Over the years I’ve read rather a lot of books on crooks, killers and their catchers; biographies of serial killers; books on policing, profiling and criminology; texts about psychopathy and abnormal psychology. I know that the presence of these sorts of interests in someone’s life, in the proper context, can be taken as a red flag, but I absolutely promise that I’m not a serial-killer-in-waiting. And I swear that I haven’t got my fingers crossed right now (the whole bunch of them are still loose and bobbing around inside the little pouch tied to my waist that I’ve always kept them in). I’m simply fascinated by the extremes of violent, murderous and ritualistic behaviour, of which the human being (most typically the male) is capable. What makes one man a killer and the other a mild-mannered bank clerk? Is there such a thing as good and evil (is there such a thing as a mild-mannered bank clerk)? Are killers mad or bad, born or made? How do you catch them? Is it dangerous to walk in their shoes, a la Will Graham? The whole sprawling subject is exciting, horrifying, exhilarating, nauseating, absorbing, chilling, repugnant, repulsive and compulsive all at once.
Here are excerpts from some books on killing and killers I’ve read recently.
“The guy you’re looking for will have a limp, and a dog called Daniel.”
Netflix’s Mindhunter was one of the best TV shows of 2017, a fictional adaptation of real-life FBI profiler John Douglas’s first forays into researching and cataloguing the behaviour of rapists and serial killers with a view to helping police focus their investigations on the most likely suspects in live cases, or helping to convict suspects at trial. The events that unfold in the show all more-or-less happened, in some form; certainly all of the killers, rapists and assorted criminals depicted in the series all existed. Where the TV adaptation differs significantly from its source text is through the characters and histories of the main FBI-based antagonists, who are only loosely based upon their real-life counterparts, and even have different names. This affords the TV show more of an element of surprise, and a greater capacity to shock. We know what happens to Ed Kemper, Ted Bundy et al, but we now have no idea how exactly the work they do will affect the FBI profilers, or their families. Smart move.
The book is fascinating and informative. The first third or so focuses on John Douglas himself, and how he came to pursue (and essentially create!) the field of profiling. It’s illuminating, not least because the young, rebellious, academically-underachieving John Douglas doesn’t appear to fit the profile of a future profiler. He certainly did a lot of slacking and engaged in a bit of borderline criminal behaviour before he found his calling.
The rest of the book, as you would hope and expect, offers insights into profiling and behavioural analysis, and discusses many famous cases from throughout John Douglas’ career.
For instance, here’s his take on (a then very much still alive) Charles Manson:
Manson: Complete and Total Cult
“After listening to Manson, I believe that he did not plan or intend the murders of Sharon Tate and her friends; that, in fact, he lost control of the situation and his followers. The choice of the site and victims was apparently arbitrary. One of the Manson girls had been there and thought there was money around. Tex Watson, the good-looking, all-American honor student from Texas, sought to rise in the hierarchy and rival Charlie for influence and authority. Zoned out ike the others on LDS and having bought into the leader’s new tomorrow. Watson was the primary killer and led the mission to the Tate-Polanski house and encouraged the others to the ultimate depravities.
Then, when these inadequate nobodies came back and told Charlie what they had done, that helter-skelter had begun, he couldn’t very well back down and tell them they had taken him too seriously. That would have destroyed his power and authority. So he had to do them one better, as if he had intended the crime and its aftermath, leading them to the LaBianca home to do it again. But significantly, when I asked Manson why he hadn’t gone in and participated in the killings, he explained, as if we were dense, that he was on parole at the time and couldn’t risk his freedom by violating that.
So I believe from the background information and the interviews we did with Manson that while he made his followers into what he needed, they, in turn, made him into what they needed and forced him to fulfill it.
Every couple of years, Manson comes up for parole and has been turned down every time. His crimes were too politicised and too brutal for the parole board to take a chance on him. I don’t want him let out either. But if he were released at some point, knowing what I do about him, I wouldn’t expect him to be a serious violent threat like a lot of these guys [other high-profile killers] are. I think he’d go off into the desert and live out there, or else try to cash in on his celebrity for money. The biggest threat would be from the misguided losers who would gravitate to him and proclaim him their god and leader.”
