Mysteries fascinate me.
Especially the unsolved ones – who did it? How did they do it? How did they get away with it? A book of the world’s greatest unsolved crimes used to keep me up at night when I was 11 and 12. To this day, I enjoy watching whodunnits and trying to work it out before the writers reveal it (generally pretty good with old Taggarts that I haven’t seen, although Midsomer Murders usually defeats me, as the plots are, ahem, complicated).
I guess it was no surprise that when my high school history teacher got us doing a project on Jack the Ripper, I went for it all guns blazing, making as serious an attempt as a 15 year old can to uncover the identity of the most famous serial killer ever to stalk the streets.
Spoiler alert. Didn’t get him.
My dad noticed my interest, however, and lent me a copy of Jigsaw Man, the memoir of Paul Britton, one of the first psychologists to assist British police forces with profiling atypical offenders in the 1980s and 1990s. I found his book endlessly fascinating, I’ve read it cover-to-cover at least twice, and at the time it convinced me that I had all the profiling tools needed to uncover the identity of the most famous serial killer…
I may have already touched on how well that went.
Ok, so Jack the Ripper’s identity still eludes me (and, I’m persuaded, is lost to history forever; the Ripper probably died shortly after his last murder). What I did gain was a lifelong fascination with serial killers, how they’re caught, how they evade capture – and how they’re represented in fiction.
Particularly, how they’re represented in fiction.
The needs of fiction mean that not everything can be represented exactly how it occurs in real life – DNA testing that takes five minutes on CSI takes five days in reality. On Criminal Minds the BAU delivers their profile and then Garcia solves the case after two seconds on Google, instead of the local police force spending two years doing painstaking detective work and even then when they catch the killer it’s halfway down to luck. Our fictional detectives need to catch fictional serial killers through their own sheer brilliance, persistence, and determination, not because a beat cop with no prior connection to the case in a city the killer had never previously struck in, happened to stop him in a car with his next victim, thought there was something odd about him, and went back to look again. That’s how the Yorkshire Ripper, for instance, was caught, although by 1980 the net was tightening around Sutcliffe anyway.
When we think of serial killers, Yorkshire Ripper-style reigns of terror are what tends to come to mind. The killer roaming the streets at night, anyone his next victim, and the city/town/county live in fear of who could be next. The police are baffled. There are no apparent leads. The killer disappears into thin air after each of his seemingly brilliant crimes, and our imaginations do the rest – the cold, cruel, calculating villain, watching from the shadows, ready to strike. The bloodthirsty monsters of our imaginations are so much more frightening than the pathetic losers serial killers are often revealed to be.
Pathetic losers? Aren’t serial killers supposed to be criminal masterminds?
Short answer, no.
A serial killer is a major challenge for even modern, well-resourced police forces, but not because they’re super-intelligent criminal geniuses. It’s because, statistically speaking, over ninety percent of murder victims knew, or knew of, their killer. So the police are usually looking close to home to identify a murderer – it’s someone already in the victim’s life. You’ll often hear people say ‘Oh, the first 24/48/72 hours are the most crucial in any murder enquiry,’ (in the UK, murder investigation guides actually refer to a ‘Golden Hour,’ the first 60 minutes after a body is discovered when crucial decisions need to be made) and that ‘If you don’t catch the killer within 24/48/72 hours, then chances are you aren’t going to.’
But all of these are actually different sides of the same coin. If most murderers know their victims, chances are that the police will have a good idea who the killer was within 24 hours and be looking to make an arrest within 48. Since the police generally have a day to charge an offender after making an arrest, murderers are often charged within 72 hours of a body being discovered. The 24/48/72 hour rules are all really the same thing – in that time, memories are fresher, evidence is easiest to recover and preserve, and to charge someone within 72 or 96 hours requires working hard, and working fast. But the killer’s identity often isn’t too hard to ascertain. They’re already a part, often a big part, of their victim’s life.
But this isn’t true with serial killers, or not usually (there are no absolutes with serial killers). A lot of what we’re trained to think about serial killers from fiction is, well, wrong. Some writers represent them better than others. But a good fictional serial killer is almost nothing like a real life serial killer.
