By now, words like “unsub” and “profiling” are very common in media concerning police, investigations, and so on. Perhaps made most popular by Criminal Minds, these notions aren’t the invention of the creative minds of writers, but of the hard work of the real life FBI agent John Douglas and his colleagues. What we see as the norm in criminal investigations now was unheard of a few decades ago, and the history of how profiling came to be is shared by Douglas himself in the book I’m recommending this week: Mindhunter.
Because it’s such a different kind of book, I won’t keep the usual “10 Reasons for Recommending” structure for this week, but I will discuss why you should definitely give it a read if you’re into writing crime thrillers/dramas or have a character you might find inspiration for in his book.
A little warning beforehand: the book describes cases in quite graphic detail, so it’s definitely not suitable for younger readers or anyone sensitive to mentions of physical and sexual abuse.
I am aware there’s a Netflix show based on it, and I did watch that first before knowing it’s an actual book (and enjoyed it tremendously, if binging the whole thing in 2 days is any indication), but I’ve chosen to write about the book simply because it’s something else. It does have a story, the one about John Douglas and how he came to bring profiling at the forefront of catching criminals, but if anything, it’s more of an educational book. Perhaps a strange choice of words, but to me, it reads like a “manual” of some kind that helps in understanding the human psyche and how violent offenders think, feel, and react. For a writer, in my opinion, it’s quite an invaluable resource into writing a believable, real character.
So, I honestly won’t ramble on for too long this week because it’s pretty much cut and dry: the psychology of a killer is interesting, and seeing the process profilers go through to deliver a portrait of an unknown offender that is so scarily accurate is fascinating.
There are so many different types of criminals in the world, but once you carefully analyze how they went about their crimes, a portrait starts to be drawn. How they grew up, things they had to live through, external influences such as parents, siblings, or other mentor-like people in their lives, education, physical attributes, all of these play a role in how a person can become a killer, and how a killer can be found and caught. Douglas explains several of his profiles and his reasoning behind them, what I see as a huge help for my own writing, and even though it seems like coming up with so many details is just a bunch of bull, once he goes through his reasons, it all starts to make sense.
The book also retells the story of Douglas’ time interviewing convicts (like Ed Kemper, story which also appears in the show), and it’s quite fascinating to read about how those offenders behave once they are behind bars, how they react to their fate (some agree they should be locked up, others continue to maintain their innocence despite all evidence saying otherwise) and it’s interesting to see how many of them agreed to help with the study which now makes profiling easier.
Douglas also goes through his time working on-going cases, such as the Green River Killer’s or the Atlanta Child Murders (the latter which is also shown in season 2 of the show), and there’s a certain kind of tension you feel as you realize not all cases are solved, even with the power of profiling.
In all, I believe this is a valuable read not only for writers, but for anyone who wants to understand the process behind catching criminals of this caliber. It’s also a very inspiring tale of growth, as young John Douglas probably would’ve never imagined he’d end up as such an esteemed member of the FBI.
If you have an interest in psychology and profiling, definitely give this book a read.
I promise next week we’ll go back into storyland! See you then!