Two of my current reading goals are 1) to read more nonfiction, and 2) to catch up on the BOTM titles still waiting unread on my shelf. Picking up The Killer Across the Table by John Douglas and Mark Olshaker this month contributed toward both.
In the book, former FBI agent / criminal profiler John Douglas looks back on his conversations with convicted serial killers in an attempt to explain why they do what they do.
“Because let’s be honest: the fascination with ‘true crime’ is actually fascination with what writers and philosophers call the human condition. We all want to know and understand the basis of human behavior and motivation, why we do the things we do. And with crime, we are seeing the human condition writ large and at the extremes…”
Right out of the gate, Douglas and Olshaker make clear that this book was written with the intent of showing readers what the human mind is capable of, for the purpose of understanding what causes violent crime and perhaps recognizing the signs to prevent history repeating itself. The book is divided into four sections, each of which examines a different “type” of serial killer, though Douglas flips between cases frequently and with ease wherever they fit his arguments.
In the first section, a would-be serial killer finds himself behind bars after only one crime; his victim’s death ultimately results in the national adoption of Joan’s Law. The second section examines a killer who chooses victims disturbingly close to home. The third, a hospital orderly the likes of whom you’ll never want to meet. And the fourth, a killer whose crimes do not seem to follow any pattern. The first two are the strongest, in my opinion, but my attention and interest never wavered. The Killer Across the Table is a great introduction to true crime, and offers such a wealth of psychological insight that readers already familiar with the genre will probably find something new here, as well.
If, like me, you’re fairly new to true crime and aren’t sure about your interest level in serial killers, let me assure you that this volume is beginner-friendly. Though it does not read like a novel, it does touch on a wide variety of cases and motivations that will probably help you decide whether you want to read about anything or anyone specific in more depth. My only previous experience with true crime lit was In Cold Blood, so I did appreciate this broader overview. I’ve also watched a couple of recent true crime Netflix films, which is how I came to be reading The Killer Across the Table– I saw Netflix’s Mindhunter, a new adaptation of another book by these authors that uses the same style of approach to accomplish the same purpose, and became intersested enough to pick up this quasi-related work; the two make for great companion pieces.
John Douglas, the first listed author, is the agent who pioneered this method of criminal profiling that’s become so familiar from detective shows and novels in the last couple of decades. He’s the basis for Jack Crawford, the senior FBI agent from The Silence of the Lambs. There’s no doubt in these 300-some pages that he’s an intelligent person, and good at what he does. And yet, it’s still worth bearing in mind that there’s some subjectivity involved with presuming to know what goes on in another person’s mind. Douglas’s arguments are easy to follow and always backed up with evidence, but this is still a fairly new branch of criminology and Douglas’s word seems to be as close to proof as we can get within this volume.
But this is where it gets a bit controversial. My favorite part of the Mindhunter adaptation (so far) comes toward the end of the first season- agent Ford, the character based on Douglas, seems to become a bit mentally unstable as he spends more time interviewing and deciphering notorious killers. The lengths he goes to in the interviews become more extreme, he lies to cover up an action he knows others will see as morally wrong, he makes serious decisions in both his relationships and career based on deductions from behavior rather than listening to others. Perhaps I read more into it than the writers of the show intended, but in any case this questionable impression of Ford/Douglas’s character was fresh in my mind when I started The Killer Across the Table. For this reason, I was perhaps a bit paranoid in my reading. After cold descriptions of gruesome crimes, Douglas does occasionally admit that the details of the crime were difficult for him to stomach and he feels only disgust for the people who would do such things. But for me, these quick, infrequent statements were not able to penetrate the sense of absolute detachment and indifference in the writing. The grammar is perfect, the words chosen carefully, and behind them… I felt no emotion.
Of course Douglas (and Olshaker, who never seems to be the “I” in the writing here though he must undoubtedly be present behind it) has no need to prove his emotions to me or any other reader. This is a book about what makes serial killers tick, not Douglas’s personal life. But I can’t deny that this sense of detachment in the writing affected my reading experience. The deaths of the victims are described in as tasteful a way as possible, but even in concept these acts are abhorrent; I expected to find an emotional connection, as I did with In Cold Blood. I might have managed to shrug this absence off in the end, if not for this passage:
“Perhaps the most-discussed exchange in the first season of the Netflix Mindhunter series occurs in episode 9 […]. In an effort to get past Speck’s contempt and get him engaged, Holden [Douglas’s character] rhetorically asks him what gave him the right to ‘take eight ripe cunts out of the world.’
It was actually pretty much like that in real life. We were in a conference room in the prison with Speck and a corrections department counselor and Speck was consciously ignoring us. I turned to the counselor and said, ‘You know what he did, your guy? He killed eight pussies. And some of those pussies looked pretty good. He took eight good pieces of ass away from the rest of us. You think that’s fair?’ “
This is exactly the scene in the Mindhunter film series that I began to strongly question the inherent goodness of agent Ford’s character and his motivations behind the criminal interviews. Seeing the same action repeated here, with an attempt at explanation but still no remorse, did nothing to shake my discomfort, though I know that Ford is a character, played by an actor, in what is probably a more fictionalized account. In the interest of keeping things fair, I’ll also point out that Douglas is only acting in the way he believes to be the best, most objective way to extract important information from criminals who don’t entirely want to play along:
“My role is to get these guys to talk, to find out what is, and was, going on inside their minds. Confrontation and moral indignation do not achieve that. In the end, talking to killers is about playing the long game, with every move a deliberate one- outrage, anger, these emotions are ever present in the background, but they work against you only if they come to the surface.”
He admits only one instance when emotion came to the surface for him during an interview.
I am so very curious about what Douglas would have chosen to do with his life if he hadn’t found such a perfect fit as a pioneer of criminal profiling for the FBI. His understanding of the human mind- in all its complex variations- is uncanny.
“We had proved we could think like the worst of’em.”
But whatever your eventual opinion of Douglas’s morals, there’s plenty of reason to read this book if you have any interest in the workings of the human brain. Douglas is undoubtedly an expert in his field, and he does an excellent job of shedding light on the dark side of humanity without glorifying these killers.
My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I think this is a good moment to mention again that I choose my star ratings based on personal enjoyment. Fortunately, my level of enjoyment is often pretty equal to the amount of merit I find in a book, but this is not always the case. By rating nonfiction, I am using the same scale of enjoyment as with fiction, by expressing a completely subjective summary of my experience; I am in no way attempting to pass judgment on the writer’s life or person. While I did find The Killer Across the Table a worthwhile read, it also taught me that I do tire of reading about serial killers. Though I’m still looking forward to the eventual release of Mindhunter‘s second season, I am not at this time planning to read any of Douglas and Olshaker’s other books, or any other serial killer books for the foreseeable future. I’m fairly new to nonfiction, and serial killers are only one small niche of a much wider interest for me, so I’m looking forward to seeing what else is out there and moving away from this topic for now. That said, if serial killer nonfiction is your niche or a budding interest, I do recommend checking out this author duo!
The Literary Elephant