John Douglas

Journey into Darkness, John Douglas & Mark Olshaker

Pocket, 1997, 382 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-671-00394-1

Most law-abiding citizen are, at one degree or another, fascinated by criminal behavior. Temptation from the dark side? Vicarious living through the illegal actions of others? Reassurance that being a criminal is always a bad idea? Whatever the reason, the publishing industry has responded in kind: a whole new non-fiction category (“True Crime”) has been created to satisfy a lucrative need.

Of all types of criminal activities, serial killing must be one of the most incomprehensible to the ordinary mind. One can rationalize theft, fraud, assault or even accidental homicide, but repeated cold-blooded murders are out of anyone’s conceptual framework. And yet, some people make it their job to get into the mind of serial killers. John Douglas is probably the best-known of them, having long been director of the FBI’s profiling unit, which specializes in establishing psychological portraits of typical serial killers. Journey into Darkness is an account of his work, his methods and various cases in which Douglas has some expertise.

This isn’t Douglas and Olshaker’s first book together, (They also previously wrote Mindhunter) and this has some effect on the book’s ultimate impact. While Journey into Darkness remains a good read, it seems to skirt on a few important issues and suffers from a structure that doesn’t flow as naturally as it should. One get the feeling that this is more of a sequel to a previous book in which all the introductory elements have been explained. Journey into Darkness must assume that most of its readers are already familiar with the basis of profiling, serial killer definition and the high-profile cases in the specialty.

Even then, however, the book remains worthwhile. For a newcomer to the profiling work, it’s fascinating to see how, from a few clues, specialized FBI agents can deduce or narrow down some characteristics of the killer’s environment, behavior and socioeconomic situation. Douglas explains that most serial murderers are intelligent young white males with few social contacts. They have low self-esteem, often live at home with a relative, have a history of abuse, pyromania and cruelty to animals. They know how to manipulate people and often return to crime scenes.

Douglas establishes these base elements early on, then use them to show how real profiles can use clues from crime scenes to form a profile. No traces of struggle? The victim must have known the killer. White victims? White killer. Mutilations? History of sexual violence.

Most of the book is composed of case studies of serial murder cases as examined by Douglas and Olshaker. The writing style is brisk and efficient, allowing for a glimpse in the mind of both criminals and policemen. Of particular interest is the analysis of the O.J. Simpson case. Douglas’ conclusion? Guilty, guilty, guilty…

Unfortunately, as mentioned before, the book has a few structural problems. One case study is dragged on over several chapters, and however sympathetic the victim was, the book so far had dealt with individual cases in a matter of pages, not chapters. Another source of problems is inherent in the subject matter itself; however fascinating the subject matter is, and despite the good work in presenting the subject, this repetition of true human evil gets repulsive with time even though the interest level remains high.

We should thankful for people like John Douglas, willing to explore the criminal mind to take away as many of them possible off the street. Journey into Darkness is a good exposition of the work practiced by his equivalents, and the results they get. Even though Mindhunter is probably the best introduction to the subject, don’t hesitate to pick up this one if the subjects fascinates you. And chances are it will.

[February 2005: Indeed, Mindhunter is almost a prerequisite to Journey into Darkness. Not only does the prequel offer considerable background on John Douglas and the way the FBI profiling program was established, but it also describes how those “rules” of profiling were developped over time. Read it first if you can.]