Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Review: Mindhunter: Inside the FBI's Elite Serial Crime Unit

Mindhunter: Inside the FBI's Elite Serial Crime Unit Mindhunter: Inside the FBI's Elite Serial Crime Unit by John E. Douglas
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This review is going to be as much about comparing it to the new Netflix series as it is the book itself. You have been warned.

John Douglas was a FBI agent who spent most of his career working for its Behavioral Science Unit. Along with other agents Douglas interviewed a wide variety of violent offenders including such notorious figures as Charles Manson, Richard Speck, and David Berkowitz, and then he tried to apply what they learned to develop criminal profiles of active unsolved cases. If you’ve ever read the books of Thomas Harris like Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs or seen the movies or TV show based on them then you might be familiar with the character of Jack Crawford who was based on Douglas. Over the course of his career he worked on famous cases like the ‘80s Atlanta child murders and the Green River Strangler.

This is your basic true crime stuff written by a law enforcement professional. Douglas gives us his background as a fairly aimless youth who ended up as an FBI agent by pure chance and found that he had a taste and talent for digging into the history of criminals to see what made them tick. The book mixes his war stories of cases he worked along with a fair amount of bitching about the criminal justice system, and a little griping about he sometimes felt ill-treated by the FBI. He sprinkles his story with tidbits of his meetings with serial killers, and brags a fair amount about how accurate his profiles turned out to be for several cases he worked. In fact, you sometimes get the impression that the only reason that there are active killers who haven’t been caught was because someone failed to heed his advice.

In fairness, Douglas does spread a lot of credit around to his fellow agents and local cops he worked with over the years, and he goes out of his way to note that the agents of his department are essentially consultants who don’t catch criminals themselves. The guy did dedicate his professional life to studying the worst of the worst in the hopes of finding better ways to identify and catch them in the future. While that’s obviously a noble calling you do get a sense of smugness and self aggrandizement from him at times. You can tell that he gets a huge kick out of playing Sherlock Holmes and dropping predictions on people that turn out to be right, but there’s a notable absence of him ever being wrong about any of them other than minor discrepancies.

What’s most interesting about this book is how it was adapted into the a TV series. The first season of the show is about the early days of the Behavioral Science Unit when they were still coming up with the terminology and methodology they’d use to research and study violent offenders in prison. Douglas and fellow profiler Robert Ressler have been turned into fictionalized characters, but the killers and their crimes are historically accurate. Many of the scenes and stories are drawn from this book, but using created characters as the leads frees them up to add more drama as well as pick and choose their spots on the non-fiction bits.

So while Douglas certainly has had a colorful career and has many interesting things to say I found it a lot more satisfying as a TV show than a book.

Also, if you’re watching and liking Mindhunter be sure to check out Zodiac which producer/director David Fincher also did.

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Saturday, November 18, 2017

Review: Deadpool, Volume 9: Institutionalized

Deadpool, Volume 9: Institutionalized Deadpool, Volume 9: Institutionalized by Daniel Way
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

If I told you that Deadpool was in a mental hospital, and his psychiatrist is an unhinged woman who falls in love with him you might reasonably assume that it was the title engaging in some of it’s typical meta-satire of the genre to poke a little fun at DC’s Harley Quinn, right?

Unfortunately, instead of doing anything clever the entire story is an extended gag about how she’s not a supermodel so DP finds her disgusting. This is a guy whose face would let him play Freddy Kruger without using make-up, and he was recently hooking up with a disgusting alien during his space adventure. But hey, this chick is UGLY!

They could have done something with this if they would have played up the angle of it being a twisted version of the Harley/Joker story, or if the main point was that this woman is just too crazy even for Deadpool. That’s actually touched on, but you always get the impression that if this lady was hotter than DP would be totally into the whole thing. Even though there’s actually a few good moments where the shrink is making some valid observations about DP’s mental state it’s all tossed aside for the lazy and cheap stuff.