And now helping to make the distinction between a killer’s MO and signature:
MO vs signature
“Modus operandi – MO – is learned behaviour. It’s what the perpetrator does to commit the crime. It is dynamic – that is, it can change. Signature, a term I coined to distinguish it from MO, is what the perpetrator has to do to fulfill himself. It is static; it does not change.
For example, you wouldn’t expect a juvenile to keep committing crimes the same way as he grows up unless he gets it perfect the first time. But if he gets away with one, he’ll learn from it and get better and better at it. That’s why we say MO is dynamic. On the other hand, if this guy is committing crimes so that, say, he can dominate or inflict pain on or provoke begging and pleading from a victim, that’s his signature. It’s something that expresses the killer’s personality. It’s something he needs to do.”
Most interesting of all is John Douglas’ thoughts on what makes a killer, and the power best deployed proactively to stop it:
All you need is…?
“In all my years of research and dealing with violent offenders, I’ve never yet come across one who came from what I would consider a good background and functional, supportive family unit. I believe that the vast majority of violent offenders are responsible for their conduct, made their choices, and should face the consequences of what they do. It’s ridiculous to say that someone doesn’t appreciate the seriousness of what he’s done because he’s only fourteen or fifteen. At eight, my son, Jed, has already known for years what’s right and what’s wrong.
But twenty-five years of observation has also told me that criminals are more ‘made’ than ‘born,’ which means that somewhere along the line, someone who provided a profound negative influence could have provided a profound positive one instead. So what I truly believe is that along with more money and police and prisons, what we most need more of is love. This is not being simplistic; it’s at the very heart of the issue.”
It’s refreshing that after decades of talking to and hunting people who slit throats, strangle women, kill kids, mutilate corpses, and dump bodies in rivers, John Douglas still believes in love.
Amazon link: Mindhunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit by John Douglas and Mark Olshaker
I – The Creation of a Serial Killer, by Jack Olsen
This book splits its time between following the life of angry giant Keith Hunter Jesperson in the third person, and living through his life and crimes in the first person, the latter device powerful but rather disquieting, as it forces you into the mind of a killer as he kills and prepares to kill. While both gruesome and shocking, the book does try to answer the question of how Jesperson was ‘made’, but certainly isn’t interested in exonerating Jesperson or excusing his behaviour. This book’s never an easy read, but it’s very illuminating and, boy, Jack Olsen could write.
The excerpt below comes after the end of Jesperson’s killing-career, as he indulges his narcissism as he awaits his fate in prison. We’re not inside Jesperson’s thoughts here.
“His [Jesperson’s] first attempt to establish contact with a marquee murderer had taken place early in 1996, while he was still juggling legal problems in Oregon, Washington and Wyoming. He’d written a friendly letter to Danny Rolling, facing execution in Florida for the massacre of five college students. Jesperson’s letter to “the Gainesville Slasher” congratulated Rolling on finding a new girlfriend – “she sounds like a neat and great person.” The letter had a whiff of sycophancy. “Hope all will go well with you, my friend in Christ,” wrote the lifelong agnostic. “God bless you. No response is needed.”
None was received. While Keith was awaiting a reply, the fastidious Rolling was telling a third party that he found the Self-start Serial Killer Kit and Keith’s other attempts at Internet gallows humour in atrocious taste. “That kind of humour doesn’t impress me,” said the man who’d slashed four victims to death and decapitated a fifth. “There is NOTHING, absolutely nothing about KILLING that is humourous.” ”
I find it incredible that a man who’s murdered many women and chopped off heads can demonstrate such prudishness in other spheres of his life. Or maybe he hates – to use Dexter-talk – his ‘dark passenger’ and sees his incarcerated self as somehow separate from it.
Jesperson was more successful in striking up dialogue with an imprisoned cannibal, who was keen to talk death and recipes.
