Des and the Stories We Tell About True Crime

by thethreepennyguignol

When it comes to true crime, there’s something we have to admit upfront: it’s pretty fucked-up that we find it so entertaining.

And I’m not saying that to try and elevate myself above the stacks of true crime fans out there – I’m as fascinated by the genre as anyone. Check my podcast listening history, my movie backwatch, hell, this very blog – I’m not trying to fool anyone. My parents run a true crime investigation website. This is not an article to snipe from afar about how weird you lot are. I’m in your lot, too. True crime fandom – though it feels strange to call it that, it’s the closest term I have to describe us as a group – is a particularly intense and often dedicated pile of enthusiasts, perhaps because it’s such an inherently odd thing to be interested in. If you’re going to be into the macabre, you might as well be all the way into it, right?

But it’s hard to find a way to acknowledge the place of that true crime audience when you’re making stories built off true crime. Because what are you actually trying to give to that audience? Are you simply trying to entertain them with the horrible, horrendous things that have happened to people who never deserved it? While that’s what it boils down to, that’s an uncomfortable notion, and one that most true crime tries to avoid.

Generally, in the vein of stories like Mindhunter, creators lean on this idea of allowing us to better understand the people who did these terrible things. For better or for worse, an interest in true crime is often an indulgence of a fascination with the people who committed these atrocities. It feels safer, in a way, to analyse and come to conclusions that feel valuable as a result of this fiction than it does to just watch a retelling of some Really Horrible Shit.

Which is what I came to Des, ITV’s new drama on the crimes and arrest of Dennis Nilsen, expecting. With David Tennant cast as the titular killer, it was clear that they were going for prestige – Tennant is pretty much a byword for Scottish character actor these days, and basically hasn’t put in a bad performance since 2006 (that I’ve seen, anyway).

Following the story of his arrest, the investigation into his crimes, and his trial, Des is set through the lens of three main narrators: Nilsen himself, Jay, the cop investigating the case, and Brian Masters, the real-life biographer of Nilsen and writer of the book upon which this series is based. But, for all these people trying to navigate their own version of this story, there is one thing that it doesn’t offer – and that’s an explanation.

A point is made, in the final episode, that Nilsen didn’t seek redemption in the time that he was imprisoned, from any religious bodies or otherwise – the only person he sought out was a biographer, someone to tell his story. And it’s with that in mind that Des seems to explore its central killer; not to find forgiveness, explanation, or to make sense of him in a way that feels comfortable by the time the credits roll.

Tennant’s Nilsen is disarmingly honest about his crimes, blunt and straightforward in a way that is distinctly discomforting. And, though Des skirts around the idea of giving us a deeper explanation for his crimes, it never allows for that deep-dive that most true crime fiction gives about its perpetrators. There’s something about that I find really interesting – eschewing the usual true crime round-up shifts the focus on to other, arguably more important aspects of this story, such as the impact of these crimes on victims (both living and dead) and the disconnect between law enforcement and the gay community (something that American Crime Story spent a lot of time on last season, too).

The final scenes of the show are shared between a now-imprisoned Nilsen and his biographer, Masters, discussing the specific nature of the story that Masters has decided to tell about him. Nilsen complains near-constantly over the course of the show that his story is being told wrong; by the tabloids, by the police, and finally, by Masters, who he hands an exercise-book full of criticisms to about his biography of Nilsen. He asks when he will get a chance to tell his story – but perhaps the more interesting question is who this story is being told to.

As consumers of true crime, Des asks the question – why are we watching this? What version of this story do we want? The red-top version, blood-spattered, the house-of-horrors nightmare? The gory details? The deep-dive into Nilsen himself? All versions of this story are acknowledged, but the one that we get side-steps the traditional true crime approach, and offers a story more focused on the contemporary reality look of this case – as well as some uneasy reflections on us, the audience who consume it.

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(header image via The Times)