THE PERFECT CHARACTER
Though I didn’t know it at the time, I’d been looking for John Douglas my entire professional life.
I made my living as a documentary film writer-producer and happened into the thriller genre almost by accident. I saw a small article in the newspaper noting that when Albert Einstein died in 1955, his brain had been removed from his skull for scientific study, but after more than two decades, nothing substantial about the physical nature of genius had been revealed.
Yeah, that’s a good cover story, I thought, but what did they really do with the brain?
Out of that idle thought came my first novel, EINSTEIN’S BRAIN, for which I was fortunate enough to garner reviews and sales that allowed me to continue writing thrillers while maintaining my filmmaking endeavors. And as every thriller/mystery/spy novelist knows, we spend our careers searching for the perfect character – the next Sherlock Holmes, C. Auguste Dupin, Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, Miss Marple, James Bond, George Smiley or Clarice Starling.
Little did I realize I would come upon my perfect character not in my thriller writing, but through my documentary film work.
The first time I met John Douglas I was doing initial research on a film I was writing and producing for NOVA, the PBS science series. It was to be about the small group of FBI agents at the academy in Quantico, Virginia, known as profilers. These were men – and one woman – already legendary in certain circles and about to be universally so through the film version of Thomas Harris’s THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, who could study crime scene reports and photos and tell the baffled local police that they should be looking for a twenty-two to twenty-eight-year–old white male who lives within two miles of the murder, whom the female victim did not know by name but recognized from the immediate area, who graduated from high school but went no farther, who did not drive a car, was disheveled in appearance, nocturnal in habit, was more intelligent than his menial job would indicate, had been on prescription drugs and possibly hospitalized for a mental condition, and who lived with and was financially dependent on parents, siblings or unmarried aunts. Oh, and by the way, you’ve undoubtedly already interviewed him.
This was one of John Douglas’s actual cases, and an individual fitting this precise description was convicted of the murder and is serving a life sentence in the New York correctional system. And I quickly found out that John, the chief of this band known as the ISU – or Investigative Support Unit – had been the pioneer of criminal profiling and behavioral investigative analysis.
The film we made for NOVA was called MIND OF A SERIAL KILLER. It received terrific ratings and was nominated for a national Emmy. The morning after its initial national broadcast, the ISU was flooded with new requests for case consultations, and John emerged as its charismatic star. Aside from everything else, he just looked and acted like your idealized, archetypal FBI agent: tall and handsome, trim in his trademark sharp black suit; a combination of tough and sensitive, with an ironic sense of humor and an air of confidence and sureness that could easily be interpreted as arrogance. He even came complete with the necessary humanizing vulnerability: Under enormous stress and pressure from a crushing caseload, he collapsed, went into a coma and nearly died in Seattle while working the Green River murders. It was months before he returned to work. In the meantime, he visited the Veterans Administration cemetery and the spot where he would have been buried if he hadn’t pulled through.
No wonder Thomas Harris, Patricia Cornwell, the creators of CRIMINAL MINDS and numerous others based characters on him. I even used him, not disguised but as himself, in my novel THE EDGE. But none of these – not even mine – were as good, complete or complex as the original.
Just as Hemingway claimed that, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called HUCKLEBERRY FINN,” I claim with equal certitude that all modern profiler characters come from one FBI agent called John Douglas. He fits Raymond Chandler’s classic definition of the detective in literature going “down these mean streets,” “who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.”
A few years later, when he was getting ready to retire from the Bureau, John asked me if I thought anyone would be interested in his story, and would I be interested in writing it with him. I quickly answered, “Yes,” and “Yes.” And after some reflection, I said I even thought I had the perfect title for the anticipated book: MINDHUNTER.
MINDHUNTER did go on to become a major winner for us, with many weeks on bestseller lists and translations into diverse languages, some of them so foreign and mysterious to us we couldn’t even identify our names on the covers. We told many of John’s harrowing and intriguing experiences, such as the time in South Carolina he apprehensively decided to use a beautiful kidnap and murder victim’s equally beautiful older sister as bait to catch the killer, and the time he investigated murder scenes in the wooded hills north of San Francisco and then announced to the stunned police task force that the unknown subject – or UNSUB – would have a speech impediment.
The success of MINDHUNTER led to a string of books for us, from JOURNEY INTO DARKNESS, with its emphasis on the victims of murder, to THE CASES THAT HAUNT US, in which we revealed with confidence the identity of Jack the Ripper. And through all of these story- and character-driven narratives, the character who emerges most powerfully and memorably, if I do say so myself, is John Douglas.
As USA TODAY wrote, “In the end, MINDHUNTER rings the bell because Douglas knows what all the great crime writers know – that the criminologist must be at least as interesting as the crime.”
