Killing for Company: The Case of Dennis Nilson by Brian Masters
Publisher: Arrow Publishing
Publication date: 17 September 2020 (originally published in 1985)
Genre: True crime
Page count: 368 pages
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
I’m an enthusiastic listener of true crime podcasts, having been caught up in the My Favorite Murder craze back when it started, but have read very few true crime books. While I’ve moved on to better and more responsible podcasts, my interest in true crime remains. When the opportunity to read Killing for Company crossed my path, I decided to give it a go, despite some of my discomfort around true crime reporting and attitudes.
Dennis Nilsen, who died in May 2018, murdered at least 15 people before his arrest in 1983. This groundbreaking criminal study of his killings was written with Nilsen’s full cooperation, resulting in a fascinating – and horrifying – portrait of the man who worshipped death.
On February 9th 1983 Dennis Nilsen was arrested at his Muswell Hill home, after human remains had been identified as the cause of blocked drains.
‘Are we talking about one body or two,’ a detective asked. Nilsen replied ‘Fifteen or sixteen, since 1978. I’ll tell you everything.’
Within days he had confessed to fifteen gruesome murders over a period of four years. His victims, all young homosexual men, had never been missed. Brian Masters, with Nilsen’s full cooperation, has produced a unique study of a murderer’s mind, essential reading for true crime aficionados.
Before we dive in, I did (and still do) have some concerns with reading true crime — especially a book written in the 80’s like Killing for Company. Murder, especially when committed by the ‘heavy hitters’, has a tendency to be sensationalised, the victims forgotten, or the killers themselves turned into objects of fascination or worship. I have a huge issue with those true crime aficionados who treat it as pure entertainment — I’ve seen some awful things be said to and about victims and their families over the years — and have always been worried that true crime books will fall into this category of sensationalism and awfulness. One of the reasons I enjoyed The Five so much is that Rubenhold remembered the women who lost their lives and didn’t fall into the trap of seeing Jack the Ripper as some kind of fascinating and mysterious man.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way (sorry), I really felt like Masters did a great job of reporting on facts of the case in this book. A wealth of the information, as he explains in the opening pages, was provided by Neilson himself after his arrest and his his own words are often used in the book. Nilson filled dozens of notebooks with writings on his life and experiences (as well as questionable poetry) while in prison and gave the author access to everything. Of course, much of this means we have to rely on Nilson being truthful about his actions and state of mind, but I felt Masters did a good job of reminding the reader of this — just because it’s a first hand account doesn’t mean it’s an honest account.
The book acts as a biography for the murderer, starting from his childhood in Scotland to his lonely adulthood in London. Masters speculates on where this man’s fascination with death and instinct to kill may have come from, as well as why he’s held up as such a fascinating case for psychologists, as he doesn’t neatly fit the mould of any particular mental illness like psychopathy or narcissism. He lets Nilsen describe the acts of murder he committed in his own words — a little unsettling, to say the least — and speculates on why he killed some men, but let others go. It has an incredibly in-depth and detailed account of the trial and post-conviction reactions, and is generally a very well-written book.
The one issue I did have with Killing for Company is one that I think would have been hard for Masters to have completely avoided — it is far, far too sympathetic to Nilson. It’s understandable that Masters connected with this man through all of their years of correspondence and interviews, however I felt that there were several points in which Masters really tried to make Nilson seem like a kind of tragic figure — a victim of his circumstances. Sure, he was a lonely man living a sad life, however that doesn’t even remotely excuse his actions. Masters seemed to have lost sight of the fact that he was speaking about a mass murderer at times, and this really rubbed me the wrong way.
If you’re looking for an incredibly thorough investigation into one man’s mind and heinous actions, you should absolutely give this book a try, however I’d warn against falling into the same trap as the author himself and finding the subject sympathetic. I’d highly recommend the audiobook, which is how I read it, as the narrator is absolutely fantastic! It is a totally compelling listen and I binged it in two sittings.
I’d be very curious to see how this translates to TV, as it has been recently adapted with David Tennant starring as Neilson.
If you’re unaware of Neilson’s crimes, content warnings for: murder, sexual assault, dismemberment, homophobia, and discussion about necrophilia.
You can find a copy of Killing for Company at the following sites (affiliate links):