Death of a Murderer by Rupert Thomson (Shane's book 12, 2010)

Though her name is never mentioned in the text, the murderer of the title is Myra Hindley who, with her boyfriend Ian Brady, killed five children between 1963 and 1965. She died in late 2002, which is when this novel takes place. It follows Billy Tyler, the policeman tasked with standing guard in the mortuary on the night before Hindley's funeral. Tyler's wife doesn't want him to go, fearing that Billy will somehow be spiritually corrupted. Billy sees it as just a job. [amtap book:isbn=0747592675]

Still, the tension with his wife has Billy pondering their relationship as his 12-hour shift unfolds and the body he is guarding leads him inevitably to wondering about the nature of evil. He begins to consider the misdeeds from his own past and the times he was tempted to do worse. Are some people simply evil or are we all the result of what Malcolm MacCulloch, Brady's psychiatrist and professor of forensic psychiatry at Cardiff University, called a "concatenation of circumstances"?

It's not the most profound question, admittedly, but it's one that Thomson has Billy approach honestly and thoughtfully, without trying to turn his character into a philosopher or an intellectual. Billy, as a policeman, has seen more of life's ugliness than most of us ever will - and been involved in a little himself - and it is this insight that he brings to bear on the subject. When Hindley appears, perhaps as a ghost or perhaps in Billy's imagination, Thomson draws her with the same kind of restraint. Her presence on the page is chilling but underplayed. Thomson is not setting out to chill, he knows that the subject will do much of that for him.

There is some consideration, too, for the demonisation of Hindley. Thomson pays little attention to Brady but shows some interest in how a figure such as Hindley becomes so large in the public mind. Mostly, though, he seems to be interested in fathers and daughters. I think I'm right in saying that every woman in the novel has a father who is to some extent dysfunctional. In a sense, Billy's 12-hour shift is an examination of his fitness as a father for his own daughter. It's perhaps coincidental but worth noting that Thomson has a daughter too.

When Billy's shift ends so does the novel. There is no big twist and no enormous dramatic peak, just a release of tension. Sometimes it's only when you breathe out that you realise you've been holding your breath. That's how the end of this book feels.

Thomson's writing is spare, restrained and, barring the odd slip, pitched perfectly throughout. This is a thoughtful little book and one that's well worth your time.