The crimes of Dennis Nilsen have always been a fascination to me, and many pages and several books have been written about them in the 33 years since Nilsen’s conviction and subsequent life imprisonment for the murders of 13 young men in London, from 1978 to 1983. Indeed, information about the details of Nilsen’s crimes is so widely available, almost public knowledge, that it would serve no purpose to recount them here. I am quite versed in the Nilsen case, having read many articles concerning it over the years. I also own what I considered for several years to be the two definitive books authored about the case, namely “Killing For Company” by Brian Masters, and “House Of Horrors” by John Lisners. Both are excellent reads – if somewhat sensationalised – and are highly recommended.
But, as any readers of my previous reviews will know, I am always impressed by a book upon a certain case if either I learn new details from it; or it is written from a different viewpoint, regardless if I have read one book upon the subject, or ten. I approached Dennis Nilsen: Conversations With Britain’s Most Evil Serial Killer with interest because this book is written with arguably more insight and from a more knowledgeable source than any other: Nilsen himself. What is often touched upon, but perhaps not in too great detail, is how prolific a writer Nilsen himself is. Over the course of his incarceration, Nilsen has completed countless volumes of self- reflective writing and has corresponded with numerous pen pals, academics, journalists and authors.
This book then, is written using the author’s first hand access to Nilsen’s own controversial (and subsequently Home Office banned) self penned autobiography, History Of A Drowning Boy. (Allegedly, the author, Russ Coffey, is one of only 4 people to have done so)The author, Russ Coffey, spent a decade corresponding with Nilsen, researching and writing this book and has developed what is arguably one of the best accounts a journalist has ever constructed with a subject.
Coffey has written a well-structured book, commencing with good accounts of Nilsen’s early life, and his careers serving both in the Army and Metropolitan Police. The author goes on to echo what has become the canonical Nilsen story, namely his bizarre (and morbid)sexual fantasies, his relationship with alcohol, his one night stands, and ultimately towards the end of the book, his crimes. This is followed by Nilsen’s arrest and trial. Nothing ground breakingly new here one might say, although these accounts have all been very well researched and written. Impressive is the detail here contained in these accounts that stems from the author’s research – I read within the book several anecdotes about Nilsen’s life that were previously unknown to me, which I always find refreshing. Coffey has also painstakingly traced several people featured in the Nilsen story – these range from friends and acquaintances, to old colleagues, to members of the victim’s families – all of which their accounts and words add colour to the Nilsen story. Excellent plus points.
What impressed me most with Dennis Nilsen: Conversations With Britain’s Most Evil Serial Killer was how much of the book focuses (in good detail and as a flowing narrative) on a chronological account of Nilsen’s life in prison. Several chapters are devoted to this, and I found this refreshing, as the side of Nilsen’s incarceration over the past 33 years is often only skimmed over – with any writing on the subject instead focusing predominantly upon his murders. Where the accounts differ from other books about the Nilsen case is that these benefit from being written with the hindsight of Nilsen’s own years of self- reflection to provide a commentary upon them. Again, this contains several anecdotes that have not been published in other writing about Nilsen.
Overall, it makes for chilling yet fascinating reading. The research and written accounts deserve much credit, the reproduction of Nilsen’s own words is fascinating and insightful, and the photographs contained inside are varied, with some that will not be familiar to students of the Nilsen case. With the benefit of having access to Nilsen’s own writing (and “autobiography”), Coffey skilfully invites the reader to attempt to understand Nilsen’s psyche. I found it a fascinating book, and one that I could highly recommend both to those familiar with the Nilsen case, and novice students of it. In my opinion, it has become THE recommended book about the crimes of Dennis Nilsen.
The True Crime Enthusiast