Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Dennis Nilsen

A Featured Character

Dennis Nilsen
Dennis Nilsen

Nilsen, no doubt, influenced many fiction writers to some degree, but one of the most sustained portrayals of a killer based on him is in Poppy Z. Brite's Exquisite Corpse. In that novel, she draws together two serial killers-Jay Byne, who lives in her hometown of New Orleans, and Andrew Compton from London.

To Compton, murder is an art. Since he was thirteen, he would imagine himself dead, using make-up to enhance the effect. He uses this talent to feign his own death so he can escape from prison. He then goes to the United States, where he meets Byrne, based in part on Jeffrey Dahmer. Together they pick out the perfect victim.

This story is filled with graphic descriptions of the dismemberment and decomposition of bodies. Brite was clearly (and admittedly) inspired by Nilsen's long and detailed account of his techniques. Her own killer, age 33, killed twenty-three boys and young men between 1977 and 1988. (Nilsen himself said that had he not been arrested, he would have continued what he was doing and might have left thousands of corpses.)

Like Nilsen, his victims were transients, and he would take care of them in such a way as to make them pliable. Also like Nilsen, he enjoyed the act of murder ('though he chose the knife), but he did not much care for the necessary dismemberment afterward. He kept them in his flat for as long as a week, and he did not mind the odor of death. He wanted them with him so he would not feel alone. "A corpse could never walk away," he says. As he cut them up, he drank alcohol, just like Nilsen, and after he was incarcerated, he filled numerous notebooks with his introspection and recollections. Although Compton is much more of a predator than Nilsen, his psychology owes its inspiration to his real life counterpart.

 

 

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