History of a Drowning Boy

by Dennis Nilsen
The Autobiography


In 2020, the three-part show featuring David Tennant, ‘Des’, was ITV’s biggest drama launch in 14 years with 10 million viewers. In February 2021, Dennis Nilsen’s abridged autobiography will be published for the first time.

Seven years after his conviction in November 1983, Dennis Nilsen wrote more than 3.5 million words during his decades in prison. The Home Office banned the release of History of a Drowning Boy while Dennis was alive. He died in May 2018, leaving his memoirs to his next of kin.  

Dennis Nilsen is one of Britain’s most notorious serial killers, jailed for life after being convicted of six counts of murder and two of attempted murder. Nilsen’s (abridged but unedited 125,000 words) autobiography presents his life story in his own words alongside a foreword from criminologist Dr. Mark Pettigrew and an introduction from his friend and next of kin, Mark Austin. Advance review copies of History of a Drowning Boy are available.

History of a Drowning Boy includes:

• Expansion and detail on Dennis Nilsen’s early life, childhood abuse, and time in the military.

• Discovering (and trying to hide) his sexuality.

• Motives behind-and memories of-the murders.

• His relationship with alcohol.

• Insight into his 35 years inside the maximum-security prison system.

• The unravelling of a series of horrific events experienced by Nilsen during his childhood and through his life in the military and into adulthood.

• The details leading up to, and surrounding, his death.

Criminologist, Dr. Mark Pettigrew, writes, ‘As the reader will learn from these memoirs, a confluence of factors met to form Dennis Nilsen: the social and legal disapproval of his homosexuality during his early life; the long shadow cast by his grandfather and the sexual abuse he reports to have suffered as a child; the strained relationship he had with his mother; social isolation; the lack of supportive and long-lasting relationships; and alcohol abuse, they all played their part. Yet, these memoirs do not offer a neat answer as to why a boy from a fishing town in North East Scotland, a man who served in the police and in the military, became a serial killer. In all the academic and clinical research on the topic, there is no definitive answer as to why or how a person becomes a serial killer. Indeed, it is highly unlikely that any theory can or will account for all or even the majority of serial killers. Realistically, we can only identify risk factors. What this book offers though is an insight into how those killings are comprehended and understood by the killer in retrospect. In my own conversations with Dennis Nilsen, over several years, he did not try to excuse what he did, nor trivialise the devastating effect his actions had upon the families and loved ones of his victims. Instead, he sought to understand his actions in light of his particular circumstances. I cannot honestly say that he ever found a definitive answer as to why he became one of Britain’s most infamous serial killers, but if the answer is ever to be found it will be found within these pages.’

My Thoughts: I have read a couple of other books on Nilsen previously, one just recently, but to read one by Nilsen himself is another thing altogether. In the many years he was locked up, he had plenty of time to contemplate and to write his memoirs, and he revised them too. I was amazed at the number of pages he wrote during that time, just incredible. I’m not sure who he thought would have the time to read it all. With that aside, it is a fascinating story and he seems to have quite a detailed memory, as you can tell by how he describes his various stories throughout.

He reminds me of Jeffrey Dahmer, with how he really wanted to keep his victims with him longer, because he was so lonely. But he would eventually end up having to kill them when they wanted to leave, then he had the problem of disposing of their bodies. Dahmer had similar problems, but after he had made his visitors unconscious by drugging them and eventually tried different means to keep them that way indefinitely. That never worked out, and he ended up with another dead body to deal with. Nilsen’s autobiography is certainly a good read for most true crime fans as it gives an inside look at how they think and look back over their crimes. Advance electronic review copy was provided by NetGalley, author Dennis Nilsen, and the publisher.

History of a Drowning Boy

Publisher: RedDoor Books – 336 pages
Publication: Feb 25th, 2021
My rating: 4/5 STARS

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