Gene Lyons
December 17, 1993 at 05:00 AM EST

This much, at least, seems clear: Those we in our world-weary, sophisticated age term serial killers, our superstitious ancestors called werewolves- tormented monsters, half-human, half-beast, driven to slaughter by forces ) beyond their ken. What’s far less clear to those of us who don’t believe in demonic possession or the evil powers of the full moon is how to account for the presence of such people among us. Not to mention the equally tricky question of how to deal with them in a legal, moral, psychiatric, and medical sense. Yet it’s exactly this task that author Brian Masters sets for himself in Killing for Company, a remarkably literate and persuasive account of the depredations of Dennis Nilsen, a quiet civil servant who strangled 15 young men over a four-year period in his London flat.

Like his American counterpart Jeffrey Dahmer a decade later, Nilsen pleaded insanity. Like Dahmer, he was convicted, ”with the result,” Masters observes, ”that both men were found to have been perfectly sane when they boiled human heads to remove the flesh, when they slept beside putrefying corpses, when they were capable of making a cup of coffee and buttering a slice of toast in the midst of human debris. I find this an intolerable conclusion.”

Not that Masters, a biographer and critic who has written on such French literary figures as Moliere, Sartre, and Camus, wishes to see Nilsen let off the hook-either legally or morally. Nilsen himself wouldn’t want that. At times almost disarmingly intelligent and articulate-even the police officers made physically ill by his confession didn’t actually dislike him-he referred to his arrest as ”the day help arrived.” Yet Killing for Company is also apt to persuade most readers that getting caught freed Nilsen from a ghastly compulsion beyond his control. Even so, ”one of the most astonishing aspects of the case,” Masters points out, ”is Nilsen’s ability to go about his daily work with energy and enthusiasm…while all the time there was a collection of bodies under his floor or in his closet.”

But Nilsen, who cooperated with Masters throughout, can also be hatefully arrogant-perhaps never more than when he’s also quite right. ”The population at large,” he wrote in his prison journal, ”is neither ‘ordinary’ or ‘normal.’ They seem bound together by a collective ignorance of what they are….I believe they can identify with these ‘dark images and acts’ and loathe anything which reminds them of this dark side of themselves. The usual reaction is a flood of popular self-righteous condemnation but a willingness to talk over and over again the appropriate bits of the case.”

But whether its taste runs to Friday the 13th slasher epics, Stephen King thrillers, or Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment-rightly cited by Masters as the most profound literary depiction of a fragmenting psyche like Nilsen’s-what the population at large both comprehends and feels is the profound gulf between unthinkable impulse and unspeakable act. As Nilsen clearly cannot. Exactly how and why that’s so, Masters can’t say in any definitive or easily summarized sense. A courageous and eye-opening book all the same. A-

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