A letter from Nicolas Claux, the Vampire of Paris:
“I personally think that any kind of spiced sauce will spoil the naturally sweet taste of human flesh and blood – human meat is a gift from the Gods, and it is a shame to ruin its delightful taste with seasonings and spices… Bon appetit!”
Amazon link: I: The Creation of a Serial Killer by Jack Olsen
The Killing Season
The Killing Season chronicles a year in the life of real-life LA cop duo Razanskas and Winn, a grizzled veteran detective and his rookie partner. He’s a jaded, wise-cracking old white guy; she’s a driven, no-nonsense young black woman. Together they’re going to shovel shit against the tide of blood that’s flowing over the lost, sprawling, poverty-stricken, violent neighbourhoods of south central Los Angeles. I love these guys. They face so much, and work so hard, against almost insurmountable odds, in a hellish environment, and with the worst resources imaginable at their disposal.
Well, I loved these guys. I did some googling on them after finishing the book and found that on one of the first cases they worked on they’d essentially fitted up an innocent guy. Took the sheen off it all, somewhat. Still, a great book. A real eye-opener. A tragedy from start to finish. There but for the Grace of… whatever you happen to believe in, go you and I.
He was shot… where?
“Razanskas gives Winn and another detective a few details about Masuayama and Reyes’ body dump case and mentions that the victim was shot in the ear. The detective tells him he once had a case where his victim was found lying in a carport, naked. The coroner investigator could not find an entry wound, an exit wound, blood, or any sign of trauma. At the autopsy, the fluoroscope, a type of X-ray machine, solved the mystery and revealed a .22 slug. The man, who had crossed a Jamaican drug dealer, had been shot in the anus.”
Death, loss and unspeakable tragedy feature almost constantly throughout the book, but this next excerpt stung me quite hard.
On murder and its consequences:
“Erick’s friends were stunned when they heard he was killed in a drive-by. He was not the type who would hang out on the street corners with the gangbangers. He lived with his girlfriend and two young children in Ontario, a suburb 40 miles east of Los Angeles. They did not want to raise their children in the city. He had been laid off from his job as a security guard and was spending a few days a week during the summer at his mother’s South-Central house. She has diabetes and failing eyesight and Erick had been caring for her.
When he returned to his old neighbourhood, he liked to play dominoes with his friends and water the roses in his mother’s yard. He landscaped the yeard years ago and won a gardening award from the city. His mother still has the trophy on her mantel. He took pride in the lush lawn he put in, the red, yellow, pink and violet rosebushes he tended, the thick stands of philodendron he planted to shade the yard.
He was so well liked, more than 300 people came to his funeral, including a few teachers from elementary and high school. At his wake, his 3-year-old son, Erick, Jr, who now wears his father’s gold earring, tried to climb into the coffin. He could not comprehend that his father was gone. Later that night, he picked up the telephone and tried to call his father so he could tell him to come home.
Erick’s 5-year-old daughter, Danielle, who is missing her front teeth and has pigtails, lingered by her father’s open casket. She kissed him and held his hand. Finally, she told her mother, “I want to die, so I can be with my daddy in heaven.”
Now Danielle’s mother often finds her crying in her bed, the blankets pulled over her head. When her mother pulls the covers back, Danielle tells her that she tries to muffle her cries. She does not want to upset her.
Every day, Erick, Jr., talks about his father. And every day he tells his mother, “I want to find the man who shot my daddy. I want to kill him.” “
Amazon Link: The Killing Season by Miles Corwin
Until next time: keep reading, mother-bookers.
Recommendations for some excellent books related to this edition’s theme
Lost Girls: an Unsolved American Mystery by Robert Kolker
People Who Eat Darkness: Love, Grief and a Journey into Japan’s Shadows by Richard Lloyd Parry
Blind Faith by Joe McGinniss
Son: A Psychopath and his Victims by Jack Olsen
Blind Eye: The Terrifying Story of a Doctor Who Got Away with Murder by James B. Stewart
Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us by Robert D. Hare