US Hardcover First
$24.00; 384 pages
Date Reviewed: 04-03-1996
Reviewed by Rick Kleffel © 1996
Every year, the paperback racks at the grocery store to a new tide of serial killer novels. In them, a savage, twisted murderer kills victims guilty and innocent, while a dedicated foe tries to get 'inside the mind of the killer', to track and kill the killer himself. The art of criminal psychological profiling described therein seems ageless, as old as Sherlock Holmes and Shakespeare. But it was only recently invented in the guise that now seems so familiar to us, a process of invention that is described in graphic, horrific detail in 'Mindhunter', by John Douglas and Mark Olshaeker.
This is a media friendly author pairing. Olshaeker is the author of a number of well-received serial killer novels, his latest, 'The Edge', being a recent arrival in the grocery stores. John Douglas is the man who took profiling out of the pages of Arthur Conan Doyle and into the modern criminal investigation process, who worked with Jonathan Demme on 'Silence of the Lambs'. Together they are a formidable team, telling the story exclusively from Douglas' point-of-view in a surprisingly low-key manner.
The story they tell is anything but low key. They follow, roughly in chronological order, Douglas' life, and then his career as an FBI agent, from his first assignment to his final cases. In the early portions of the book, the profiling aspect does get served up with thick slabs of hindsight, as Douglas explains how he 'profiled' his opponents playing high school football. On one hand, he's really stretching the matter. However, on the other, he's merely pointing out how far behind the rest of the world the law enforcement profession has lagged. His early forays into profiling and trying to decode what the perpetrator and victim were thinking were often greeted as 'voodoo' by his fellow officers. Obviously, they hadn't read much Sherlock Holmes.
Douglas, on the other hand, had. He informs us in a chapter title that "My Mother's Name Was Holmes". Once he gets past the early days of his career, told in a chatty, conversational tone, and to the beginnings of the Behavioral Science Unit, the book becomes gripping reading. What Douglas and his cohorts in the BSU did was to scientifically and psychologically quantify Holmes' process of deductive reasoning, which, Douglas points out, is not deductive at all, but rather inductive, since the investigators -- Sherlock included -- predict general attributes of the perpetrator from specific evidence left at the scene of the crime.
Douglas was asked to teach about the work of the BSU after attending classes at Quantico, but found "Right from the beginning, I felt uncomfortable about what amounted to teaching from "hearsay"....The next day, driving away, I commented that most of the guys we're teaching about are still around, and most of them are going to be on ice for the rest of their lives. Let's see if we can talk to them; ask them why they did it, find out what it was like through their eyes."
Douglas then embarked on a quest to interview notorious serial killers, including Santa Cruz's infamous Gary Kemper. As he interviewed these killers, he began to build up a database about serial killers, a pool of information from which the behaviour of other serial killers could be predicted.
These interviews are summarized in horrific, gruesome details, and Douglas' process of trying to understand them is riveting and disturbing. This is not a book for the squeamish. It's not the details that disturb however but the overall picture they create. As Douglas delves into the mind of one rape/torture/murderer after another he succeeds in creating for the reader a simulacrum of the conflicts he himself feels. It's not suprising that his marriage breaks up under the strain. 'Mindhunter' is a surprisingly frank look at the extremes of the criminal detection business, and the costs incurred by those who expose themselves to those extremes, including the reader.