John E. Douglas is one of the most well known true crime writers today, inspiring authors a-plenty with his varied career as one of the first modern criminal profilers who worked within the FBI, formerly as a Special Agent. His numerous books chronicle not only his career in the field but also the history of criminal profiling as a whole, both North American and worldwide. They provide incredible insight into the work of criminal profilers, how they cracked some of the most difficult and horrific cases in criminal history, and how their work coupled with modern psychology goes some way to clearing the mysteries of how some people commit such horrendous acts.
This month, I finally sat down and read The Cases That Haunt Us, followed immediately by the more personal and internationally renowned: Mindhunter.
The Cases That Haunt Us (2000)
Co-written with Mark Olshaker (as Mindhunter is too), this book was the first one recommended to me by a close friend and has been on my reading wishlist for a long, long time. Actually, I knew about this book long before I had heard of Mindhunter which seems impossible really, given the popularity of the latter. Anyhow, this particular book ended up being a great jumping off point into Douglas’s books.
It focuses on a number of infamous cases, largely unsolved (and if solved, unsatisfyingly so). These include Jack the Ripper, The Black Dahlia, Lizzie Borden, and the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby, up to more recent cases, such as the Zodiac Killer, the Boston Strangler, and the death of JonBenet Ramsey. To a true crime reader, these cases are likely very familiar, and they are used to reflect the changing police procedures; from the 1880s lack of forensic sciences to the modern mysteries which plague us still despite our better investigation techniques.
Douglas outlines very clearly and concisely the events which took place in each case, laying out the series of events, and the way the investigation was carried out. One example of this is the close descriptions of the initial, and then ongoing, search for the victim, and the following hostage demands and meetups, which took place during the Lindbergh case – here, we see how the media played a role in the case at the time, as well as the key players who were there to negotiate: a complicated case is made simpler by Douglas and Olshaker’s prose. Likewise, in the still unsolved JonBenet Ramsey case, he makes clear each of the events which occurred, dispelling plenty of rumour and hearsay that some accounts seem laced with (Douglas himself worked personally on the Ramsey case). Every case, even the most convoluted, is carefully researched and laid out clearly, just as the profiling techniques that accompany them are.
Perhaps most interestingly then, is when Douglas uses his own profiling techniques to suggest potential suspects, or suspect types. The Zodiac and Jack the Ripper sections in particular give extraordinary insight into the type of offender who could be capable of those serial killings, looking at some known historical suspects attached to the case himself to see who best fits the profile (if any do!). His expertise and experience in categorising offences and offender types is truly one of the most interesting things I have ever read, and it is always done so clearly and concisely that it never feels like over the top jargon: in fact, much of the language used by criminal profilers is intentionally easy to understand, and often self-explanatory. The insights into these unsolved mysteries truly makes for an interesting read and each section is thoroughly explored, sometimes connecting neatly to the case before or after it. Largely done chronologically in history too, the cases often overlap, helping to further illustrate points in profiling, comparing one type of offence to the other.
In places, Douglas links back to similar experiences in his own career, but only briefly. He may note the similarities between one well known unsolved case to one which was solved, often by him and his team, that has similar characteristics. He also dispels numerous misunderstandings attached to the field, often thoughts related to offenders that have been invented in fiction which have entered the public consciousness as truth, or where the case may have been erroneously reported upon, and the false details never quite challenged at the time.
Of course, being true crime and non-fiction, it goes without saying that for the squeamish, it may be a hard read in places (the same goes for Mindhunter), but his language is always so to-the-point that it never feels sensationalist or over-the-top. The cases are laid out as they are, as fact, and they have all the seriousness and sympathy one would expect. That said, there are lighter moments too – Douglas’s criticism of one man’s excuses in a particular historical case were genuinely quite smartly funny, and there is an easy-going approach to the language, reading much as if Douglas is directing this solely at the reader. This personable approach and balanced use of language and mood really helps the book flow, creating an engaging and highly memorable read – something that seems to cross through all his works.
