The modern history of serial killers in fiction has brought us a huge variety of charismatic and intelligent – but hugely deranged – antagonists. The likes of Hannibal Lecter, Tom Ripley, Buffalo Bill and Dexter Morgan are compelling men (and they are almost always men) who tend to dominate stories, even when they’re not front and centre. It was while reading or watching their stories where many people first encountered the notion of a criminal profiler, the lawman or woman trying to understand the mind of the serial killer and thus uncover clues that might help find the perpetrator before he strikes again. This morning Maggie Doyle spoke to the man who inspired many of these fictional protagonists, from Will Graham in Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon to Jason Gideon in Criminal Minds, former FBI special agent John Burke was one of the first real-life criminal profilers.
Having served seven years as an FBI agent, the bureau wanted John to return to the academy in Quantico and teach students how to be FBI agents. While observing instructors there, John noted that they were being challenged by students about criminals and they were struggling to give answers because they didn’t have the proper knowledge.
“To understand the artist, you must look at the artwork. So for me to understand the criminal, I’m going to look at the crime and then I’m going to go into these prisons and conduct the interview.”
It was something of a challenge for John to convince his superiors that his plan was a good idea. At the time, he told Maggie, the post-Hoover era of the late 70s and early 80s, the upper echelons of the Bureau thought that Behavioural Science was what BS stood for. But John persevered, and by the time he retired, he had a unit with forty-two people in it, training several other arms of US law enforcement as well as the FBI.
For his new book, The Killer Across the Table, John selected four different cases. Maggie asked him about Donald Harvey, known as the Angel of Death, who killed somewhere between 75 and 100 people. Harvey called his acts mercy killings, but John disabused him of that notion in a face to face interview.
“I ended up just telling him, ‘what it was all about really, Donald, it’s about power and control and you, whatever your reason was, it certainly wasn’t mercy’.”
John has also interviewed 60s cult leader Charles Manson.
“He was just a BS-er, a psychopath, a manipulator, but very very charismatic and you could see how he was able to shape these followers.”
For the film version of Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs, the character of FBI Behavioural Science Unit head, and Clarice Starling’s boss, Jack Crawford was based on John. When Maggie asked John if the filmmakers portrayed the Behavioural Science Unit well, his answer was unequivocal: no. According to John, a much more accurate portrayal is to be found in the Netflix series, Mindhunter, based on John’s book of the same name. So now you know.
The Killer Across the Table: Unlocking the Secrets of Serial Killers and Predators with the FBI’s Original Mindhunter by John Douglas and Mark Olshaker is published by HarperCollins.
You can hear Maggie’s full interview with John, as well as the rest of the The Ryan Tubridy Show here:
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