History of a Drowning Boy

History of a Drowning Boy

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Dennis Nilsen was one of Britain's most notorious serial killers, jailed for life in 1983 after the murders of 12 men and the attempted murders of many more.

Seven years after his conviction, Nilsen began to write his autobiography, and over a period of 18 years he typed 6,000 pages of introspection, reflection, comment and explanation.

History of a Drowning Boy - taken exclusively from these astonishing writings - uncovers, for the first time, the motives behind the murders, and delivers a clear understanding of how such horrific events could have happened, tracing the origins back to early childhood.

In another first, it provides an insight into his 35 years inside the maximum-security prison system, including his everyday life on the wings; his interactions with the authorities and other notorious prisoners; and his artistic endeavours of music, writing and drama. It also reveals the truth behind many of the myths surrounding Dennis Nilsen, as reported in the media.

Nilsen was determined to have his memoir published but to his frustration, the Home Office blocked publication during his lifetime. He died in 2018 entrusting the manuscript to his closest friend and it is now being published with the latter's permission.


Any autobiography presents the writer's story from just one perspective: his own, and as such this record should be treated with some caution. An excellent foreword by criminologist Dr Mark Pettigrew offers some context to Nilsen's words, and this important work provides an extraordinary journey through the life of a remarkable and inadequate man.


Extract from the Foreword by Dr Mark Pettigrew, criminologist

In the UK, there are thought to be at least two serial killers active at any one time; in the USA the figure is estimated to be as high as fifty. Although a relatively rare phenomenon, there is a great deal of public interest in the life and crimes of serial killers. Yet, despite the inordinate amount of interest, the serial killer remains one of the least understood types of criminal - even in the academic world the simple definition of a serial killer has still not been settled.

In a saturated market of true crime novels, there are very few that include the voice of the actual killer. As such, amongst a literary sea of accounts devoted to the serial killer and his crimes, this book stands out as unique. Of course any subjective retelling by the killer must be approached with caution; the prevalence of personality disorders, psychopathy, paranoid schizophrenia and other psychiatric and mental disorders, can distort the personal account just as an attempt at self-aggrandising can misrepresent the true narrative of the crimes. Yet, the simple facts of a case can be gleamed from police records, trial testimony and crime scene evidence, whereas personal introspection offers much more of an insight into the motivation of the killer.

As the reader will learn from these memoirs, a confluence of factors met to form Dennis Nilsen. 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. 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.

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