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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