Death of a Murderer

Death of a Murderer

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by Rupert Thomson

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After decades in prison for crimes gruesomely familiar to everyone in England, a murderer has finally died of natural causes, no less notorious in death than she was in life. Billy Tyler, a career policeman, has been assigned the task of guarding her body in the hospital morgue.

But alone on a graveyard shift his wife begged him not accept, Billy has occasion to

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After decades in prison for crimes gruesomely familiar to everyone in England, a murderer has finally died of natural causes, no less notorious in death than she was in life. Billy Tyler, a career policeman, has been assigned the task of guarding her body in the hospital morgue.

But alone on a graveyard shift his wife begged him not accept, Billy has occasion to contemplate the various turns his life has taken and to discover why it is that on this dark night of the soul the reviled murderer seems to speak to him directly. Death of a Murderer is a gripping novel of crime, punishment, fear, and temptation.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"As beautifully written as it is provocative. . . . By the end of this subtly disturbing story, life itself seems a lot more precious." —The New York Times Book Review“Thomson powerfully evokes the psychic and emotional scars caused by horrible crimes [and] poses 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?” —The Washington Post“Quietly devastating.” —The Seattle Times"Extremely tightly written, with not a word extraneous, [and] with passages that will take your breath away, because they're so knowing, or because they're so lyrical. Tender is the night, but creepy, too." —The New York Observer
Marilyn Stasio
Although not in any conventional way a genre novel, Rupert Thomson's Death of a Murderer says a great deal about the impact of evil on people who consider themselves civilized. As beautifully written as it is provocative, this psychological study places a decent man in close proximity to a malevolent force—and settles back to watch. In terms of action, nothing much happens; but by the end of this subtly disturbing story, life itself seems a lot more precious.
—The New York Times
David Masiel
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.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

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. (Aug.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

In Thomson's latest, set in Britain in 2002, a policeman's all-night guard duty becomes an occasion for soul-searching. While spending a long night in a hospital morgue guarding the body of a notorious female serial killer, Officer Billy Tyler is visited by memories and ghosts as he contemplates the disappointed dreams of his marriage, the challenges of raising a daughter with Down syndrome, and old lovers and friends the situation calls to mind. He struggles to come to terms with the memory of childhood friend Trevor, who claims to have been abducted by the woman Billy is now guarding, as well as his complex and unresolved feelings toward school friend Raymond Percival, with whom he took a notable trip to the Continent. Visited by the ghost of the old murderer, he is brought face to face with his own capability for evil as he reflects on his dealings with the abusive father of former lover Venetia. Thomson (Divided Kingdom) has crafted a deeply introspective work that memorably probes dark questions of love, guilt, and self. Recommended for public libraries.
—Lawrence Rungren

Kirkus Reviews
A policeman reflects on our potential for evil as he guards the corpse of a female child molester and murderer. Thomson (Divided Kingdom, 2005, etc.) has produced a "no-one-done-it" that, though lacking in detective work, is tautly crafted and absorbing. Billy Tyler lives in uneasy truce with life. Unmotivated, he never sought promotion to sergeant; he questions why the joy has fled from his marriage to Sue; he worries about his daughter, who has Down syndrome; and he struggles with his feelings for his father, a now-dead jazz musician whom Billy met twice in his life. During his 12-hour shift guarding the dead woman, who died of natural causes after 36 years in prison, his task is to fend off publicity and the morbid souls who want a trophy from the famous child murderer. Over the course of an outwardly uneventful night, Billy confronts his experience of good and evil as he thinks back on the victims and predators in his own past. These include Sue's father, Billy's lover and his childhood chum Trevor. And then there's Raymond, a sadistic former schoolmate whose devil-may-care attitude Billy found compelling as a teenager. During these reflections, the murderer bursts into Billy's subconscious, goading him to ask her why she could have done what she did, to acknowledge that anyone, "if the circumstances were right," might do what she did. In the wee hours, Billy confronts the potential for evil in himself. A penetrating, introspective twist on the morose-British-constable genre.

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Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Vintage International
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.80(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

When the news came through on the car radio, Billy sat quite motionless, unable to do anything but listen. He was parked on Norwich Road, outside a place called Glamour Gear. Lying on the seat beside him, sealed in an envelope of transparent plastic, were the ballet shoes he had promised to collect on his way home. The windscreen was starting to mist up, but he could still see out. An ordinary street in an ordinary English town. Friday afternoon. Lights on in all the shops, the pavement wet with rain . . .

He didn’t have any particular thoughts about the woman’s death. He didn’t feel sorry, or relieved, or cheated. It was vaguer than that, and more powerful. The woman had been involved in the murder of at least five people, three of them young children, and she had been feared and hated ever since. 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. The victims’ bodies had been buried on a high, desolate moor to the east of Manchester. It had all happened years ago, in the sixties, but people had never forgiven her for what she had done. Never forgiven, and never forgotten. And now she had died, of natural causes, in a hospital twenty miles away. It was one of those heightened moments when you make a mental note of your surroundings, and yet the whole thing felt oddly muted, scaled down, like watching an explosion through a telescope. Certainly, it never occurred to him that her death might affect him directly; he had no idea, at that point, that he was about to become part of the story.