Serial killers often select victims in what appears to be a random way (it usually makes sense to them, but may make no sense to anyone else). They may not, and usually won’t, be known to their victims at all. So, instead of looking at people within the victim’s life, investigators have no obvious starting point. They have to rely on eyewitnesses or CCTV cameras capturing images of the killer, or on the killer leaving traceable forensics. If neither of those things happen, then the killer isn’t likely to be caught. It’s not that they’re a genius, or that the police are incompetent – it’s just that there are no leads, or no usable ones.
Serial killers kill people they haven’t previously known, generally. Not always, and there are plenty of examples of serial killers who killed family members, but the guy in the fright mask killing all the members of the North South Middleford High School’s Class of 2018? Doesn’t ever happen. And someone doing that would actually be identified and caught really easily by competent investigators with a well-resourced investigation. Someone threatening a local high school girl and killing all her friends? Ok, put covert surveillance on all of them and track every text, call and email she gets. Send the Armed Response Unit round, case closed.
Serial killers also don’t always kill in distinctive ways. The Serial Killer Ritual is a major part of serial killer fiction, but it’s not always present in reality. The crimes of Jack the Ripper and the Yorkshire Ripper were linked because they were shockingly brutal and kept happening (and even then, the police attributed some murders to Peter Sutcliffe incorrectly, and missed some murders he had committed). However, serial killers don’t always kill in the same way, don’t always kill the same type of victim, and don’t always kill in the same place. Police can often miss that a serial killer is at large simply because his victim type, or style of killing, isn’t that distinctive. This is one of my biggest problems with The Fall – Belfast has three unsolved murders of young professional women strangled in their homes in a few months, and the Police Service of Northern Ireland quickly accepts that it’s the work of a serial killer. But, three similar unsolved murders in a city the size of Belfast? Could be a statistical blip. Investigators would either want something more to definitively link the crimes, or, put brutally, more bodies, before they’d start thinking serial killer.
The list of things that are different goes on and on. Serial killers want to play games with the detective chasing them, or they have an endgame in mind, or they’re completing some bizarre ritual. They’ve become a killer because of One Traumatic Event. Really, these are no, no, and no again. Serial killers have been known to contact law enforcement, actually more so in recent decades since serial killers playing games with detectives has become a thing in fiction. But, first of all, there’s never just one detective chasing them, there’s usually dozens at least (even in America, home of the two-man murder investigation, the Hillside Stranglers were investigated by eighty detectives). And serial killers usually don’t have an endgame involving killing one particular person in an overly convoluted way in mind. Really, their goal is usually just to keep killing. Think of it like an addiction. They have to keep feeding it. Some try harder than others not to. And it takes more, much more, than One Traumatic Event to make a serial killer. These people are, to use a technical term, Very Fucked Up. They’ve suffered lifetimes of abuse and rejection and neglect that lead to the point where they start killing.
To be clear, I’m not saying that that justifies or excuses their crimes at all. They still make the choice to go out and kill. Understanding something, and excusing it, aren’t the same.
You said Reigns of Terror like that’s not really a thing…
Well, it is, but it’s very rare.
In the UK, most serial killers, which in this context I’m using to mean ‘Individuals with a compunction to kill repeatedly,’ are caught after their first murder. Yes, it’s harder to do than when the killer is known to the victim, but the police usually find witnesses, or CCTV, or traceable forensics, that allow them to identify the killer even if it takes weeks rather than days. Killers who manage to avoid being seen, or leaving evidence, usually do so by luck rather than by judgement, and that luck usually runs out – or, if they are taking deliberate investigative or forensic countermeasures, they get careless. Steven Wright, the 2006 Suffolk murderer, put his first two victims in a river as a forensic countermeasure. As the media descended on Ipswich, sensing a possible serial murder story, he started killing faster, left DNA on his victims’ bodies, stopped putting them in water, and was quickly identified after that DNA was matched to some already on the police database.
Far more common is the killer arrested after their mass grave is discovered (think Dennis Nilsen or, for Americans, Jeffrey Dahmer) or who is arrested for one murder, after which the police work back and link them to other unsolved cases. Peter Tobin is a good example of this. Initially gaoled in 2007 for the murder of Angelika Kluk the previous year, he was further convicted in 2008, and then 2009, for the murders of Vicky Hamilton and Dinah McNicol in 1991 as police worked backwards and realised he could have links to other crimes. There is persuasive evidence that Tobin could also have been Bible John; he resembled Bible John at the time, lived in the same area, frequented the same dance hall, used two aliases similar to the name that Bible John gave to Jean McLachlan, and had a violent reaction to menstruation which also appears to have been a fixation of Bible John’s, although McLachlan, the only person known to have seen Bible John, was adamant before her death that Tobin was not the man she and her sister Helen Puttock shared a taxi with on the night of Puttock’s murder.
