Following the recent republication of his book examining the crimes of serial killer Dennis Nilsen, author Douglas Bence shares some thoughts on Nilsen’s life and the contributions he hopes The Nilsen File: Re-opened can make.
The life of serial-killer Dennis Nilsen was a sandwich filled with four years of murder between 1979 and 1983.
Born in 1945, his first 37 years were spent, first as a child and teenager in Scotland, and then as an army regular, security guard, probationary police constable in London and finally as a junior civil servant in the Manpower Services Commission arm of the Department of Employment.
After being sentenced to life imprisonment at London’s Central Criminal Court in November 1983, he spent the remaining 35 years of his life in captivity explaining how and why his experiences up until 1979 had made his killing years both inexplicable and unavoidable, what he called the ‘conundrum’ of his life. So a horror story sandwiched between two generations.
When he invited police into his North London flat and was minutes later arrested, he co-operated and told them everything he remembered. What he revealed to detectives in nine interviews spread over 31 hours became the foundation of the Crown’s case against him. The gory details of severed heads boiled in saucepans were read out by detectives and stunned all those to silence who were uncomfortably squeezed into a packed No 1 court.
As a remand prisoner at Brixton he had written letters and filled exercise books with his thoughts about what he’d done and why he’d done it. He wrote poetry, too, and built some kind of relationship with writer Brian Masters going into more details about his thoughts and behaviour before and after his crimes.
He continued to fill notebooks, which to my knowledge have never been released by the Home Office to his family or the general public. Long passages of his tolerably legible handwriting were smuggled out of prison and gobbled up by the press and turned into press reports with inviting headlines.
It seems to me that anyone who wrote to Nilsen in prison got some kind of reply, including me. What he told them would obviously be influenced by the nature of the questions they asked. On one occasion he was filmed in conversation with a psychiatrist and explained how he had recovered some of his victims from where he’d hidden them under the floorboards, dissected their bodies and did his best to dispose of them with bonfires in the garden. Although attempts were made to prevent it being broadcast, extracts were later shown on television
In spite of this last incident, Nilsen claimed never to have received any psychiatric consultation or treatment regarding his mental health and what might have happened in his life to have triggered his years of murderous behaviour fuelled as they were by alcohol and loneliness.
So it can be seen that the Dennis Nilsen legacy, if there is such a thing, in other words his story as it reaches the general public, has been totally controlled by Nilsen himself and, amazingly, no one has challenged it.
I think they should and hope that my book, The Nilsen File: Re-opened, might stimulate some questions about aspects of his case, which seems to have a timeless fascination with countless documentaries, with a three-part ITV series last summer and at least one more film to follow. Hopefully, it will also increase the pressure on the Home Office to release at least some of his writings, if not to the world at large, then at least to those who are professionally qualified.
You can get your copy of The Nilsen File: Re-opened here.