I just finished rereading a fascinating book called Mindhunter: Inside the FBI's Elite Serial Crime Unit by John Douglas (and Mark Olshaker). It was first published in 1996 and I probably first read it somewhere around 1997 to 1999. So why am I writing about a book that old and why did I go back and read it again? The reason is simple, over the winter I started watching syndicated episodes of the show Criminal Minds and my very first impression was “Oh cool, someone made a show based on Mindhunter.
It’s not the first piece of entertainment based on this book or the BAU. (That’s the Behavioral Analysis Unit of the FBI… where the profilers work.) As a matter of fact, Jack Crawford, the character in the novel The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris, was based on John Douglas. That movie propelled profilers into the mainstream and there have been countless movies and TV shows that center around serial killers and “mind hunting” FBI agents since then.
The first thing that made me think of this book while watching Criminal Minds was the use of the term UNSUB, or Unknown Subject. It can be heard in every episode of Criminal Minds, and the first place I encountered that word was in Mindhunter. The book not only covers a number of gruesome and disturbing cases that John Douglas was involved with but also touches on his personal life and the toll a life in this world can take on one’s relationships and health. I could see bits of Douglas in several characters in Criminal Minds; most obvious is Aaron "Hotch" Hotchner, (Thomas Gibson) the head of the BAU team. He is so focused and determined in his work that it eventually costs him his marriage and strains his relationship with his newborn son. This mirrors the failed marriage of John Douglas. There are also bits and pieces of Douglas found in Jason Gideon (Mandy Patinkin) and David Rossi (Joe Mantegna). Mantegna’s character is especially reminiscent of Douglas because Rossi is supposed to be one of the founders of the BAU and has become a celebrity from the books he has written on the subject. That’s exactly who Douglas is.
I enjoy Criminal Minds, its good fun… in a sick way, I guess. It’s like a mini Silence of the Lambs each week, with a wide variety of sickos that sometime seem to push the limits of subject matter for network television. Thanks to DVR I was able to watch a good chunk of the first few seasons and so I decided to pick up Mindhunter and give it another go. One of the things about the UNSUBs on the show is that they almost always have some outrageous way of killing their victims and even more creative ways of eluding and taunting the authorities. As a viewer, you suspend belief a little bit because the more outlandish the crime, the more entertaining the show. But a funny thing happened after I started reading the book. It turns out that some of these plotlines and characters are not so far off the real thing. For instance, there is an episode where two rednecks capture women, release them into the woods and then hunt them for sport. I chalked that episode up to the old “Most Dangerous Game” plot devise. But it turns out it is based on an actual case. A guy named Robert Hansen did that very same thing for real in Alaska.
If you are a fan of Criminal Minds, you will recognize many specific moments in this book that have inspired events in the show. But be prepared, reading about the real thing can be a much more disturbing endeavor. Douglas gives us fascinating stories and insight into a lot of the more famous serial killers and some of the lesser known ones as well. He even gives us a profile of the father of all serial killers; Jack the Ripper.
Mindhunter is a good read, although it is very sobering when you realize just how many sick predators are really out there and how few of them are ever caught as quickly as they are on a TV show. Once you have read this book, when you watch a show like Criminal Minds, you will understand and appreciate the theories and methodologies of those profilers a lot more. And you just might have a little trouble sleeping at night.