Most fictional serial killers I can think of are your Reign-of-Terror types, although Karen Rose has used the Mass Grave Discovery format in four of her novels that I can think of, and Reign of Terror only once, in her second novel (ok, I’m discounting all the various murderous stalkers, abusive exes, and grudge-bearing organised crime bosses here, since all of those are personal, not really serial. Whichever way you look at it, she’s one of the few authors writing about serial killers who doesn’t rely solely on Reigns of Terror. I’m a big fan of how much effort she puts into accuracy, which I’ve touched on in my reviews section that you should definitely check out). Writers, both in literature and in TV and film, use them even though they’re a really small percentage of actual serial killers.
Hang on. If they aren’t criminal masterminds, why don’t they get caught?
Well, quite a lot do, for starters. Tobin was caught when he killed Angelika Kluk, a student staying at the church where he worked. Getting older, and probably more careless, he killed a woman he was quite obviously linked to, buried her in a building he didn’t control access to, and her body was found quickly. Police realised that this was probably not his first murder, and identified at least two more he had committed. By the 1990s he had taken to hiding his victims’ bodies (which, if he was Bible John, shows that serial killers actually evolve their methods throughout their careers, rather than remaining wedded to their Bizarre Gruesome Ritual).
I’ve talked about this above, but basically, serial killers don’t get caught because, if they don’t get seen and don’t leave much forensic evidence, it’s very hard for the police to know where to start. Some serial killers are pretty smart, and take clear steps to frustrate investigators, but some, like Jack the Ripper, clearly don’t and escape by luck, rather than by judgement. The Ripper could be a whole other blog post (and is, and you should definitely check that one out too) – what I’ll say about him for now is that he committed his crimes within a tiny geographical area, and his first four murders (first three if like me you tend to discount Elizabeth Stride as a Ripper victim) were all extremely high risk. He lived in Whitechapel, knew the area very well, and was known by people in Whitechapel. Police had no trouble finding witnesses, it was a busy area even at night, but never identified him because anyone who saw him out late at night expected him to be there. He didn’t seem remarkable in any way. His final victim, Mary Kelly, felt sufficiently safe around him to take him back to her lodgings, suggesting that she knew him well enough to feel comfortable with him even knowing the Ripper was on the loose. Had he kept killing he would have eventually been caught. A victim would have escaped, or screamed, or a police officer would have happened across him at a crime scene (they missed him by minutes on the night of 30th September at the Catherine Eddowes murder scene). I’m persuaded, given the state of public health at the time, that the Ripper probably died himself not long after killing Mary Kelly. He left few traces that 19th century forensics could use, and no witnesses who saw him out late at night ever thought anything of it, because that was where he was expected to be.
Victims chosen at random, no witnesses, no CCTV, few to no traceable forensics – it gives the police very little to use to catch the killer, and that’s assuming that they even recognise the murders in the first place. In America, BTK was believed by police in Kansas to have gone dormant after his initial spree, until he started writing letters to them pointing out crimes of his that they’d missed (he’d become less prolific, but hadn’t stopped killing by any means. The letters actually eventually led to his capture). The same is probably true about the Zodiac Killer. His victim types and murder methods were pretty inconsistent, and his crimes were only linked because he pointed out which ones he’d committed to the police. My guess is that he didn’t stop killing, he stopped writing to local newspapers to identify his crimes, and the police stopped being able to identify him.
A Mass Grave is more often discovered via luck than via police work – especially when they prey on vulnerable victims with few family and friends to chase after them when they go missing. Nilsen’s crimes were discovered when human flesh blocking his neighbours’ drains was identified by the man brought in to clear the blockage. To be fair to the police, they reacted quickly when they were told what was happening. But Nilsen had been killing for years without the police being aware of it because his victims weren’t really missed.
