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Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Review: Mindhunter

I have finally succumbed to the failure of the avid book reader's memory. When I saw that the kindle edition of Mindhunter was at $1.99, I tried the sample and read it, and enjoyed it and bought it. Two chapters later, I realized I'd read it before: somewhere in 1993, before I had a blog (well before blogs existed), which is why a search for my own review of Mindhunter never surfaced it.

Nevertheless, I didn't mind too much, as the book was a great read and I ploughed on through the book reading each chapter breathlessly.

Ultimately, this is a non-fiction account of a detective's cool magical trick: that of being able to profile the criminal through thorough examination of a crime scene. When you read newspaper reports about how the police have determined that the killer was a "white male, age 30-35, drives a volkswagen, has a high school education, and probably smokes and drinks and has a beard", and then wonder "how the heck did they do that?", this is the book for you.

John Douglas was one of the pioneers in the FBI Investigative Support Unit, and did the early research and studies on what makes serial killers tick. As a result, we get first hand accounts of how he profiled and helped to capture (and in some cases failed to capture) the serial killers that he was brought in to investigate.

A lot of the profiling comes from an understanding of the background of the killer: the kind of person who could commit most of these crimes is pretty dysfunctional, and hence can only fit into certain backgrounds. There's also some interesting statistical analysis, for instance, killings rarely cross racial boundaries. Furthermore, what's interesting is how the killer often tries to inject himself into the police investigation, leading to some proactive methods by which he can be caught. And of course, it's almost always a male serial killer. Though there are a couple of chilling examples of women killers in the book, they almost always target their immediate family rather than strangers. (There's one example in the book of a woman hiring a hit-man to take out her FBI agent husband to get the insurance money)

The book does have a hidden agenda: Douglas is very much pro-death penalty, and after reading the book, you can see why. There's no way you could handle the thousands of horrifying cases he has without coming to the conclusion that certain criminal types just cannot be turned around: by the time the killer has committed multiple murders, there's nothing that can be salvaged from his psyche. Furthermore, because such personalities are very focused on returning to prior behavior, they're capable of fooling psychologists, social workers, and others into thinking that they've been rehabilitated. When such people are let out on parole, they inevitably kill again. Reading this book makes you think that maybe the Batman comic books aren't so silly after all, where the super-criminals inevitably get let out of prison to repeat their crimes.

Douglas is also unsympathetic to the insanity plea. He notes that none of the "criminally insane" ever feel so compelled to act that they commit their crimes in front of a uniformed police officer. In several cases, he notes that the serial killers would visit a location with the intent of committing their crime, discover that conditions weren't favorable, and back out. This meant that when they committed their crime, they were in full control of whether or not to go through with it, and that they knew that it was wrong, but committed the act anyway.

In any case, the book is compelling reading, and well worth the time and $1.99. Pick it up!

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