I have a few crime fiction favorites that I re-read on a regular basis. Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs. Jeffrey Deaver’s first Lincoln Rhyme novel, The Bone Collector. Val McDermid’s The Mermaids Singing. And older classics like Edgar Allan Poe’s The Murders of the Rue Morgue and Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet. Written in different time periods – by authors on opposite sides of the Atlantic – they have one important thing in common: each story features a criminal profiler.
I find myself drawn to the aura of the great criminal profilers, both in literature and on the screen. Whether it’s Lincoln Rhyme or Dr. Tony Hill, these characters take readers on a journey that not only unmasks the killer – or reveals the whodunit – but also explains the why. Which, at the end of the day, is the most compelling element of the story for most, and certainly for me.
I want more than good suspense or a compelling plot. I want to know the answers to “why” the killer behaves as he or she does. What motivates him to kill in a certain way? Why are her victims only men in their late-thirties? Why are his victims always redheads? Can we predict the killer’s future behavior?
Of course, criminal profiling is an imperfect science. Yet so many profilers – in fiction at least – have amazing success. Their analysis is near perfect in its end result, no matter the difficulties they encounter along the way. That’s reassuring for the reader – after all, we do want the Hannibal Lechters of the world to be safely contained.
Still, when I first decided to enter the world of crime fiction, I realized that what intrigued me was the challenge of creating an imperfect profiler. Someone who would be brilliant and passionately devoted to his subject – but egocentric to the point of dangerous folly. Someone who would be just as enamored of New York City’s high society as he was his academic passions. And almost immediately after I had conceived of my criminologist, the ideas kept coming:
What if … there had been a terrible, senseless crime?
What if … my criminologist believed he knew the killer responsible – because he had interviewed him, come to know him?
What if … he had covered up the killer’s violent history to further his own research?
Soon I had conceived not only of my dedicated but self-absorbed criminologist, Alistair Sinclair, but also Simon Ziele, the down-to-earth detective who would more than be his match. My setting would be the early 1900s, when criminology was a fledgling science. At a time when criminal tendencies were seen as an inherent flaw in human nature – and politicians and lawmakers worried that if you understood the criminal too well, you might excuse his or her behavior rather than punish it – many scientists like Alistair worked to better understand the criminal mind and rationalize criminal behavior.
I remain fascinated with early criminal science, especially profiling. And the more I write about it, the more I’m drawn to its complications – and the way they blur the line between scientific knowledge and the art of interpretation.
IN THE SHADOW OF GOTHAM BY STEFANIE PINTOFF
Published by Penguin, 2ND December 2010, Paperback, £6.99