The Yorkshire Ripper again didn’t leave much that police forensics in the 1970s could trace, and killed in areas where there were few witnesses to see him (and I personally think that today, with so much CCTV around, that kind of Reign of Terror would be difficult to repeat). His final arrest was down to luck and good work by a uniformed police Sergeant who stopped him in his car with a sex worker he was planning on killing. But the few leads police did have, they chased diligently. An earlier victim had been found with a new £5 note near her body. Police were working hard to eliminate everyone that note could have been paid to from their inquiries, and by the time Sutcliffe was arrested, he was one of about 80 people police hadn’t yet eliminated. That sounds like a lot, but bear in mind that, when the £5 note was found, it could have been paid to about 5,000 people! They were getting there, but there wasn’t much to go on.
No witnesses, no CCTV, no forensics. Whether by luck or by judgement, serial killers who manage to avoid all three, for at least a few murders, will always leave Police Baffled, because there’s simply nothing to investigate. Sometimes it’s done deliberately, but it’s not because the killer is a genius. It just means that they’re smart enough to plan ahead.
Is this a problem that fictional serial killers are different from real ones? Well, it shouldn’t be. We all know fiction is different from reality. That’s why it’s fiction. And good stories follow literary conventions for a reason – they make the story engaging, fun, thrilling and dark. We wouldn’t want that to stop. Readers should just keep in mind – a good fictional serial killer, the one who haunts your dreams and makes you afraid to go to the toilet in the night, is nothing like a real one.
So what does make a good fictional serial killer?
Like I said before, monsters from the darkest corners of our minds. When we think ‘serial killer,’ we think Reign of Terror because that captures the imagination more than a pot-bellied balding man in his forties arrested for one murder and then charged with five more from years ago. We see a killer evading capture after five, ten, twenty, sometimes even more murders, and we don’t think ‘Lucky streak,’ we think a criminal genius is at work, outwitting the police through sheer brilliance. What our brains conjure is always so much scarier than the reality.
This informs what most fictional serial killers are. A good fictional serial killer is a criminal mastermind, whose victims are really just messages aimed at either the detective hunting them or their eventual final victim, who taunts the police, or any investigators, with cryptic clues, and who kills in bizarre, gruesome rituals – again, usually to send the detective a message. We think of detectives and serial killers matching wits in a game of cat and mouse, usually against some kind of noirish backdrop.
We think of Hannibal Lecter, arguably the most famous fictional serial killer, whose compelling, magnetic nature stems from his urbane, sophisticated exterior hiding a soul capable of some of the most extreme violence known to man. Lecter, a respected doctor and brilliant surgeon, broke one of society’s biggest taboos and ate people. Nobody suspected him – the hunt for the Chesapeake Ripper was going nowhere and it was pure luck that Will Graham caught him when, and how, he did. And even once imprisoned, he can still manipulate others into doing his bidding, pulling the strings to set up his escape from maximum security. What in reality could be as scary as that?
I think it’s a real credit to Karen Rose that she writes compelling, frightening and thrilling novels about Mass Grave killers. Spoilers now ahead, but Simon Vartanian especially is a killer who stays with you after you’ve read the book (partly to be fair because of how he affects the characters of her next two novels, he casts a long shadow, but he is damn scary). It’s a credit to Rose, because she breaks the rules about what makes a good fictional serial killer. A good fictional serial killer is on a rampage, a Reign of Terror. They could be anyone, striking anywhere, at any time. They’re smarter than the police, than the Final Girl, their identity won’t be revealed until they’re ready for it. They’re the criminal mastermind. Their crimes are unspeakable horrible and brutal, they make your skin crawl and they play with the darkest fears that you daren’t even admit to yourself. Whatever their motive is, it needs to be personal (how many serial killers have had personal motives for attacking Alex Cross over the years?).
One thing that fictional and real serial killers have in common is that they aren’t bound by the rules of society. A real serial killer, though, either doesn’t feel bound, or knows of social boundaries and ignores them to commit their crimes – they don’t break the boundaries to any purpose other than to kill, to feed their addiction. It’s a side-effect of their actions, not the purpose. Fictional serial killers, however, break boundaries and taboos deliberately. They effectively have no limits – there is potentially no depth of depravity and cruelty to which they will not sink. This means that good fictional serial killers can go to places other villains never reach, can play on our deepest, darkest fears in a way that few other fictional villains manage. And that’s why they stay with you long after you’ve read the book.
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