True Crime Audiobook Review: Killing for Company

You can buy the book in the True Crime Fiction bookshop here.

Killing for Company, by Brian Masters is a slightly different offering in the True Crime genre, but definitely one I would suggest could become part of the cannon.  I picked it up after watching the ITV drama Des, which features David Tennant, eerily looking very like the titular Dennis Neilson.  Killing for Company is very different from most true crime books that investigate the lives and crimes of serial killers. The main difference is not with the subject, but the author. While a lot of true crime is written by former police, or journalists, Masters is neither.  In fact before Masters first foray into the murky psyche of Scottish Neilson, he mainly wrote books about philosophers, or the royal family. Master was very much coming down on the high brow side of the cultural line.

While true crime fans everywhere have been delighted at the changes that have meant following true crime no longer marks you out as morbid, weird, or a possible serial killer yourself, Masters wrote Des in 1983, a time when true crime was looked down on as a very lower brow pursuit, with more than a hint of the tawdry around it. So it is intriguing that a man with more high-brow leanings would chose to foray into the genre. He does however explain quite clearly why he chose to do so, and simply put, it was homophobia.

Neilson identifies himself as bisexual, and all of his murders were of young men. In England, where Neilson committed his crimes and was tried, homosexuality was only legal for men over 21 in 1967, and 1980 in his home country of Scotland. The age of consent was only lowered to the same age as heterosexual couples in 2000. In the period in which Neilson was operating there still would be significant social pressure and hostility around LGBTI+ people, and the annals of true crime attest to this. There are serial killers who specifically preyed on LGBTI+ men, Herb Baumeister, Colin Ireland, Bruce Arthur and many more.  In a lot of cases the police came pretty late to the party, through a mixture of homophobia, taboo and a reluctance from victims to go through a possibly painful public outing on top of significant trauma they’d already received.

Masters feared that a writer who was not sensitive to the LGBTI+ experience would sensationalise the crimes and emphasises the homosexual element as a means to drum up salacious interest and sales, which could and very likely would negatively impact on the LGBTI+ community.  Given the hostility that LGBTI+ people have, and still face, Masters fears were probably well founded.

Instead of sympathising with Neilson, Masters strips him of the myth he would make of himself.

Mairi R R Campbell-Jack

It is probably the fact that Masters was not already immersed in the true crime world that gives his phycological dissection of Neilson the freshness it has.  The last part of this excellently audio book with superb narration by Jason Watkins (who’s performance in Des is also of the typical high standard we now expect from him) is a two hour chapter where he investigates all the phycological aspects of Nelsons crimes in an attempt to pin down actions which to many people are baffling.  Some people accused Masters of being too sympathetic to Neilson.  However it is precisely the pinning down, which while uncomfortable listening at times, stops Neilson being a bogey man or monster around which legends could spring, but instead putting him squarely and firmly in the category of being human.  To some that may sound like sympathy or an honour Neilson does not deserve,  but Masters does not draw a picture of a whole human, but one that is a shrivelled, aberration.  The thing about being human is you can be stopped and jailed, neutralised and no longer feared.  Whereas if you are a monster, there is never any telling if you can be defeated or not.  Instead of sympathising with Neilson, Masters strips him of the myth he would make of himself, and stops him being able to appear like the kind of larger than life pop culture figure many serial killers morph into over the years.  Instead you see him for what he is sick, pathetic, weak, lonely, and unable to access the most basic of human needs, connectedness to others. 

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