Saturday, October 28, 2017


by John Douglas & Mark Olshaker
Recommended Ages: 15+

This 1995 book, recently reissued with a new introduction by the authors and currently serving as the source material of a made-for-Netflix TV series, is the personal memoir of the original guy who took FBI behavioral profiling on the road, using revolutionary techniques to help police departments all over the country solve serial rape and murder cases. It tells how, from the early 1970s on, the bureau's Investigative Support Unit (or whatever it was called at different times) literally wrote the book on classifying crimes according to behavioral evidence, preparing for interviews with dozens of convicted creeps by a thorough study of the case files. The conclusions they drew started a process, still ongoing, of changing the way law enforcement agencies catch the perpetrators of the most heinous crimes, and the way psychiatrists and psychologists evaluate them as they come up for parole.

It is a sometimes terrifying, sometimes sickening, emotionally grueling review of some of our society's darkest nightmares. It does depict some uplifting moments and acts of heart-touching courage. But it also shatters some of the myths that movies and TV dramas perpetuate about serial killers and other psychopaths who feed at the fringes of society. There were passages in this book that stirred up feelings of injustice as I read them, and frustration at a system whose slowness to accept change and "paralysis by analysis" probably cost additional lives.

You probably remember many of the stories related in this book from news coverage of, or pieces of entertainment based on the events. If you're looking for a sensationalized account, you may be disappointed. The fascinating thing about each anecdote is the lesson the behavioral-evidence analysts took away from it. Some of them may seem like no-brainers now, but within my lifetime, they have made it possible to solve crimes that might have gone unsolved much longer. You might think Douglas is being boastful when he describes cases in which his team's profile fit the guy who did it to a T, but it goes toward his thesis that what they were doing wasn't mumbo-jumbo or armchair philosophy; it was scientific, and it brought real results.

It isn't all about creating a profile that led to capturing the bad guy, either. Douglas and Co.'s techniques also extended to taking proactive steps to flush the killer out of hiding; effective approaches to interrogation; courtroom tactics to ensure a conviction; and reconsidering the penal system's and the psychiatric establishment's methods for deciding whether a convict should be turned loose on society once again. His views on some of these issues may be controversial, but he marshals convincing evidence to back them up.

I haven't seen the Netflix series based on this book, but reading books about cops chasing serial killers is one of my many pastimes (most of which can be described as "reading books about" something or other). I'm intrigued by the possibility that I'll be a more critical reader of that genre in time to come. For example, I temporarily put down Jo Nesbø's The Snowman to read this book, and when I picked it up again, one of the first things I noticed was something Norwegian sleuth Harry Hole has in common with Douglas: a preference for reading a case file himself, and drawing his own conclusions, to listening to the cops on the case defend theirs. He provides cautionary examples of half-assed attempts at criminal profiling, like one psychologist who focused on a single piece of behavioral evidence at a murder scene, rather than the whole of the scene; again, it gave me an appreciation for the task of real-world crime solving that should keep me humble about my knack for guessing the solution of a mystery novel, which is quite a different thing. Finally, I was intrigued by the connection Douglas himself drew between his knack for storytelling and his ability to craft an accurate profile of a serial killer, even one based on scientific principles. The latter ability makes this a worthwhile book to read; the former, an enjoyable one.

John Douglas, frequently in collaboration with Mark Olshaker (as in this book) and sometimes with other co-authors, has also written a half-dozen other true-crime books, a couple of non-fiction books about law enforcement careers, two crime novels, and some works on crime-solving theory. He also claims to be the real-life inspiration for the character Scott Glenn played in The Silence of the Lambs. Olshaker is an Emmy-winning filmmaker and author of both fiction and nonfiction books. Other titles they have in common are Journey into Darkness,
The Cases that Haunt Us
, and Obsession.

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