Dennis Nilsen Speaks
I wrote this after watching the recent Netflix series, and I'm posting it here as the BBC unveils its new study of the case.
No! Not Harry Nilssen, Without You. He had two esses. I always mixed these guys up. But in the UK, Dennis became even more famous than Harry. A serial killer so prolific that he lost count of his victims. He’s been in and out of the news but is back from beyond the grave with a new documentary on Netflix with Memories of a Murderer: The Nilsen Tapes. And it’s great. So much better than expected. The USP this time is that they actually play some of the many tapes Nilsen made in prison to prepare for his autobiography. I didn’t find them as compelling as expected, and they’re not actually used that much. This is a very good, balanced overview of Nilsen and his story, and the story of the 15 (or maybe 16) young men he murdered at his flat. Actually, there were two flats.
They say that true crime documentaries are only really successful if they resolve the mystery and let you know who did all the mayhem. I strongly disagree. It’s the missing persons cases, the kidnappings, the riddles and the mysteries that keep me interested. But the Nilsen case was so shocking, and remains so famous, that you have to be aware of the basics if you have an interest in true crime and live in the UK. And it turns out, there are lingering mysteries here.
For a start, despite meticulous searching of Nilsen’s home and former home, the police could only ever identify eight victims. This is partly because Nilsen looked for men on the fringes of society, and partly because Nilsen burned the bodies and used the crushed remains to fertilise his garden. Oh yes.
His victims were nearly never reported missing. They came from troubled backgrounds, and they often showed up in London from afar. Some of them were drug addicts. Some of them, perhaps most, were homosexual. Some combination of these facts allowed Nilsen to carry on for much longer than he otherwise would have done. A mixture of fear and shame dissuaded some early targets from pushing for prosecutions. There was a chance to put Nilsen away for GBH that was missed. Nilsen even worked, for a short time, for the police. He picked up some tips, and never seemed nervous in police interviews. He never really sounds nervous in any of the tapes. He’s almost detached. It feels like he wanted the police to help him understand what he had done, as though he wasn’t completely sure. He spoke of a demon inside.
What stood out to me, fresh from the Sophie Toscan du Plantier case, were two things in particular. One of the BBC journalists who covered the story from the first moment was Bill Hamilton. He tells of his sheer exhilaration when he realised there was not just one victim but possibly sixteen. Young Bill realised at that second that this was the case that would stand tall in his entire career. This was the white whale. This is exactly the reaction we see in Ian Bailey many years later. It is an embarrassing thing to admit, but Bill is honest enough to admit what any journalist would feel. A thrill.
The other notable observation is that Nilsen wrote extensively in prison, and made tapes of his experiences, and comes across as a cold, calculating man. Not quite mad, but certainly not wholesome. His willingness to talk and write about his activities kept him in the news in a way that the Wests or Ian Huntley have not. The only real question in his trial seemed to be whether he was bonkers or whether he was normal enough to accept responsibility for his crimes. The jury decided that he was just this side of normal, otherwise he would have been treated as a hospital patient, most likely in Broadmoor with Ian Brady.
Yes, Nilsen sought the limelight, perhaps revelling in his notoriety. And the journalists involved still dine out on the stories today. Sound familiar in West Cork?
After writing this article, I started to wonder whether frequently naming these abhorrent killers somehow elevates them at the expense of their victims. For most of my cold case articles, I make sure to mention the victim’s name as often as possible, and the killer as little as possible. I think this only becomes a problem for the most notorious serial killers, when it would simply be confusing to have to name the victims more than once. This is why Nilsen, Shipman and the Wests, Peter Sutcliffe, and Hindley and Brady, become so famous. They are just so rare, so remarkable, that in some respects their sheer horror makes them deserving of notoriety. Almost as if to say: we keep these monsters in mind as a warning against our worst selves, our worst possibilities.