“Put aside the ego, John” – The Killer Across the Table by John E. Douglas

Let’s start with the positives. In an age when we find ourselves obsessed with true crime narratives, when 90% of content on streaming services is made up of them and we make heroes of potentially guilty killers, there can be no doubt that The Killer Across The Table will find an audience. It’s fascinating. John E. Douglas is a famed FBI profiler who has worked on the cases of serial killers such as Charles Manson, Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Bundy, David Berkowitz, and Dennis Rader and was involved in the exonerations of The Memphis Three and Amanda Knox. He is uniquely placed to write this book.

And for all those true crime fans out there, there are four new fascinating cases to get your mind wrapped around. Joseph McGowan, a one-time murderer who hid his intentions behind his role as a teacher. The particularly depraved Joseph Kondro; a man whose true kill count might never be known, but who particularly liked to target the young female relatives of families he had become close to. Donal Harvey, similar to the more famous case of Harold Shipman, killed an unfathomable amount of people who were supposed to be in his care, passing them off as mercy killings at the same time as demonstrating that they were nothing of the sort. And Tod Kohlhepp, a seemingly successful and intelligent man who clearly wanted to understand why he was possessed to hunt, kill, and imprison.

These are all deeply disturbing cases; but they are also mesmerising examples of the extreme human condition. And that is, of course, what draws us all to such stories. And there can be few people with as much insight into these kinds of killer as our author, John E. Douglas. It should be a privilege to be led through these stories by him.

But it isn’t. And there lies the problems with this book. At times (many, many times), in the middle of what seems to be a very interesting piece of an investigation, Douglas will break away. He likes to remind us that it was him who was doing this investigation. He likes to remind us (many, many, many times) that he was employed as a consultant on films such as The Silence of the Lambs. He also seems to like to repeatedly name drop the most renowned criminals he has sat across the table from, like a teenage girl recalling that time she walked past One Direction in a hotel corridor. He likes, in other words, to talk about himself. And he is the least interesting character in this book by far.

In fact, there are a fair few things about Douglas that make him pretty difficult to relate to (for this reviewer, at least.) His repeated advocation of the death penalty throughout the book. His implied disbelief in the idea of rehabilitation. The fact that the only one of the four killers profiled here that he seems to show any kind of empathy for is Kohlhepp, the one who was rich, intelligent, and intellectual enough for Douglas himself to relate to. I’m not going to get into a debate here about how much empathy such people deserve, but the fact that the author’s empathy lies with this guy, who hunted and killed drug dealers on a trip to Mexico and kept young women imprisoned in an outhouse as sex slaves, rather than the ones who grew up poor and abused, is troubling to me. It troubles me that someone with all these views has such a powerful position. And that makes this book a difficult read at times. But hey, maybe that’s just me.

Any Cop?: For many people, this will be another exciting addition to a genre that is growing and growing at the moment. And it is a fascinating read. Those interested in the extremes of humanity and the factors that create such dangerous criminals will find much to enthral them here. And Douglas does deserve commending for some of the work he has done. But if I wanted to read a long and overwritten CV I’d have become a recruiter. Put aside the ego, John. You have enough knowledge to be one of the most interesting people in any conversation. You don’t need to keep reminding us.

 

Fran Slater

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