“DES”— A Serial Killer


A Serial Killer

Amos Lassen

In early 1983, contractors were called to a flat in north London when a drain was blocked. They found bones that appeared to be human. Two local police officers, Detective Chief Inspector Peter Jay (Daniel Mays) and Detective Inspector Steve McCusker (Barry Ward) were called and arrested the resident of the upstairs flat, Dennis Nilsen (David Tennant), when he returned home.

Nilsen, or Des, as he likes to call himself freely provides information, stating that over the past five years, he’d killed fifteen young men. However during the questioning that followed, he became less and less co-operative as he began to enjoy the power he had over the detectives. He would not tell them the identities of any of his victims and when he was finally charged, he pled not guilty to murder.

To get justice for his more than a dozen victims, DCI Jay needed to provide enough evidence to persuade the jury that Nilsen set out to kill the young men – or else he would be convicted of manslaughter, by reason of insanity and this meant that he could be back on the streets in a few short years.

Thedrama is based on “Killing For Company” by the real-life crime-writer Brian Masters (Jason Watkins) as an author who was conflicted between getting the best material for his book and not getting in the way of justice. In a series of meetings before and during the trial, Masters provided Nilsen with an outlet to vent, making the police fear that he was obstructing their investigation. The police became more and more frustrated as prosecutors appeared to be trying to limit the extent of their investigation with Nilsen making it difficult for them to gather evidence. Nilsen himself then grows frustrated as he realized that Masters might not be giving him quite the fame and notoriety he had expected.

David Tennant plays Des as a cocky and self-assured mass murderer—a creepy character. Daniel Mays is excellent as the diligent detective, determined to get justice for as many of the victims as those above him allow.

The court case gives fascinating insight into the judicial process and brings about interesting discussion about the definition of sanity, in relation to the difference between a murder and manslaughter conviction.

Nilsen clearly thought out, pre-planned and calculated, and surely no sane person would do that or would they? The story is quite grizzly but minus blood and gore. It is theatrical with people talking to each other – police talking to the killer, a writer talking to the killer, police talking to survivors or victims’ relatives, lawyers talking to everyone. With the suspect in custody from the very first scene, all that’s being chased are the facts.

Des knows he’s been caught, but it’s all down to how much information he gives the police along with how much they can discover in their investigation.

Rather than having a mystery that needs to be solved by skillful detectives, this is a character study of a killer who has been caught, and indeed, seems to want to have been caught and is surprised that it has taken so long. Every scene is filled with tension, and I was immediately drawn into the story even though not much really happens. The action part of the plot occurs off screen, prior to the beginning, so this is all character-based. It is riveting in a terrifically understated way, and the fact that the story is actually is the reason for this.

Leave a Reply