Manhunters: Criminal Profilers and Their Search for the World’s Most Wanted Serial Killers by Colin Wilson

After reading about Victorian Murderesses and the way crime solution was handled in the 19th century, I was ready for another non-fiction on crime detection. That brings me to Manhunters: Criminal Profilers and Their Search for the World’s Most Wanted Serial Killers by Colin Wilson. The book, a reprint from 2007, began very promisingly with a rather chilling introduction about the shifting nature of murder. While compiling his Encyclopedia of Murder, Wilson states that he “noticed a variety of murder” that he was unable to “fit into the old classifications.” This variety, Wilson argues and cites with examples, is the “motiveless murders.” Wilson argues that murder “changes from century to century,” while noting that during the “second half of the nineteenth century a new category of crime began to emerge: sex crime.”  He refers to The Chronicles of Crime or the New Newgate Calendar to bolster his argument, with the fact that of the 500 plus cases mentioned only seven were for rape. Were there statistically less rapes then than now?  Could this be true? Or is it a matter of reporting? We know that the crime of rape historically carries a stigma for its victims, so was the crime just less reported in the nineteenth century?

Casting my mind back over history and various aspects of villainy, did women report when they were raped by the mongol hordes, the Roman legions, marauding pirates or the Vikings?  No, of course not; this is absurd as there was nowhere to ‘report’ the crime–no Bow Street Runners back in those days. Plus there’s the matter of reportage and a lack of media; we do know, however, that Tacitus wrote concerning the rape of Boudica’s daughters by the Romans, and that she took matters into her own hands. …

So were Victorian women not subject to the same sort of sexual assault that is historically known to have occurred or did they simply not report it? Plus then I think about Victorian women in general. Victorian Murderesses argues that the New Women were much more vulnerable to potentially scandalous situations as they began to mingle more freely in society. Arguably, however, the lower classes would have much more vulnerable to rape than the middle and upper classes. After all we know that many women were accompanied by chaperones and were never left alone with men, so by extension, rape victims would have been more likely to be found in the lower classes. Would a maid report her employer? Would a woman report the lord of the manor? Would a poor woman even bother reporting a rape to the police? Would the Victorian police even have paid attention to such a complaint if a barmaid reported she’d been sexually assaulted on the way home?

All these questions were running through my mind as I read the first chapter.

manhuntersInitially the book started very well, and began by giving me the sort of information I’d hoped for–the first time the term “serial killer” was used for example (FBI Special Agent Robert Ressler, 1977, if interested). The first chapter covers the history of criminal profiling which the author argues “for all practical purposes, this began on 1950 with a series of explosions in New York City attributed to the “Mad Bomber.” Frustrated with no leads in the case, the police consulted psychiatrist Dr. James A Brussel, a man who’d spent a great deal of his career working with the criminally insane. The Mad Bomber helped out by sending a flurry of letters, and Dr Brussel was able to provide the police with, as it turned out, a remarkably accurate profile of the bomber. Brussel was also called in on the Boston Strangler murders, and this chapter explains some of the controversies surrounding that case and how Brussel’s argument that all the crimes were committed by one killer, and not two as other experts argued, won the day.

Chapter 2 details the establishment of the FBI Academy of Quantico and draws in some big figures in the history of 20th century crime detection–instructors: Howard Teten, Robert K Ressler,  Patrick J. Mullany, and LAPD detective Pierce Brook. Brooks, as a LA detective who caught a serial killer based on hours and hours of pouring through files and newspaper clippings argued for a computer system in which crimes “solved and unsolved” were logged. This system was eventually developed as the VICAP (Violent Crimes Apprehension Program). This chapter also covers the “first serial killer to be caught with the aid of the FBI’s new investigative technique.” Chapter 5: The Behavioural Science Unit covers how the “Hoover old Guard” stymied innovative changes to crime solution (The Criminal Personality Research Project), and that for the younger agents, it was a matter of waiting for some people to retire until they could solve serial murders by adopting new approaches.  Chapter six includes a section on “organized versus disorganized” serial killers. Fascinating stuff if you’re into this.

The remainder of the book covers some of the most heinous cases in the history of serial killing and include: Manson, Bundy, Gacy, Dean Arnold Corll, the Hillside Stranglers, the Zodiac, the Atlanta Child Murders, Andrea Chikatilo, and The Night Stalker. Another chapter details Profiling in Britain. Some of the chapters were disappointing as profiling was subsumed by gruesome details of the cases themselves, so that it wasn’t profiling under examination so much as piles of corpses with the killers being caught not due to profiling as much as by mistakes, body parts & carelessness. If you’re familiar with the cases at all, you may be disappointed by the grim rehashing of details instead of the emphasis on profiling.

On a final note, when people, writers, detectives, psychiatrists, sociologists, study these serial killers, there’s an obsessive component to it. Perhaps even a fascination. I just finished watching True Detective, and I’d say that the character of Russ Cohle, played by Matthew McConaughey shows that sort of obsessive fascination whereas his partner, Marty Hart (played by Woody Harrelson) does not. Does that obsessive-fascination make Cohle the better detective? And if so when does that obsessive fascination go too far? A few of these killers mentioned in the book, once incarcerated, took to publishing  their “insights” (Ian Brady) or fiction (“sadistic sex killer” George Schaefer’s Killer Fiction). Author Colin Wilson describes the publication process with Brady and acknowledges that it was “wishful thinking” that Brady could ever see himself “objectively.” According to Wilson, these books are “interesting solely as an insight into the mind of a sadistic killer,” but IMO it’s frankly immoral, and misguided, to publish such stuff in which the killer either justifies these crimes or details violent sex porn fantasies.

Review copy

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10 Comments

Filed under Non Fiction, Wilson Colin

10 responses to “Manhunters: Criminal Profilers and Their Search for the World’s Most Wanted Serial Killers by Colin Wilson

  1. I’m rather fond of Colin Wilson but he’s published so much, not everything is that good or well researched. I read his books on cult leaders and thought that was well done. So ewre some of his books on the Occult. It sounds as this one wasn’t as carefully done. I agree on the immorality of such detailed accounts.

  2. Very interesting and incisive questions in your review, Guy. As this book is non-fiction, I think I’d find it too gruesome a read myself; I love a good noir, but this type of non-fiction is just a little too unnerving for me.

    I’m also watching True Detective at the moment (although I’m about two-thirds of the way in) and I agree with your comments about Russ Cohle’s almost obsessive fascination in his pursuit of the perps (and pursuits of another nature, too). I’m eager to watch the remaining episodes as I’m intrigued by what’s to come. I heard an audio review of TD somewhere, and the reviewer believed that the two leads were originally approached to play the opposite characters (Harrelson as Cohle, McConaughey as Hart). However, the two actors thought it would be more interesting if they swapped roles. I don’t know if it’s true, but if so, I think they made the right choice; I just can’t imagine anyone other than McConaughey playing Russ Cohle.

  3. Brian Joseph

    This is a very thoughtful post Guy. What you had to say about crime and sexual assault in the past rings very true.

    The book sounds truly fascinating. However, I have gotten a bit sensitive about this stuff it is not something that I would likely read these days.

    • To be honest Brian, this was too heavy on the wrong details. I thought there would be more about forensic science and profiling, but huge chunks were the grim details of the cases. For many people this will be familiar material.

  4. Not for me, not for a foreigner anyway since all the cases are unknown to them.
    I am sure there have been rapes in all social classes since forever and that it took centuries to consider it as unacceptable.

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