DEATH OF A MURDERER
By Rupert Thomson
Alfred A. Knopf, 226 pages, $23
“Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”
— J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
Rupert Thomson’s serenely eerie, trans-genre eighth novel is a head trip. It takes place in a straightforwardly narrative 12-hour span, yet zooms all over in time, as thought does, and space, as dreams do. It’s extremely tightly written, with not a word extraneous, yet leaky with coincidence.
One of the two principals is an unnamed ghost who may or may not be real, though her evil is palpable. She’s in fact instantly recognizable to Britons as an actual person, the so-called “moor murderess” Myra Hindley—just as, for instance, Hedda Nussbaum (partner of child murderer Joel Steinberg) would be recognizable to New Yorkers. Hindley (who participated in multiple child abductions, sexual tortures and murders) is now in fact actually dead, making her excellent ghost fodder.
She’s conjured by Mr. Thomson’s protagonist, Billy Tyler, a policeman assigned to guard her corpse, which is locked in a hospital morgue to keep it safe from the curious and the furious. Her ghost is uncontained, yet tethered to the scene: She goes anyplace Tyler goes, until his time guarding her is up. They converse, she with dryly ironic omniscience, he with the low-key horror of identifying—you know, that “there but for the grace of God go I” stuff that rattles around in our heads when others do what we only wish to do, which in this case is to murder. This, then, is the author’s conceit: We are separated from such people not by kind, but by degree. In other words, she’s a projection.
Indeed, the whole book transpires in Billy Tyler’s head; we see through his eyes and think his thoughts, which are often about his wife and their 8-year-old daughter, who has Down’s syndrome. We only learn what our antihero looks like very near the end of the novel, when, in a flashback, he glimpses himself in a mirror, “a big man, hot and anxious.” It’s a strange moment, seeing him from the outside, and a fleeting one.
In Divided Kingdom, his last book, Mr. Thomson divvied Britain up into four countries representing the four medieval humors, and his protagonist illegally crossed them. In Death of a Murderer, the novelist is still concerned with borders and boundaries, but they’re internal (in Billy’s mind), and internalized (in the novel’s structure). Within the generous confines of conventional narrative, Mr. Thomson can transgress, producing a novel that might bear any number of labels and adjectives—among them gothic, thriller, mystery, meditation, lamentation, morality tale.
Reading it—and thinking about it afterward—you’re interested in how this novel works. Whether you care about what’s happening—about Billy, or anyone else in it—is another matter. This is not a lovable book. It might not even be a likable book. But it’s a skillful one, with passages here and there that take your breath away, because they’re so knowing, or because they’re so lyrical. Tender is the night, but creepy, too.
Nancy Dalva is senior writer at 2wice.