No doubt it’s the suspicion of evil within that so enthralls us in films and books like Natural Born Killers and The Silence of the Lambs. But regardless of why they’re so popular, fiction and nonfiction accounts of serial killers continue to proliferate. So it’s only natural that FBI ”profiler” John Douglas, onetime chief of the investigative unit of the agency’s National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime, and the inspiration for fictional heroes invented by novelists like Thomas Harris and Patricia Cornwell, should have his say.
”This isn’t the Hollywood version,” Douglas announces on the first page of Journey Into Darkness. ”It isn’t sanitized or prettied up or rendered into ‘art.’ This is the way it really happens. If anything, it’s worse than the way I describe it.” What he’s talking about is some of the most appalling crime scenes imaginable — scenes that would make most of us lose our lunch, but that Douglas and his FBI colleagues relentlessly comb for clues. Over the years, they have compiled a sophisticated database that enables them to put together psychological and demographic portraits of serial killers and other violent offenders. It’s this Sherlock Holmes aspect — solving crimes by deductive reasoning — that gives profiling such box office appeal.
Actually, Douglas isn’t at his best when delving into the twisted psyches of the killers he’s helped capture and convict. Indeed, there’s a depressing sameness to the behavioral profiles he presents: The book must set some kind of record for the phrases ”white male in his early to mid-twenties” and ”loner, with a poor self image.” It turns out that most serial killers have lousy jobs (if any) and worse love lives. They ”come from broken or dysfunctional homes” and tend to be victims of physical or sexual abuse themselves. (So what else is new?) And Douglas’ rendering of their thought processes rarely rises above the level of the old Police Gazette. Here, for example, is his surprisingly hackneyed version of what must have been going through one killer’s mind as he bludgeoned a beautiful young jogger: ”I am in control. I can decide whether this bitch lives or dies and how she’s gonna die. It’s all up to me. For the first time tonight, I feel like somebody.”
This isn’t to say Journey Into Darkness — Douglas’ third book with collaborator Mark Olshaker (the other two are Mindhunter and Unabomber: On the Trail of America’s Most-Wanted Serial Killer) — is without merit or interest. Far from it. The real genius here lies in the analytical rigor of Douglas’ crime-scene investigations: learning to look past the horror to read the unique ”signature” each killer leaves behind with his victims, whether he means to or not — strangling them in front of a mirror, for example, so he can watch them watch themselves die. Not every investigator has the stomach for it. The more imaginative and gifted they are, one suspects, the more they suffer. Indeed, the most affecting part of Journey is Douglas’ account of his own breakdown and near-death from what he says was stress-induced viral encephalitis while working on the (still unsolved) Green River murders near Seattle in 1983.
As the author would undoubtedly be among the first to agree, this profiling business isn’t magic, and it’s far from infallible — as the recent false Olympic-bombing accusation against Atlanta security guard Richard Jewell, apparently on the grounds that he was a fat guy who lived with his mother, unfortunately made clear. It’s just gutsy, hard-nosed police work of the most difficult — and most readable — kind.