Rupert Thomson

"Death of a Murderer"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple DEC 15, 2007)

"She had shown [everybody] 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 themselves about."

Somewhat reminiscent of Patrick McCabe in his psychological intensity, Rupert Thomson tells the story of a murderer and the policeman who is guarding her dead body until it can be cremated.  The unnamed murderer, the most hated woman in the UK (purportedly modeled after the real British serial killer, Myra Hindley), killed five people, three of them children, before dying of natural causes.  Constable Billy Tyler, assigned to the hospital mortuary for a twelve-hour, overnight shift to protect the body from the press and the general public, "had no idea, at that point, that he was about to become part of the story."

As Billy settles in for a long night, he reminisces about his own life, the father whom he has seen only twice in his life, his problems with his arrogant father-in-law, his sometimes turbulent marriage to Sue, and the difficulties of caring for their only child, a daughter Emma, who has Down Syndrome.  In carefully described, cinematic episodes, Billy recreates his younger days, his relationship with Raymond Percival, who introduced him to break-ins and thievery and with whom he traveled to Europe, a time during which Raymond almost killed him as a joke.  He thinks about his lovers and his best friend, Neil Batty, who was dismissed from the police force after beating a suspect, and while on a break, he meets a South Asian man whose wife is in the hospital awaiting life-threatening surgery.

Exhausted by his overtime duty, Billy, a simple man with few ambitions, intellectual or otherwise, soon finds himself entering a dreamworld in which the killer appears and speaks to him, a dreamworld so vivid that he must remind himself that "there was nobody…there never had been, there could not have been."  Billy has investigated the murderer's background, and, surprised by the fact that she has materialized to reveal her life, much of it mundane, he begins to explore, superficially, some of life's big questions--what makes a killer, how far people will go for love, the nature of guilt, and, ultimately, the value of life. 

As his reminiscences, his repeated visits from the murderer's ghost, and the reality of his duty in the mortuary overlap, the novel achieves high drama, and the reader becomes intimately acquainted with Billy's history, his thoughts, and his perceived similarities with the murderer.  Written in unpretentious language and style, and featuring a main character who is, essentially, an ordinary man with ordinary hopes and dreams for the future, the novel's appeal lies in its ability to bring this everyman to life, creating a dramatic portrait of someone at a personal crossroad. 

When Billy and the ghost eventually share their thoughts about whom each has loved most in life, Billy, in a consummate irony, finds himself learning from her.  Reinforcing how small the differences may be between the cop and the killer, between the devoted parent of a handicapped child and the convicted abuser, and between someone who can wish someone dead and someone who actually makes someone dead, this dark novel explores familiar territory in new ways, appealing to a wide audience with its psychologically perceptive observations.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 12 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Death of a Murderer at Random House



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About the Author:

Rupert ThomsonRupert Thomson was born on the south coast of England in 1955 and was educated at Christ's Hospital School. At the age of seventeen he won a scholarship to Cambridge University where he studied Medieval History and Political Thought. In his twenties, he spent four years working as a copywriter in London, but in 1982 he moved to Italy where he started work on a novel. Dreams of Leaving was published in 1987. Since then, he has published six more highly acclaimed novels, two of which, Air and Fire and The Insult have been shortlisted for awards.

Thomson now lives with his wife and their daughter in Barcelona.

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