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Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Review: Close Reach

Close Reach Close Reach by Jonathan Moore
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is yet another story that confirms my firm belief that nothing good ever happens on a boat. The movies and TV alone provide an endless list of real and fictional disasters like Jaws, The Poseidon Adventure, Titanic, A Perfect Storm, All Is Lost, Dead Calm, Captain Phillips, that episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia where the gang buys a boat and Dennis makes a chilling explanation of the ‘implications’ when sailing with a lady, that other episode of Sunny when the gang goes on a cruise and everything goes horribly wrong.... Damn. I didn’t realize Sunny had two episodes about boats…Maybe three if you count the time that Frank hijacks the tourist boat to get to the movies…

Where was I? Oh, yeah. Boats. You can keep ‘em.

But some people actually are foolish enough to leave land. Like Kelly and Dean, a couple who have spent a year going around the world on their sailboat Freefall in an effort to save their marriage. Their relationship is on the mend as they’re cruising near Antarctica when they hear a frantic radio call from someone in trouble, and the signal is quickly jammed. They try to find the source of the transmission but have no luck. As they head to South America the radar tells them that a ship is following them, and it’s getting closer.

I’ve become a big fan of Jonathan Moore lately thanks to the excellent trilogy he wrote in which each book had its own particular style. The Poison Artist was moody psychological suspense, The Dark Room had a whodunit mystery vibe, and The Night Market was a near-future sci-fi conspiracy thriller. In the tight 200 pages of Close Reach Moore shows that he can do yet another genre that is equal parts survival-at-sea and horror.

It’s a terrifying story that works in large part due to the detail work Moore put in to make even a landlubber like me understand how the boat functions and what being on your own in a remote part of the ocean is really like. The tension ramps up to nail biting levels as Kelly and Dean try to fight their way through an on-coming storm while the mysterious boat gains on them.

I don’t want to spoil the twists and turns of the story, but suffice it say that when the confrontation comes a whole ugly level of hell is unleashed. Fair warning that this is a dark and brutal story that has blunt and graphic descriptions of all kinds of harm that people can inflict on one another. It made me wince and squirm at several points, but Moore’s skill and pacing keep it from sinking down to the level of torture porn.

The frank nature of the violence isn’t going to be for everyone, but if you’re up for it then you’ll get a fantastically gruesome tale that’ll make you practically taste the salt of the cold ocean spraying across your face.

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Friday, November 10, 2017

Review: In a Lonely Place

In a Lonely Place In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you were a single gal living in post-war Los Angeles you’d probably find Dix Steele absolutely dreamy. After all, he’s a big handsome fella who dresses well and likes to dine out in swell places. He was a fighter pilot in the war, and now he’s working on writing a mystery novel so he’s certainly leading a colorful and interesting life. Just one problem. About once a month he feels a compulsion to strangle a strange woman to death.

Oh, well. Nobody’s perfect, right?

We spend the entire book in Dix’s head starting with him on the prowl for his next victim on a foggy night in the hills, and then he visits his old war buddy Brub. Dix is such a cool customer that he doesn’t flinch when he learns that Brub is one of the police detectives working on the strangler murders, but Brub’s wife Sylvia seems a bit cool to him. As we follow Dix through this daily life we learn that he’s a man filled with anger and resentments as well as wild mood swings that intensify when he starts dating a beautiful neighbor lady.

I was only dimly aware of Dorothy B. Hughes until the recent re-release of this novel made a bunch of the crime writers I follow on social media start gushing about the book and film loosely based on it. That caught my attention, and I can see why they were excited about it. The main thing about it is that it seems way ahead of it’s a time in its depiction of the mindset of a serial killer.

Coincidentally, it also made a good companion piece to be reading while in the middle of watching Netflix’s new series Mindhunter, and Dix seems to exactly fit the pattern of a certain type of woman hating killer. And Dorothy Hughes was creating this character long before the psychology and terminology referring to them would become mainstream thanks to serial killers becoming a profitable true crime industry as well as a staple of thrillers in print and on screen.

Overall, it was a solid piece of work that I would have rated as a strong 3 stars, but then I read the afterword by Megan Abbott which made me think even more highly of it. Mighty Megan makes a lot of great points about how Hughes had tapped in a strain of misogyny that the genre often used, and that she then cleverly subverts it in places in ways that crime fiction hadn’t seen. That hadn’t occurred to me while reading, and it made me realize that there was another layer to the book that I hadn’t quite wrapped my arms around so I bumped it up to 4 stars.

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