Each of the cases we’ll be examining in this book has remained extremely controversial. And each of these cases contains some universal truth at its base to which we can all relate. Taken together, they present a panorama of human behavior under extreme stress and an inevitable commentary on good and evil, innocence and guilt, expectation and surprise.
FBI behavioral profiler and “Mindhunter” John Douglas has a new book coming out next month in which he describes four modern serial killers he’s interviewed and analyzed. The Cases That Haunt Us is from his back catalog and is, for lack of a better word, one of his more “fun” books since these are mostly historical cases with already widely known details, and not as disturbing as some of the emotionally wrenching ones described in Mindhunter. Reading what one of the founding fathers of criminal profiling thinks about household-name crime cases is so fascinating. I also liked this one more than Mindhunter because he focuses less on himself and his accomplishments, except maybe in the JonBenet Ramsey chapter, but we’ll get to that.
The gist is that Douglas applies his experience and methodology to some of America’s (and one of England’s) most notorious unsolved murders, and profiles the type of person who probably committed them based on available information. He gives clearly written background with a helpful basic narrative of the incidents, then examines the accepted evidence, circumstances, and victimology, and establishes a profile of the type of person likely responsible (the UNSUB, or unknown subject). If there is a known suspect, as with Lizzie Borden, he explains whether or not that person matches the profile.
Despite being originally published in 2000, it’s a helpful read at the moment, with recent books published on Lizzie Borden and the victims of Jack the Ripper, and a History channel documentary purporting to finally decode the Zodiac’s famously unbreakable Z340 cypher.
He also covers in detail the kidnapping and murder of Charles Lindbergh’s baby, which is such a twisty-turny story. I’m endlessly intrigued by everything about it and Douglas gives it a great look here, examining some theories based around oddities in the case and its drawn-out aftermath. The Black Dahlia and the Boston Strangler are done in brief.
Douglas compares the cases to each other, building on ideas he’s established already. This was helpful in understanding more of the psychology since his outlines of each incident are concise but detailed at the same time, and comparisons helped underscore meaning in each. It also emphasized how complex and difficult this branch of behavioral psychology is, and how considering human behavior is dependent on thoroughly understanding the individual and their background, not painting everyone with a broad brush.
In the case of Lizzie Borden, the detachment reflected the mind-set of a calculating murderess. In the case of Charles Lindbergh, it reflected the personality of a man who had regularly faced death and gotten through the experience by not going to pieces. So each reaction means something different. If surface behavior were that easy to interpret, it would take little or no training and anyone could be a profiler.
The Zodiac was my favorite section by far, he really made me see why people get obsessed with that one. He also gives the most unintentionally hilarious description of that paper bag hat costume with the clip-on sunglasses. I know this is a murderer and he took someone’s life while wearing it and that is unbelievably horrible, but in case you haven’t considered the breakdown of that costume, it is just so ridiculous. And did you know that he wrote many more “This is the Zodiac speaking” letters, not just the two or three that always get quoted? And that he wanted people in San Francisco to wear Zodiac buttons and got fussy when the police didn’t pass that request along? I learned a lot from this book.
Where it falters is in his attempt to give some resolution to these famously unsolved cases. He gives details of a few possible suspects in some, but doesn’t name names or go into enough detail. Which, fine: these people weren’t tried and convicted so there may be legal ramifications in saying much more, but his method of trying to say something without saying anything concrete is unsatisfying.
Then there’s JonBenet, the only case here he was marginally involved with. Douglas was brought in after the initial investigation, when he was hired by the Ramseys (although there seems to be water-muddying about who ordered and paid for what) to create a profile of the alleged intruder, which he doesn’t completely do. He twists himself into knots and contradicts himself to make intruder theory fit, and inserts too many justifications of his involvement and for his lack of bias, plus some hollow assertions that I think he’d shoot down elsewhere, like being able to recognize real tears.
You can read plenty from detectives who actually worked the investigation. Regardless of opinion on the story there’s clear bias here, underscored by acrobatics to show he’s not biased, including the chapter’s defensive tone in response to volleys of criticism from colleagues and other investigators for his handling of it.
And his methods and analysis, fascinating as they are to read about, aren’t infallible. In Mindhunter he alleged the then-uncaught Green River killer was more than one person when it wasn’t, and even here he admits he’s changed his mind about his Jack the Ripper suspect. He makes some good points about a few things in this chapter, but nothing that doesn’t have holes poked in it elsewhere. Just skim through some Reddit threads. I do think he knows that of which he speaks, but experts make mistakes too.
Mostly an intriguing and accessible read, with less textbook-y speak than sometimes crops up in his others. The bulk of each chapter recounts the crimes and their key elements, which are interesting if you’re not overly familiar with them (the Zodiac for me) and less so if you are. Sometimes his expert analysis is just a quick couple of pages or paragraphs after the retelling. I felt it still worthwhile, but maybe only if you haven’t already read in-depth material on the cases covered. 3.5/5
The Cases That Haunt Us:
From Jack the Ripper to JonBenet Ramsey, the FBI’s Legendary Mindhunter Sheds Light on the Mysteries that Won’t Go Away
by John Douglas & Mark Olshaker
published 2000 by Scribner