I Struck Up a Friendship with the Serial Killer Dennis Nilsen. Then I Edited His Memoirs.

Initially banned for publication, the book spans the murderer's childhood, career and killings. Here's how it was put together.
Dennis Nilsen m
Dennis Nilsen. Photo: 'History of a Drowning Boy', RedDoor Press.

In a cultural landscape replete with documentaries, podcasts and biographies about infamous acts of violence, the recent miniseries Des (starring David Tennant and Daniel Mays) stunned audiences. Tennant’s chilling depiction of the civil servant turned serial killer – plus the era’s rank homophobia – added another unsettling layer to the story of the man known as the “Kindly Killer”. 


Set in 1983, the programme covers Nilsen’s arrest, the police investigation into his crimes (there are 12 young male victims attributed to Nilsen) and his trial and imprisonment. This focus on Nilsen, who died in May of 2018, is set to continue, with a forthcoming Netflix documentary based on his posthumous memoirs, History of a Drowning Boy, which were released on the 21st of January.

Banned by the UK Home Office in 2003, the book condenses 6,000 pages of handwritten notes, letters and other information that Nilsen created during his decades-long imprisonment on several charges of murder and attempted murder, creating a narrative that spans his childhood, career, killings and time in prison. 

I spoke to Nilsen’s longtime friend, Mark Austin, who collated and edited the book, to discuss the origins of their relationship, Nilsen’s imprisonment and the challenges of editing a murderer’s most personal material. 

Dennis Nilsen book interview

Photo: ​'History of a Drowning Boy', RedDoor Press.​

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

VICE: How did your relationship with Nilsen begin?
In the early 1990s I’d read [a book about Dennis Nielsen] called Killing for Company. I’m naturally drawn to unusual and eccentric people, but Nilsen came across as quite a normal and rational person, even though he’d committed these horrific crimes. I was interested, so I contacted the book’s author, Brian Masters, and he showed me some of the notebooks Des (Dennis) had written. 


I wrote to Des in 1991, when he was imprisoned on the Isle of Wight, and he immediately replied. We then struck up a correspondence. The conversations we had were perfectly normal and balanced. I half-expected to be shocked by something he’d write, but there was never anything sinister, gloating or horrific.

When did you start to gather Nilsen’s materials?
In 1992 he moved to Whitemoor Prison in Cambridgeshire, and that’s when I first visited him. I then saw him for the next 27 years. It was just a quiet correspondence in the background, I never sold any of the stories to the newspapers. 

Bit by bit, he would hand out materials as they accumulated, so every few months he would hand out big boxes because he couldn't keep them in the cell. The archive built up over the years, including the autobiography, which he was trying to get published around 1996. He even went to the European Court of Human Rights to try and do that, but then they stopped it.

However, he continued to write his life story. The day before he died, I was his next of kin, so I was called to the prison to visit his cell. 

That must have been an experience.
It was horrific, shocking. I couldn’t believe that humans could be allowed to be kept in places like that. Imagine stumbling across some old disused public toilet; never cleaned for a decade, a stench in the air, the windows were completely opaque, the porcelain sink was chipped and poorly repaired and the whole room must have been about six by seven feet.


That said, I never heard Des complain about it in all the time I knew him. It probably became normal because he had no idea what normal would’ve been like. That’s not to say “poor Des”, but when people say “they've got it cushy in prison”, they don’t. 

Dennis Nilsen letters

Photo: History of a Drowning Boy by Dennis Nilsen, RedDoor Press.​

With Nilsen’s papers, did you feel you had a responsibility to do something with them?
When I took possession of all of it, I said to my wife, “I should really put this all together,” not for any financial game – any profit is due to go to charities – but just to have his own story there. There are so many views on the matter, but nowhere is there Des’ perspective. That’s not to say that what he wrote was totally correct, honest and truthful, but the bulk of it – running to 6,000 pages – I believe is.

How did you reconcile the normal-seeming man you knew for decades with the murderer that History of a Drowning Boy depicts
I just couldn't join it. I could not connect the two. But a lot of what's written is just through and through completely him; his sense of humour, the way he writes, his observations on how he’d interact with people. When you get to the murders, I just cannot connect it with the real person.

Could you describe your approach to compiling this material, and the challenges you faced?
Des was massively against censorship, so I worked to keep it as true to his original intent as possible. I spent 18 months digitising and reading all the papers, then putting sections of text into about ten to 12 files – one for his childhood, one for his army service, one for the killings, for instance. I’d gather the most interesting and main, salient points, but once I put the whole thing together I had 600,000 words, which was too much, so I had to go further. 

After that, the publisher and editors would take pieces out, then it was subject to a big legal review, so it was a lengthy process to reach the final book. Some sections of it, like when Des describes his dreams and fantasies, were massively cut down. They were highly pornographic, and we only included about 5 percent of the material. We would never have got it published if I’d left lots of that kind of stuff in. 

There’s a part in the book where Des mentions a particular victim, and after watching a documentary about it I just thought I couldn’t leave the name in. 

What will happen to the materials Nilsen left behind? 
I've always said that I’ll make available the 6,000 pages to anybody who seriously, academically wants to check that what is in the book is actually accurate, and is a good representation. There's nothing that’s been added in there to embellish it or blow it out of proportion, plus nothing's been changed to reduce the impact of some of it.