The full title of the book is ‘Serial Killers; 101 Questions True Crime Fans Ask.’ Dr. Joni Johnston, a practicing clinical and forensic psychologist, has written a book in plain English that you should pick up and not just to see some myths debunked.
You should pick it up because she includes many lesser known cases including international ones and, she is honest. If she doesn’t know the answer or, if the research has not advanced at some point, she will just say so.
Johnston opens the books with the honest assessment that you need from an author who describes serial killings: what makes the criminal mind so compelling?
She mentions that in her case certain things come to mind. One is Vincent Bugliosi’s book ‘Helter Skelter.’ I immediately said ‘me too!‘ And, she mentions TV crime shows that I used to watch as well. My Twitter followers know that I love Columbo, Perry Mason, etc. A few shows that Johnston did not mention (and I cannot resist) are Kojak, Starsky & Hutch, Jake and the Fat Man, der Alte, and Tatort.
Back to the book.
Dr. Johnston works down the list of questions in a logical order. She starts with the basics. Who and what are serial killers, do we have statistical data, what parts are outdated, did definitions change, etc. Then, she moves on towards for me, the most important part, the psyche. But let’s scan the book from the beginning for noteworthy mentions.
Part 1: Who are they? Statistics, Demographics, and Definitions.
Johnston starts with the FBI’s adjusted definition of a serial killer. Since 2005, it is a person who killed two or more people on separate occasions. It used to be three or more. The FBI also no longer calls the period between murders ‘cooling off‘ time. The broadening of the definition facilitates the assistance they can give local law enforcement agencies. The earlier they are involved, the more chances that together with local police, they will succeed.
Johnston discusses the types of serial killers, murder methods, motives, and points out the differences with mass killers and spree killings. She draws attention to the important work of Thomas Hargrove, the founder of the Murder Accountability Project. They collect data about unsolved homicides. Check out their work!
Part 2: Inside the Serial Killer’s Psyche.
Why anyone would become a serial killer remains a matter of examining their life and filling in their timeline of childhood trauma, bullying, animal cruelty, repressed aggression, lack of age-appropriate empathy, head injuries, dysfunctional families, social isolation, etc. However, there is no golden answer.
Johnston discusses compartmentalization, dehumanization, and more. In this part there is also a call to action. The FBI is still trying to identify all the victims of Alaska serial killer Israel Keyes. You can find that case here.
The author also discusses how the ‘Angels of Mercy’ became ‘Angels of Death’ and notes the differences between those killers and their exact roles in the medical profession.
Part 3: Female Serial Killers.
The number of female serial killers is down but don’t let your guard down. They run under the radar longer than men and often kill close to home.
Part 4: Serial Killers from Around the World.
The cases in this part are from the UK, South Africa, Canada, Italy, Japan, Germany, Australia, Russia, Cyprus, and Hungary. In this part, the author also discusses how overindulging and overpraising your children could cause harm. This part also discusses poison , Munchausen-by-Proxy, and the still unsolved Tylenol and Paraquat Murders.
Part 5: Modern Day Serial Killers.
Johnston discusses whether we now have less serial killers and if so, why? Are they now smarter than in the 70s or, are we better at catching them? She combines that information with the much discussed status of fame some killers have, the power of the Internet, and whether we have serial killers who kill serial killers.
Part 6: Serial-Killer Friends, Families, and Fans.
One of the most heard reactions after an arrest is “how could you not have known?’ and of course the ever-present ‘but the were such nice people!‘ cries of disbelieve. The author explains this all.
Part 7: Victims, Crime Fighters, and the Ripple Effects of Crime.
Johnston points out that serial killers, on average, approached ‘31 potential victims before they get one under their control.’ Her message to her readers is simple: if your gut-feeling is to distance yourself from someone or a situation, do it! The search is NOT for the perfect victim but for the vulnerable one they can control.
Now, if you think that I covered the entire book by listing the above, fear not. There is so much more to discover, cases to check up on, and for you to think about what you read in comparison to what you see on TV.
The entire book is a Q&A session. It is split up in the seven mentioned themed parts. Each part answers questions related to that theme and almost every question is accompanied by case studies. The book ends with a conclusion and a list of references. It also has ten pages with pictures of serial killers discussed in the book. Alas, there is no index. In true crime books, I prefer a cross-referenced index, foot notes, and a list of suggested works for further reading.
Johnston did a fantastic job making this difficult subject accessible to readers. There is no legalese and there is not much terminology. Highly recommended reading for those who wish to familiarize themselves with a difficult subject.