John Douglas is a murder whisperer, and David Fincher is a very smart man

4 May

As mass-market paperbacks go, John Douglas’ Mind Hunter is a joy to behold. The cover features a soft-focus photo of Douglas, a benign middle-aged white man wearing a trench coat with a popped collar. Half of Douglas’ face is overlaid with thin red concentric circles that emanate from the red eyeball of what might be… a dog? Unclear. Bought used, my copy also has a much-broken spine and yellowing pages. It looks like it came from a supermarket aisle reached via time machine. 

In a few months, there will probably be a new edition of Mind Hunter (if there isn’t already), its cover promoting the David Fincher adaptation coming to Netflix this fall. But for now the book lives in the 90s, where its biggest claim to fame is having inspired Jack Crawford’s character in The Silence of the Lambs. IRL, Douglas is an FBI agent, and the man who spearheaded the bureau’s profiling unit. Mind Hunter documents the findings of some of his early work, specifically a period during which he and his colleagues interviewed dozens of violent offenders—Charles Manson, Ted Bundy, and Ed Gein among them—about their lives and crimes. Essentially to figure out how they think.

It’s easy to see how Mind Hunter will make for good TV. It includes interviews with some of history’s most notorious criminals, and is filled with the kind of grisly detail for which Fincher is known. Less important but still nice: Douglas is a compelling protagonist, a humble FBI agent working his way up the ranks while he evangelizes for a new, kooky-seeming way of identifying suspects.

To be sure, watching him win converts is brutal—we’re talking about men responsible for numerous rapes and/or murders, sometimes of children—but it’s also compelling. Because through his work, Douglas develops an uncanny ability to peg the characteristics of a criminal using only the details of their crime. There are numerous examples of him parachuting into local precincts, going through a case file, and then telling local cops who they should be looking for: age, job, marital status, criminal background… down to the color of their car. In one case, Douglas (correctly, it turns out) tells police that their suspect will have a speech impediment.

There’s a Sherlock Holmes flair to these reveals, but Mind Hunter is never showy. Douglas is clinical in his descriptions of crimes, and firm and direct in his conclusions about their perpetrators. It’s a necessary remove: To come to the conclusions he does, Douglas has to think like his suspects. That means trying to understand why that kid was picked from the playground to kill, or that cashier was abducted and tortured by a guy she told milk to. This is a good book, but not a fun one—it’s Psych if USA set a ninth season in Hell.

Not that that’s a deterrent for many people? I’ve tried thrice to get hooked on the My Favorite Murder podcast, but am always irked by a moment in the first episode where the hosts talk about how their interest in murders is so quirky and strange and how it, like, totally weirds people out at parties.

I mean sure, graphic crime-scene details aren’t traditionally considered polite dinner conversation. But we do live in a society that’s perennially fascinated by violent criminals, and in particular serial killers. After all, The Silence of the Lambs won Best Picture 16 years ago. Being “into” serial killers in 2017 is like being into sushi, or yoga, or podcasts about serial killers.

Still. If anyone were going to make people squirm at a dinner party with their casual discussion of violent crimes, it would be John Douglas—he’s written about a dozen books on the subject, and once had to act jocular with Ted Bundy.

3papercutsTITLE: Mind Hunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit
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AUTHOR: John Douglas and Mark Olshaker
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PAGES: 400 (in paperback)
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ALSO WROTE: many other crime books
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SORTA LIKE: Helter Skelter meets The Silence of the Lambs
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FIRST LINE: “I must be in hell.”

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