The most gratifying reviews to me were the ones that said things like, “as readable as a mystery novel” (PUBLISHERS WEEKLY), “a terrific book for true-crime and mystery lovers alike” (James Patterson), “a provocative page-turner” (KIRKUS REVIEWS), “riveting” (ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY), “gripping and terrifying” (Kathy Reichs), and “a fascinating ride” (CLEVELAND PLAIN DEALER). They confirmed for me that true crime stories and the people who solve them can be just as thrilling as the fiction supposedly based on them.
Over the course of our books together, something strange and mysterious occurred. We had joked for a long time about John being a detective masquerading as a writer and me being a writer masquerading as a detective. But it was as if we had started to merge. John became more introspective, self-examining and “literary,” and I took on characteristics of the personality I was writing about. The John Douglas character appeared in my mind just as a fictional character would. I could imagine actions and dialogue for him.
We started analyzing and investigating cases together and when he was brought into the Jon Benet Ramsey murder case, I became his confidential consultant and springboard.
We could finish each other’s sentences and thoughts. Sometimes when we would do joint interviews, John would interrupt my response and say, “Wait a minute, Olshaker! I was the one who worked that case, not you.”
It was a particular kick one afternoon on a live, crime-oriented call-in radio program on which I regularly guested, when the host asked me cold if I could profile the UNSUB in a series of sixteen prostitute murders simply by being told that a source inside the police department had revealed that it had matching DNA from nine of the crime scenes. I gulped nervously, thought for a moment and presented my profile. Later, the host informed me that I had nailed it! Well, I had the world’s leading expert as my personal tutor.
Our latest book, LAW & DISORDER, marks an evolution of the John Douglas character and our own journey together as a team. During his FBI career, John and his unit could only work the prosecution side, help identify UNSUBs and put the bad guys away. In his post-Bureau consulting career, though, he has been called upon not only by the three p’s – police, prosecutors and parole boards – but also by defense attorneys and legal innocence projects.His talents and techniques of criminal investigative analysis that have aided in identifying and convicting violent offenders turn out to be equally useful in helpingthose suspected or convicted of violent crimes who hope he can help establish their guiltlessness. This has led to some spectacular stories, such as John’s part in getting the convicted defendants in the notorious “West Memphis Three” murder case released after eighteen years in prison, one from death row.
But it has also led to some soul searching as well, in that it forced John to look back over some of his earlier analyses and conclusions. For example, one of the first inmates he interviewed for his original serial killer study was William Heirens, the so-called “Lipstick Killer” in 1940’s Chicago who confessed to murdering two women and a young girl. With the perspective we chronicle in LAW & DISORDER, we reinvestigated and reanalyzed the cases, and came to the conclusion that Heirens was most likely innocent in spite of his confession, and therefore spent his long life in prison for crimes he did not commit. It meant acknowledging that if the evidence wasn’t good that he had to analyze, John may have made some mistakes along the way; not a reassuring idea to contemplate.
John had never heard of Amanda Knox when I brought her case to him after studying it and concluding she had been railroaded for the murder of her flat mate in Perugia, Italy. And when I told him we should get involved in her public defense effort, he said he didn’t want to form any opinion until we could obtain the trial evidence, exhibits and crime scene photos and he could conduct his own independent analysis. Then he became one of her most outspoken defenders.
From the Salem Witch Trials to the eerily similar West Memphis Three case exactly three hundred years later; from the public and police condemnations of John and Patricia Ramsey and Amanda Knox, to the stunning revelation by the ex-wife of a man executed for brutally killing a young woman Marine that he had gotten away with his first murder; from a man executed for arson murder despite scientific evidence that proved it was an accidental fire, to a reassessment of the death penalty and our conclusion that it is still the appropriate moral response to certain crimes, LAW & DISORDER is our most controversial book yet, and one that takes our modern legal system to task on many levels.
But there are two elements that remain constant throughout this and all of our previous efforts. One is my desire that “it reads like a thriller.” And the other is the character of John Douglas – a strong, compelling, complex, and sometimes-contradictory figure, continuing down those mean streets, always in pursuit of justice.
I am lucky to have discovered him.
Mark Olshaker, an ITW member, has written eight books with John Douglas, including the just-published LAW & DISORDER. He is also the author of the thrillers EINSTEIN’S BRAIN, UNNATURAL CAUSES, BLOOD RACE, THE EDGE and BROKEN WINGS, in addition to being an Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker.
To learn more about Mark Olshaker, John Douglas and LAW & DISORDER, please visit their website.
Interested in becoming a member of the International Thriller Writers? ITW offers Active and Associate memberships.
Latest posts by ITW (see all)
- February 18 – 24: “Do you remember when you fell in love with the thriller genre?” - February 17, 2019
- February 4 – 10: “Research, do you love it or hate it?” - February 3, 2019
- The February 2019 Edition of The Big Thrill is Here! - January 31, 2019