History of a Drowning Boy – Dennis Nilsen

Genre: Non-fiction | Autobiography

Pages: 336

My rating: ☆☆☆☆/5

I’d like to thank the team at Literally PR for sending me a copy of this book in exchange for a review on its publication day!

Content warning: This book is a first person retelling of what it’s like to be a serial killer. If you struggle with themes including murder, sexual violence, sex, child abuse, paedophillia, homophobia and alcoholism then this book definitely isn’t for you. These themes are very strong throughout the first few chapters of the book and are completely unavoidable.

Dennis Nilsen was one of Britain’s most notorious serial killers, jailed for life in 1983 after the murders of 12 men and the attempted murders of many more.

Seven years after his conviction, Nilsen began to write his autobiography and over a period of 18 years he typed 6,000 pages of introspection, reflection, comment and explanation.

History of a Drowning Boy – taken exclusively from these astonishing writings – uncovers, for the first time, the motives behind the murders, and delivers a clear understanding of how such horrific events could have happened, tracing the origins back to early childhood. In another first, it provides an insight into his 35 years inside the maximum-security prison system including his everyday life on the wings; his interactions with the authorities and other notorious prisoners; and his artistic endeavours of music, writing and drama. It also reveals the truth behind many of the myths surrounding Dennis Nilsen, as reported in the media.

Nilsen was determined to have his memoir published but to his frustration, the Home Office blocked publication during his lifetime. He died in 2018, entrusting the manuscript to his closest friend and it is now being published with the latter’s permission.

Any autobiography presents the writer’s story from just one perspective – his own, and as such this record should be treated with some caution. An excellent foreword by criminologist Dr Mark Pettigrew offers some context to Nilsen’s words, and this important work provides an extraordinary journey through the life of a remarkable and inadequate man.

I’ve never read a book told from the perspective of a murderer before, and quite frankly it was enthralling. Dennis had a very, very challenging upbringing and being a gay man during the 50s/60s/70s definitely made things worse for him. I know that there’s absolutely no justification for murdering someone, but you can tell from the horrendous challenges he faced during his upbringing that they were piecing together all of the pieces that led to him being the way he was.

The first few chapters of the book I thought were the most interesting. He tells of his life right from the day he was born, through his childhood and into adulthood. As a child he was regularly sexually assaulted by his grandfather, which led to a whole host of issues for him mentally. He also knew he was gay, but at the time it wasn’t seen as being ok to be gay and so it was a big secret he had to keep to himself which I think really ate away at him.

He retells the way in which he murdered each of his victims, which is something really quite disturbing to read. The only other non-fiction true crime book I’ve read was about Ted Bundy, and that was third person so I feel you don’t get that same emotional connection whilst reading. Having Dennis Nilsen tell the reader exactly what he did to murder the men he lured back to his house is emotionally challenging to say the least.

The majority of the book is whilst he was in various prisons up and down England as that’s where he spent 35 years of his life. I definitely found the chapters that run up to his arrest the most interesting, but the prison chapters were still fascinating to read and provided a real insight into what life is really like when you’re in prison – it definitely isn’t all sunshine and rainbows like what’s portrayed in some TV shows and films!

I think that anyone who is a fan of true crime would enjoy this book. It is so different to anything I’ve ever read and will definitely be sticking around in my mind for a long, long time!

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