Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Killer Downstairs: Guest post by Alex Marwood

Today I welcome Alex Marwood. "Raised by wolves, Alex Marwood passed her formative years in the lands beyond the Arctic circle, developing pack skills, excellent night vision and an ability to survive on raw protein. Ideally equipped for a life on Fleet Street, she then became a journalist. Her first novel, The Wicked Girls, was published by Sphere, in 2012. In 2013 it was shortlisted for an ITW award, and included in Stephen King's Ten Best Books of the Year list. It was published by Penguin in the US in 2013, and was shortlisted for an Edgar Allen Poe award, and is up for a Macavity Award.  The Killer Next Door, described by The Sun as "nasty, compelling and original", was released as an ebook in 2013, and came out as a paperback in June 2014. Alex herself is a figment of the imagination of the novelist and sometime journalist Serena Mackesy. If you're interested in a more truthful biog, an FAQ and other books, visit her website, here"

Alex Marwood:
The Killer Downstairs

One of the entertaining by-products of being a novelist is how many people seem to be unable to distinguish between fiction and memoir. In the same way that soap actors get harangued in the street for something the character they play has done, novelists will often find people will talk to them completely differently depending on their packaging. Even the most lighthearted of literary novelists will find themselves sucked into leaden discussions about deconstruction when all they really want to talk about is the Real Housewives franchise. When, writing under my real name, my work was being packaged under the egregiously damning ‘chick lit’ label, strangers often spoke to me patronisingly, and asked if I were married myself. And now I am on the crime lists, I will find, every now and then, that people suck air in through their teeth when they hear what I do, and look nervous, as though I’ve just actually said that I am a professional criminal. A woman once crossed herself at me; I’m not kidding.

That said, and although most novelists would deny that their work is autobiographical, it’s almost impossible to stop the things that are going on in the world around one from leaking onto the page. I ate my first (and probably last, I must say) Korean bibimbap while I was writing The Killer Next Door and couldn’t avoid it turning up as a descriptor for something else. I don’t suppose for a second that the theme of The Wicked Girls wasn’t driven by the fact that it was my first foray into writing under a pseudonym, and I was facing a brave new world of becoming someone else. And then there are the times when the life-imitating-art thing gets so twisted up in itself that it’s hard to tell which is which. Authors like to pretend that our inspirations come from a higher plane, but usually, in all truth, they’re Whatever Is Weighing on My Mind Right Now. And what was weighing on my mind as I started The Killer Next Door was the fact that Clyde’s drains were blocked.

I was thinking a lot, that summer, about Dennis Nilsen, one of Britain’s most prolific serial killers. I think if you’re British and live in a built-up area, Nilsen inevitably flits through your mind from time to time. Nilsen murdered twelve young men, possibly more, in two flats of which he was a tenant. The first had a garden, and ridding himself of the inconvenient evidence, once it became too corrupted even for him to keep around for company, was less of a problem for him there than it became after he was unwillingly moved to a top-floor flat. He’s far from the only serial killer to operate at close quarters with his neighbours, but for Londoners, particularly, he raises a shiver, because, while everyone wonders out loud how he got away with it for so long, a little bit of all of us knows exactly how.

I live in one of those enclaves of south London where the terraced houses consist of three apartments, one on top of the other, carved out of relatively modest Victorian brick buildings. Clyde, on the ground floor, has a little patch of garden up against the house. I, on the second floor, have a balcony, a staircase and the sunnier patch of garden away from it. Alessandro and Imogen, on top of us, have a little balcony with a lovely view of the Dickensian rooftops. The houses on either side are the same: fifteen or so of us, who manage to live completely on top of each other and maintain cordial relations while, most of the time, pretending that we are completely alone. It’s less a reflection of the standoffishness of Londoners than of a strange sort of courtesy. We all say hello when we’re out in the evenings, help each other out if help is needed, and some of the best friends of my life have come from this living arrangement, but you’d go mad if you didn’t just pretend.

But Clyde: it’s difficult to pretend that Clyde doesn’t exist, because – there’s no kind way of putting this – he stinks like old eggs frying in hell. Or his flat stinks, at least. He’s a nice enough man, a bit suspiciously muscular, but each to their own, and he never seems to stink when you meet him in the street. But oh, when he opens his windows, a fetid stench of old cooking oil, warm steroid-enhanced armpit and cheap air freshener explodes into the neighbourhood and all the windows around slam down. The smell is so bad it actually feels hotter than the air it’s replacing. I have been known, on bad days, to go to the shop and buy cigarettes to improve the air quality, holding my breath as I dash past his front door, which he often leaves standing open for ventilation. And I work in my bedroom, which overlooks the gardens.

Clyde’s habits began to bleed into the book. If I ever felt that I was flagging descriptively, losing the sense of oppressive suffocation that would come from sharing a house with a bunch of corpses in a heatwave, all I had to do was blow out my scented candle and inhale deeply through my nose. And yet, like a good Londoner, I never complained. I never have. He’s a nice guy, and otherwise a good neighbour. The tenants before were students who liked to party all night and, it being a non-smoking flat, would do so in the garden. The ones before him had prolonged rows, and eventually did a midnight flit leaving piles of unpaid bills and a stream of bailiffs knocking on our doors in error. I’d rather have Clyde than many neighbours. And he’s away a lot, which helps.

Halfway through the summer, his drains got blocked. Not, fortunately, the ones attached to the toilets, but the ones carrying the bathwater, the cooking water, the cleaning water down to the sewers. Every time someone had a shower, a puddle of greasy greyish gunge would bubble up onto his crazy paving and take an hour or more to drain away. I came down to his garden to do that thing the middle classes do when something to do with maintenance comes up: we stood side by side, scratching our heads. ‘How long’s it been doing this?’ I asked. ‘At least a couple of weeks,’ he said. ‘Didn’t you notice the smell?’

Nilsen was eventually unmasked because the drains at his own shared house got gunked up by adipose tissue from the dead young men whose corpses he was boiling, bit by bit, in a big pot on his two-ring stove. When the tenant downstairs told him that Dyno-Rod were consulting the police, he reacted by rushing up to Cricklewood High Street and buying a Bargain Bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken. He peeled off the secret recipe crispy coating and threw the flesh and bones down the manhole, in the hope that PC Plod would be fooled. PC Plod was not.

I thought about this while I gazed down at the small pile of grey-black gunk that Clyde had scooped from our own manhole and considered replying ‘no, I didn’t notice because you smell so bad on a day to day basis that there really isn’t much difference’. And of course I bottled it and offered to split the cost of rodding instead. After all, it’s the frying-pan scrapings of three flats going through that little pipe, and it only seemed fair.

‘Funnily enough,’ I said conversationally, as I began the process of hyperventilation that would see me back to my own front door, ‘I’m writing a book about all the people who were living in the house with Dennis Nilsen at the moment’.

Clyde looked at me blankly. Then he looked a nervous.

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