Netflix’s crime drama Mindhunter is a compelling watch, telling the lightly fictionalised story of FBI agent John Douglas (reinvented as “Holden Ford”, which… yeah), the chap who first came up with the notion of interviewing serial killers and in so doing invented the discipline of criminal profiling.
And it’s thrilling stuff, echoing the similar premise of The Silence of the Lambs and all the many, many spinoffs, which draws from the same well. Indeed, Thomas Harris consulted Douglas when he was writing it.
So it’s a real shame that criminal profiling is absolute garbage.
OK, that’s a bit of an exaggeration: criminal profiling exists in several different forms around the world, but can be broken down into two broad types: the sort in Mindhunter which seeks to delve into the twisted mind of a killer, and the actually useful British version which… doesn’t.
That version is called “investigative psychology” and was developed by Dr David Canter (now emeritus professor at the University of Liverpool).
It doesn’t busy itself with questions about sexual tastes or a killer’s relationship with their parents. It asks things like “given the pattern in location and time of the crimes, here’s an idea of the sort of area the killer probably lives and what sort of job he does.”
(And yes, it’s almost always he, don’t @ me.)
That sort of stuff is generally a lot more useful to police trying to catch a killer, since saying “hey, this person we arrested before for sexual violence lives in the area and drives a van for work, we should interview them about these local van-murders” is rather more practical than “OK team, we’re looking for a guy who feels ambivalent about his father and struggles with his sexual identity! Go get ’em!”
“To put it bluntly, Douglas’s writings should be in the fiction section,” Canter told the Guardian. “Speculations about the mind of a criminal have never helped a real-life investigation.”
Indeed, he goes further: “You can’t knock on someone’s door and ask: ‘Where were you last Thursday and what are your masturbatory fantasies?’ That’s not how investigations work.”
And some of the problems with profiling come down to problems with psychology generally – for example, that the things that motivate us are generally a mystery to ourselves, so the idea that serial killers would be gifted with some sort of insight that eludes the rest of us is a bit of a leap.
Anyway, Mindhunter is still a compelling watch. Pity that the science of criminal profiling is as obviously a work of fiction as “Holden Ford”.