I would definitely recommend this book, in a heartbeat, to anyone with even a passing interest in the true crime genre. It covers numerous cases, all of them well-known, which you have likely heard of but may never have known the details of. Combining modern criminal profiling with old cases, alongside chronicling the police investigations of the time, we see why some cases that would be easily solved today have remained a mystery and just what sort of person we should be on the lookout for in each particular case. A truly gripping read.
One of the most famous books of Douglas’s, Mindhunter also chronicles criminal cases but these are blended alongside his own development as a profiler, from his school years, up to his work in the FBI as a Special Agent and eventually to his being at the forefront of criminal profiling today. Numerous members of his team are mentioned and some of their own personal cases are examined. Mindhunter then is a history of Douglas’s career alongside numerous cases that helped shape his experience and profiling techniques.
The cases covered in this book include numerous serial murders from the late 60s onwards; many of them focused on the 70s and 80s when profiling was really being developed into what we know it as today; almost all of the cases mentioned are ones Douglas worked on too. Referred to initially as behavioural science (which Douglas recalls he renamed ultimately, so as to remove ‘the B.S.’) Douglas reveals how this little understood practice and form of investigation became one of the primary forms of understanding unknown offenders (known as UNSUB‘s throughout – unknown subjects), a field which works to help stop serial offenders earlier before more suffer. We see its use in practice, as desperate police forces rely on it to locate the type of offender believed responsible, to the interviews Douglas and his team conducted on convicted offenders to gain insight into the particular minds which commit such atrocious acts.
He details how certain offenders come to be, why some criminals end up acting out in particular ways, and the likelihood of certain individuals repeating their crimes over and over. He reveals the almost unbelievable characteristics of certain offenders, such as the particular behaviours they will engage in that will make them easier, or harder, to locate. He does all this with real life examples, often in cases he worked on personally. He reveals the offender’s life, and how things may have ‘escalated’ for some but always stresses that they had a choice, no matter what background or excuses one could make. This causes him to butt heads at time with some of the psychiatrists he comes across, whose views may not quite meld with his own in terms of rehabilitation or perceived dangerousness. It’s easy to see which side Douglas sides on – and it’s hard to disagree with him. Again, like The Cases That Haunt Us, he succinctly describes each case and the theories his team relies on, and how they are proved right time and time again, each time helping to catch a dangerous predator. He believes strongly in criminal profiling, of course, and by the end of it probably the reader does too!
Again, there is sympathy where there needs to be, and a clinical clearness when necessary. Likewise, Douglas’s humour also filters nicely in and out of the text, often when relaying his own personal experiences as an agent, pranking colleagues and making light of the more bizarre scenarios he has found himself in. This also reads as a fascinating biography as well as an ongoing history of the criminal profiling team as a whole.
With a TV show on the horizon based on the book (I really don’t know much more than that at this moment…!), it’s likely that sales for this book will go through the roof once again and rightfully so. Another must for those interested in true crime, and pretty much accepted standard reading if you have an interest in criminal profiling, or the work of the FBI. A fun side-note, Thomas Harris based his Jack Crawford character from the Hannibal series of books (and later movies and television show) on Douglas – Harris himself researching the police procedures through Douglas’s work. You can easily see how Douglas’s work hasn’t just helped shape modern criminal profiling and criminal psychology but has also shaped fiction just as much as the predators he chases have (Silence of the Lambs remains a great example of this, with both sides having real-life contemporaries – don’t believe me? Look it up!).
Overall, both books work well together – either one could be read before the other, but I personally enjoyed reading The Cases That Haunt Us first: it helped introduce one to criminal profiling and its history slowly and gradually, through well-known cases, whilst giving glimpses into what to expect in Mindhunter. The latter too is a fascinating read, from the horrors of the cases he has taken part in to the lighter moments of a young FBI agent gaining his footing and learning his craft.
At this moment in time I have moved onto Obsession, also by Douglas, and hope to read a second alongside that one too. It’s my hope that I can read all of his works before moving onto other profilers and books in the true crime genre.
For now, though, I highly recommend both books; together they complement perfectly, but individually they are strong works of nonfiction with incredible insight and dedication to them.
NEXT UP: Hardback Heaven – Monsters and Astrology…