I met Dennis Nilsen – he was articulate, witty, hard-working… and as morally mad as possible


WHEN actor David Tennant moved from Scotland to a flat in London’s Crouch End, his flatmate gave him a book to read.

It was Killing For Company, by Brian Masters, the definitive story of serial killer Dennis Nilsen, who strangled and dismembered at least 12 young men in the same area between 1978 and 1983.
Dennis Nilsen in police mugshot soon after his arrest in 1983Credit: Enterprise News and Pictures
Brian Masters is the best-selling author of Killing For Company

Nilsen was caught when drains became blocked with human remains. He was convicted, aged 37, of six murders and two attempted murders.

David, 49, said: “I remember reading it and just being appalled and intrigued.”

Tonight the star will be seen playing Nilsen, who died in prison in 2018, in new ITV drama Des.

Here author Brian, a consultant on the three-part series, writes exclusively for The Sun about his long-standing dealings with the lonely civil servant who kept the rotting corpses of his victims for company.
The book tells the story of Dennis Nilsen, who is believed to have killed at least 12 times

AS the author of books on French literature and a history of dukedoms, I’d never had any interest in the inner workings of the mind of a serial killer.

There was nothing in my experience to suggest I might devote a great deal of anguished attention to unravelling why a man should apparently kill others for pleasure, not once but up to 12 times.

However, when the newspapers were dominated by headlines about a “House of Horrors” in Muswell Hill, North London, I sat up and paid attention.

It seemed inexplicable that Nilsen, an articulate and hard-working employment agency officer, should secretly pursue the gruesome task of strangling, drowning and dismantling the bodies of total strangers — people he would later ruefully refer to, in letters to me and prison notebooks, as “a new kind of flatmate”.

The case threatened to be submerged by uninformed outrage, delighting in details while studiously avoiding any analysis of them.

Somebody should make the attempt to penetrate this dense and unseemly fog in a proper and useful way. Why not me?

I was protected from the start by my own ignorance.

All the crime writers and journalists knew that they were not permitted contact with a prisoner on remand. I didn’t.

So I wrote to Nilsen at Brixton Prison of my intention to investigate the case, but would not do so without his consent and co-operation.

I made it clear that I intended to undertake a deep search into painful thoughts.
David Tennant as Dennis Nilsen in ITV drama DesCredit: Robert Viglasky
Dennis Nilsen on his way to court in handcuffs in February 1983Credit: Getty - Contributor

Then came his astonishing reply, passing the burden on to my shoulders.

Letters over the coming months and years went into the hundreds.

The prisoner put in a visiting order in my name. It took the governor some weeks to realise what I was up to, but he seemed to think the visits helped to keep his prisoner calm.

My first visit was dominated by Nilsen’s body language. We sat at a square table, with a tin ashtray in the centre which he filled throughout the interview — cigarettes being the only luxury I was permitted to bring with me.

His arm hung casually over the back of his chair, as if he were in charge and was inviting me to explain myself.

That attitude was to change as he gradually realised that I was not so easily manipulated and intended to manage the relationship in my own way.

Some psychiatrists engaged on the case were never wholly convinced that I had escaped that trap. They saw power in the murderer, not in the writer.

But I knew what Nilsen was trying to do, and was always thereby one step ahead of him. Eventually he realised that.

My friends had different worries. Was I frightened, or even nervous, in his presence?

Months later I gave a sample of Nilsen’s writing to a graphologist. I gave no clue as to the identity of the writer.


She asked me: “Have you ever been alone in a room with the man who wrote this?” I said I had not. “Well, don’t be,” she replied, “He is extremely dangerous.”

People also wanted to know if Nilsen was likeable to any degree. He could certainly be witty, telling me once about a lawyer who “had a tax-deductible heart”.

He was quick-witted, allowing for the fact that his cleverness was mostly second-hand — he picked up quotations and adopted them.

But there was never going to develop anything resembling a friendship between us. He was always talking at me, rather than with me, like a programmed, fully rehearsed stand-in for a spontaneous human.

He never asked me anything, because it never occurred to him to listen. No wonder people walked away from him.

Except now, in prison, I saw him warmly greeted by other prisoners, whom he had helped with letters home. People also wanted to know if I found him evil.

I was surprised to hear the judge use this word in his summing-up at the Old Bailey, when I had always thought such a word should be banished from any court which deals with evidence-based, ascertainable facts, not emotional hunches.

For similar reasons, I made a conscious effort in the writing of Killing For Company not to suggest that one could or should “understand” what made Nilsen do what he did.

The word is a minefield, for it carries the implication of sympathy. I preferred to see my job as to “comprehend” in order the better to explain.


Understanding is much too personal, even insulting, to the victims.

One victim who did not die was the now late Carl Stottor, then a 21-year-old drag artist.

Nilsen had strangled him and held him in bath water, but his pet dog was quick to discern the difference between life and death even if Nilsen could not. The animal licked the corpse’s feet.

Looking on, Nilsen jumped to instant activity of a different order.

He got out extra blankets, rubbed Carl’s legs to get the blood flowing, turned on the heater and sent him on his way the next morning clutching the address and telephone number in case he wanted to come back one day.

Stottor was ruined for ever. “I don’t know if that man was my murderer or my saviour, because he was both,” he later told me.

One incident suggested that Nilsen wanted to be stopped. When the drains became blocked at his Cranley Gardens flat, a letter was sent to the landlords’ agent demanding that a plumber be sent immediately.

It said the situation was intolerable and insanitary, and that the tenants should not be expected to endure it over the weekend.

I asked to see the letter, and, with a start, recognised the handwriting. It was Nilsen’s. Had he sought to engineer his own arrest?

My visits to Nilsen came to an end about ten years after his conviction, I think because he had heard me on the BBC comparing his crimes to those of others in the United States.
Brian Masters says it was important that the treatment of the show should not risk being an entertainmentCredit: NEWPICTURES
Nilsen's Melrose Avenue home - one scene of his many crimeCredit: Rex Features

I was not sorry. Nor was I ever “fascinated” by the crimes, details of which were frankly so revolting that I withheld them from my book.

I used to think it would come back to haunt and trouble me in old age. The thoughts and images which accompanied my work on this book are still there, somewhere, hidden and lurking.

After his death in May 2018, the police also delivered some of Nilsen’s belongings to me, in accordance with his instructions.

I wondered about infection by proximity, and disposed of them. But the new TV series devoted to Nilsen’s trial and imprisonment is another matter.

It was crucially important that the treatment should not risk being an entertainment, designed to titillate rather than inform.

The writer and actors made sure that nobody could mistake their commitment for enjoyment. One must not, and cannot, glamorise the squalor of some human behaviour. And here’s another paradox.

I had at first scrambled the order of the murders, and given them numbers rather than names, to protect the families. Nilsen remonstrated with me.

“You must not steal their identities,” he said.

“I did that when I took their lives. You are doing it again. At least let them retain the dignity of their name.”
Dennis Nilsen worked as an Army chef before becoming a civil servantCredit: Alamy
Jason Watkins plays author Brian Masters

That gave me uneasy pause. As did the jury’s conclusion that he was sane.

In the morning, Nilsen would turn down the heat beneath the pan in which was simmering the head of a man he had briefly known, take the dog for a walk, check the heat again, butter a slice of toast and eat it.

That may denote sanity, as legally defined, but at the same time he was as morally mad as it is possible to be.