a classmate named Raymond, a secret, emotionally bankrupt affair with the abused Venetia, and his own shadowy capacity for violence. The recounting is direct, understated and pitch-perfect, and from it we gain the natural and grinding revelation of human character. An unfailing authority pervades, wound into the narrowed experience of Billy, an authority that is neither sentimental nor sneering. The defining moments of his life show us that the real death in the novel's title takes place inside Billy's soul. In this way, 'Death of a Murderer' has less to do with Myra Hindley and the 'Moors Murders' than with how we live with what we call evil. Thomson poses the questions that seem to pervade our relativistic times: If evil exists, then what defines it? How do we recognize it in others and in ourselves? How do we find love in spite of it? Billy puts it to the murderer succinctly: 'You did something people couldn't bring themselves to think about. You forced them to imagine it. You rubbed their noses in it.' She rubs Billy's nose in it, too, but he comes out better for it. With this very dark night, Thomson powerfully evokes the psychic and emotional scars caused by horrible crimes. It is all the more remarkable that he manages this with a narrative that only rarely leaves the green confines of a hospital morgue. In some ways, this is a novel in which nothing much happens; at the same time, it shows us everything that matters." Reviewed by David Masiel, whose most recent novel is 'The Western Limit of the World', Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
(hide most of this review)
"Thomson has built up one of the most substantial bodies of work by any British novelist, [and] he has finally delivered his masterpiece, a novel so strong that it seems a foregone conclusion that Thomson will enjoy the commercial success and widespread acclaim he deserves." The Independent on Sunday
"Thomson is one of the classiest novelists writing in English today...Death of a Murderer is, in fact, a master class in technique and control...a novel of tremendous subtlety and power, realism in the very best sense of the word." Sydney Morning Herald
"[An] imaginatively rigorous novel leads us a long way into the regions of collective nightmare." Sam Thompson, The Times Literary Supplement
"A slowly enthralling journey around the nature of guilt....One of Thomson's many gifts as a writer is the way that he presents — carefully, sparely and often delicately — finely wrought plots whose far-fetched path or lack of realism are so beautifully rendered that they become almost naturalistic." Sue Norris, Financial Times
"Ambitious and brave...a complex, multi-layered novel, Death of a Murderer contains some beautiful writing, occasional poetry, and an aching sense of the vulnerability of those we love." Carol Birch, The Independent
"An exquisitely controlled performance...Thomson is able to make glories of the tiniest moments." The Guardian
"As unsettling as you would want any piece of art to be." The Observer
"Thomson...has crafted a deeply introspective work that memorably probes dark questions of love, guilt, and self." Library Journal
"You may not think you'd want to follow Thomson in his remarkable act of fortitude through our deepest, most troubled thoughts. But you do." Booklist
About the Author
Rupert Thomson is the author of seven previous novels. Born in England in 1955 and educated at Cambridge, he now lives with his wife and their daughter in Barcelona.
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