Review: Mindhunter by John Douglas & Mark Olshaker

Title: Mindhunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit
Authors: John Douglas & Mark Olshaker
Rating: ★
Summary: Over 25 years, Special Agent John Douglas became a legendary figure in law enforcement, pursuing some of the most notorious and sadistic serial killers of the 20th century. Using his uncanny ability to become both predator and prey, Douglas examined each crime scene to create the killer’s profile, describing their habits in order to predict their next moves. Mindhunter is the classic, behind-the-scenes chronicle of Douglas’s tenure at the FBI, taking us through some of his most gruesome, fascinating, and challenging cases—and into the darkest recesses of our worst nightmares.


As a true crime fan, I really wanted to like Mindhunter. (Like, really.) It’s one of the more well-known titles of the genre and getting a chance to read about the man who helped solve some of the most recognized criminal cases was something I couldn’t pass up. (Like, John Douglas personally interviewed serial killers! He was the basis for the character of Jack Crawford in Silence of the Lambs!) Even though this book was originally published in the mid-nineties, I thought that I would still find it interesting.

Except that I didn’t.

Mindhunter isn’t that long, but it still took me over two weeks to finish, as I often put off reading because it just wasn’t compelling enough for me to pick up. Filled with extraneous personal details and a convoluted timeline, the point of John Douglas’s narrative—that he pioneered the FBI’s criminal profiling department!—gets lost. The chapters loosely feature a particular case to further explain the different ways in which Douglas and other criminal profilers work, but they also spend a lot of time not focused on crimes, too. And it’s not just the lack of murder that annoyed me: it’s that the summary hypes this particular type of crime and then veers away from it at multiple points. (Also, who even is Mark Olshaker? Because he did not come up in this book.)

I also found Douglas to be a bit, shall we say, over-enthusiastic to avoid mentioning how incredibly lucky he was to be an FBI agent during the 1970s and 80s, coming into a new department that he ultimately had a hand in shaping. Like, does the fact that Douglas (1) had the ability to tailor a federal program to his specifications, (2) use well-known individuals for his case studies, and (3) the chance to personally interview them really not warrant a mention? If any one of those hadn’t been true, would Douglas have succeeded to the degree he did? Would criminal profiling be what it is today? 🤷‍♀️

I’m not saying that Douglas doesn’t deserve credit for all of the work he pioneered and skill he brought to his job, but Mindhunter doesn’t really adequately express any humility, to the point where I just got annoyed with him for being a blowhard. Like, he very casually throws this into the mix (bolded for emphasis):

Eventually, I would come up with the term signature to describe this unique element and personal compulsion, which remained static. And I would use it as distinguishable from the traditional concept of modus operandi, which is fluid and can change. This became the core of what we do in the Investigative Support Unit… I had come up with an insight that was to become critical in my law enforcement career, simply by betting on raindrops.

🙄

Would I have enjoyed this book if I’d read it when it was first published? Maybe. I found the introduction, written in 2017, the most interesting section, but was this because it was the most current or because it acknowledges that the world has changed in the intervening 22 years? I can no longer read a book without interpreting it through a 2019 gaze—and that’s great! It means that my reading life is more diverse and more enriching than it’s ever been. But it also means that I couldn’t read Mindhunter and forget it’s pub date or ignore the privileges of its author—something the book really needed me to do.

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