A guest post by author, historian and journalist, David Long, a member of London Historians.
Scene: The Tabard Centre, Prioress Street SE1 (2004)
‘Stalk-thin, with the ears of the Big Friendly Giant.’
When police alerted by friends arrived to find Rod Hall murdered in his gated, loft-style apartment, stylishly remodelled from two former classrooms in what had been a Victorian school, his death can fairly be said to have sent shockwaves through literary London.
Whilst by no means a household name, the 53 year-old was a pioneering and highly successful literary agent whose list of clients included the writers of such well known films and television series The Full Monty, Billy Elliot and Men Behaving Badly. He was also credited with creating the first ever dedicated film and TV tie-in department for a major British publisher, thus playing the role of midwife to a host of other productions such as Jeeves & Wooster, Just William, Casualty and Babe.
Tall and skinny – one client described him as looking like an escapee from a Quentin Blake drawing, ‘stalk-thin, with the ears of the Big Friendly Giant’ – Hall was a popular and well regarded figure in the publishing world, making his exceptionally brutal killing on 21 May 2004 all the more shocking.
His body was discovered by two friends who had called round to his flat, a stylish industrial-chic space with oils by Maurice Cockerill and Terry Frost and bespoke furniture which Hall had treated himself to when Billy Elliot received three Academy Award nominations. Inside the friends found the owner’s Siamese cat clearly in great distress, bloody footprints in the shower, and in the second bathroom their friend’s blackened and eviscerated corpse lying collapsed into the bath.
Within hours Hall’s business partner in the Rod Hall Agency had pointed police in the direction of a boyfriend, known to colleagues only as Ozzy, providing them with a partial telephone number and the information that he was a student at Newham College.
The clues led directly to Usman Durrani, a 20 year old part-time security guard from Forest Gate in East London who it soon became apparent had stabbed his lover to death. That said, the precise cause of death has never been ascertained because, with between 30 and 50 knife wounds to his body, it had been established that any one of seven different traumas could conceivably have killed Hall.
What is known, however, is that the two men had engaged in consensual if extreme sex games; that the victim had allowed himself to be bound, gagged and suspended over the bath; and that after killing him Durrani took time to clean up before leaving the Tabard Centre and going home to his wife in Beckton.
He took with him a camera, on which he had filmed the corpse, an expensive Jaeger-LeCoultre watch and various other personal effects – perhaps in order to make the crime scene look like a robbery rather than a straightforward killing. Shortly afterwards, however, Durrani told a friend what he had done, claiming that he had wanted only to hurt Hall rather than to kill him.
Before long Durrani was on a flight to Dubai, during the course of which police turned up at his mother’s home in Forest Gate and confirmed that they wanted to interview him in connection with a murder. With hopes evaporating that he had simply been engaged in a robbery which had gone horribly, horribly wrong, the accused was brought back to London and handed over to the police.
Initially released on bail but then rearrested, Durrani’s mood reportedly shifted quickly from bouncy to catatonic in a manner which the interviewing officers found unsettling. It soon became apparent that he was unwell, suffering the effects of what a psychiatrist who examined him for the prosecution called the ‘toxic brew’ of religion, homosexuality and sadomasochism.
Durrani himself expressed no guilt or regret over what he had done, and at his trial in July 2005 showed very little emotion. He also said very little, except to deny vehemently that he was in any way homosexual and to admit that he was guilty only of manslaughter on what the Guardian called ‘the grounds that he was mentally ill at the time of the killing.’
He was not adjudged to be insane, however, even though when he was referred for psychiatric testing it had been agreed that he fulfilled the criteria for a diagnosis of personality disorder. In court the jury found him guilty of murder, Judge Gerald Gordon ruling that he should serve a minimum term of 12 years, and saying that he had made Hall ‘suffer mentally and physically before his death’
David Long is a journalist, historian and author of many London history books including Murders of London: in the Steps of the Capital’s Killers (2012, Random House Books). He is also a member of London Historians.