Friday, 17 September 2010

Whoever Fights Monsters by Robert Ressler

This is an old favourite and a guilty pleasure.

FBI agent Robert Ressler coined the term "serial killer" back in the mid 70s. It's one of those phrases you'd imagine has been round forever, but before that they were called "stranger killings." The new terminology recognised that someone was killing in the same way again and again. He also notes in retrospect how they're similar to the old movie serials. Every one excites you, but ends in a cliffhanger. You need to watch the next one to get another kick, but you're never sated.

Ressler was also the first man who went round the prisons trying to find out what made them tick. The book starts with Richard Trenton Chase, who killed familes and drank their blood to stop Nazi UFOs turning his blood to dust. He's one archetype here - the disorganised killer. Your basic nutjob kill crazy maniac, who doesn't even bother to wipe the blood off his t-shirt.

Your second archetype therefore is the organised killer. A psychopath, but not mentally disorded. Often intelligent and charming, they plan out the hunt and hide the evidence. Much of the book's about this type, as Ressler can actually get a conversation going with these guys. Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, Ed Kemper are your go-to killers here (though Ressler seems to really hate Bundy - Kemper he's pretty cool with.)

The main point here is that all serial killings are sexual, even if there's no obvious sexual element. It's all about the fantasy taking over - fantasies which start in an abusive or otherwise dysfunctional childhood. It did leave me wondering about Harold Shipman.

Ressler pioneered criminal profiling, which is clearly still a touchy subject, but there's a lot of evidence here to show how it can help in an investigation (Peter Sutcliffe for instance, though the haters never listened) without it being a magic bullet, or an alternative to actual police work.

There's a lot of really interesting and horrible stuff here, but the book drags when talking about Ressler's life story or bureaucratic infighting at the FBI. Who wants to hear about a dedicated fighter of crime - a man who's actually made a difference! - when we can hear about someone who chops women's heads and hands off and has sex with their corpses. That's Edmund Kemper again. Here's Kemper's top tip by the way - cut the achilles tendons, and they're easier to position once rigor mortis kicks in.

You learn something new every day.

On the home run with my book on tape - Wolf Hall by Hillary Mantel, and I might try something a bit special tomorrow. It should only take me a few hours, but I'll need some equipment. No, not a knife.

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