The phone rang three days later, on the Monday evening, while he was watching a TV programme about the mystery of the pyramids. He would be leaving for work before too long, so he let his wife, Sue, take the call.

“Yes, he is,” he heard her say. “I’ll just get him.”

Eyes bright, almost silvery, she held the phone out to him and mouthed the words It’s for you. These days there was an exaggerated quality about her that he found bewildering: she would get excited over nothing, and angry over nothing. They had been together for fourteen years, married for ten, and yet he seemed to see her less clearly now than he had at the beginning.

Moving across the room, he took the phone from her and turned towards the window. Though it had already been dark for several hours, he parted the curtains and put his face close to the glass. He could just make out the dim shape of his car, and the low brick wall beyond.

“Billy Tyler here.”

“Billy? Are you all right?”

He had expected it to be one of his colleagues from the police station, but the voice on the other end belonged to Phil Shaw. Billy had acted as Phil’s probationer when Phil joined the force in 1992, which meant he’d had to show Phil the ropes, to guide him through those tricky first few weeks. He had known even then that Phil had a good career ahead of him. They’d got on pretty well, though. He used to have Phil over to the house for takeaways—curries in the kitchen, with plenty of cold lager—or if the weather was fine he would light the barbecue. Now, ten years later, Phil was a detective sergeant.

“You’ve seen the news?” Phil said.

“Hard to miss,” Billy said.

Over the weekend, he had bought most of the papers, and they had been full of articles about the woman. They had referred to her as “a sick killer,” “a monster” and “the devil”; her name, they said, was synonymous with evil. Many of the front pages had reprinted the picture that had been taken when she was first arrested, the picture that had captured so much more than it was intended to, not just the woman herself but the nature of the crimes as well, the atmosphere in which they had been committed. There she was, perfectly preserved, despite the thirty-six years she had spent behind bars: the sixties beehive hairdo, the sullen, bruised-looking mouth and, most potent of all, that steady black stare, so full of defiance and hostility, so empty of regret. There, too, was her boyfriend, the psychopath from Glasgow, who had initiated her into a world of pornography, sadism and murder. And there were the victims. Those little faces—for they were never blown up large, like hers. That old-fashioned, ham-fisted black-and-white. They were lost in time, it seemed, as well as to their families. On Saturday, the Sun had published a partial transcript of the sixteen-minute tape that had been played in court. It was a recording of the torture of one of the children, and it had shaken even the most cynical of reporters. Billy would have been nine when the trial started, and, naturally enough, the details of the crimes had been kept from him. All the same, he thought he remembered grown-ups talking in shocked whispers and glancing at him across their shoulders—his mother’s best friend, Betty Lydgate, and Auntie Ethel, and Mrs. Parks from next door—and a chill seemed to hang over that part of his childhood, as if, for a while, the sun had been obliterated by dark clouds. After reading the transcript, Billy went for a walk in the woods behind his house, a cold wind rushing through the trees, but he couldn’t rid himself of the woman’s voice. Hush hush. Stop it or I will forget myself and hit you one. Will you stop it. Stop it. Shut up.

Phil Shaw was saying something, though. Billy heard the words “supervise” and “operation,” and now, for the first time, he understood why Phil might be calling.

“We need you tomorrow night,” Phil said.

He was giving Billy the job of guarding the woman’s body. It would be her last night in the mortuary, he said. The funeral was scheduled for Wednesday evening, though no one knew that yet; that information had not been released. He was sorry, but Billy would have to work a twelve-hour shift. They were short on numbers. Still, at least there’d be some overtime in it.

“Will you be there?” Billy asked.

“I’ve been here since 4 a.m. on Friday when they realised she was going to die.”

Billy could imagine the grim smile on Phil’s face. Phil might sound calm, even matter-of-fact—one of his strengths was that he never lost his composure—but he would be feeling the strain. It was such a sensitive situation. There was so much that could go wrong.

They talked some more about what was being planned and what would be required, then Phil gave Billy directions to the hospital, which Billy jotted down on a notepad next to the phone.

“What is it?” Sue asked, the moment he hung up.

He decided not to tell her, not just yet.

“I’ve got to work a seven-to-seven tomorrow,” he said, then he went and sat in front of the TV again.

His programme about the pyramids was over.

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Meet the Author

Rupert Thomson is the author of seven previous novels, of which Divided Kingdom,The Book of Revelation, Soft!,The Insult, Air & Fire, and The
Five Gates of Hell are available in Vintage paperback. He lives in Barcelona.

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