This will be a slightly lighter blog post than usual, and follows on from my previous post ‘You haven’t got a clue’. If you haven’t read it don’t worry. I’m going to talk about two passions of mine: Crime/thriller books/films/TV series and the idea of ‘Police profiling’. Police profiling is the idea that based on the characteristics of a crime, you can figure out who the perpetrator is. For example, whether they are single, middle aged, male or female etc. I will to discuss how police profiling gets portrayed in novels/films/TV series and determine how valuable the techniques used would be in an actual police investigation.
Beware, this post will contain a lot of Swedish crime thrillers. But they are so good. I will highlight whether there will be spoilers if the paragraph will contain them. Skip that paragraph if you want to avoid spoilers.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – Stieg Larsson
If you are familiar with my blog posts you will be aware of how much I love these books. Sorry in advance. The girl with the dragon tattoo follows Mikael Blomkvist (a persecuted journalist) and Lisbeth Salander (a delinquent research/computer hacker) try to solve the disappearance of Harriet Vanger, which occurred decades ago. Henrik Vanger (Harriet’s great uncle) is convinced that Harriet was murdered, although no body was ever found, and Harriet disappeared during a family gathering at the Vanger estate on Hedeby Island, when the island was temporarily cut off. During Blomkvist’s investigation, he discovers new evidence (Behold!).
The first piece of evidence was found in Harriet’s diary. Listed in the telephone pages were the names and numbers of family and friends. However, the last page has some mysterious names, initials and numbers that didn’t make sense. For example, the numbers didn’t correspond with the names. The people who picked up the phone had no idea who Harriet Vanger was:
Magda – 32016
Sara – 32109
R.J – 30112
R.L – 32027
Mari – 32018
These numbers and names actually related to gruesome bible verses that were played out as gruesome murders within the county. Salander investigates these serial killings in the Vanger archives and discovers that Harriet’s (late) father was away on business trips in the area where each of the murders occurred at the time (red flag). This type of evidence relates to Geographical profiling, which is perhaps the most accurate and valuable concept in police profiling. By analysing the location of crimes, you can determine the most probable area in which the offender lives. Offenders tend to work within places they feel comfortable, and will not commit planned murders in an unfamiliar place. In ‘dragon tattoo’ Harriet had already done lot of the work by linking the murders, which allowed Lisbeth to make the connection between the murders and Harriet’s father. Harriet’s father, however, had been dead a year when Harriet disappeared. Further evidence (which I won’t bore you with, or spoil you with) allowed Lisbeth and Michael to discover what happened to Harriet decades ago.
‘The girl with the dragon tattoo’ is a great Swedish crime novel in that it doesn’t focus on dubious and unreliable aspects of profiling, such as the personal characteristics of the killer. Overall these aspects do not appear to aid an investigation as profiling only identified the perpetrator in 2.7-17% of cases (Copson & Holloway, 1997; Pinizzotto, 1984). ‘Dragon tattoo’ shows how geographical profiling is helpful and can be used to narrow the search for the perpetrator.
Within TV shows and films, we expect ideas and concepts to be dramatised and made cinematic, to be interesting. Some shows do show the truth in police investigations, especially with regards to pathology, however many ‘play up’ to the idea of criminal profiling. Forensic pathology focuses on determining the cause of death via post mortem, and can reveal clues as to the murder weapon used in criminal cases and whether the offender was left or right handed.
In Silence of the Lambs, Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter combine their knowledge to gather a profile on Buffalo Bill. This is based on assumptions about serial killers, for example the suggestion that serial killers keep ‘trophies’ from their victims. The crucial evidence in this film is the moth that was found inserted into one of the victim’s throats. Clarice’s success in finding Buffalo Bill was arguably down to this detail rather than the profile of the offender. Forensic pathology seems to play a crucial role in apprehending the offender.
While we do see forensic pathology within TV shows such as Silent Witness, Hannibal, Sherlock and Waking the Dead etc, it seems to be often pushed to the side line, while profiling takes a major role on screen. This may be because profiling is viewed as glamorous and impressive. However, overall DNA and hard evidence are far more reliable to an actual investigation than police profiling.
I’m travelling alone – Samuel Bjork
This is one of the latest International bestsellers and promises to be the new brilliant Swedish crime thriller series. I recently inhaled this book over about four days.
The book starts off with the gruesome find of a six-year old girl hanging from a tree, with a satchel on her back and a tag round her neck reading ‘I’m travelling alone’. Later the number one is found carved on her fingernail. Mia Kruger and Holger Munch assemble a team of investigators to try find the murderer before any more girls are killed.
Overall this novel does present some really good police investigative work, especially through the use of technology. Within this novel and ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’, skilled hackers find invaluable information that aids the investigation. Whether this approach is always legal or not doesn’t matter to the investigators, and it adds well to the story. However, whether this technique would be employed by police is dubious at best. I imagine that it isn’t standard practice.
However, at the start of the investigation into the killer, Mia Kruger sets out to profile the killer. This happens throughout the book as Mia tries to understand the killer’s modus operandi, however, the profile is not how Mia Kruger and the killer eventually meet.
These two books are essential reads to anyone who likes crime thriller novels, and they are Swedish (not to be biased but Swedish Crime thrillers are notoriously outstanding). I think that profiling will potentially always have a place within TV shows and crime novels, because it adds the psychological basis as to why a killer may have committed a crime. Profiling makes the killer more interesting and makes the killer seem abnormal, rather than being an every-day person who has committed a crime. We will always have the desire to understand an offender, to put them in a box and label them. Then we can say that they are abnormal, that they are not like us.
I think that profiling is a natural thing that occurs in everyday life, we all profile our friends and family, we gather information about them, so that we can understand them better. So that we feel safe. So that we do not get caught out by their actions. So that we feel prepared. It is only natural to profile a murderer, to gain back some loss of control, so we can understand and know them. So we know how they will act.
Whilst profiling is an amazing concept, and an captivating thing to read about it has little place in police investigations. It may be a starting point, but it should not be relied upon (with the exception of geographical profiling), when there is hard evidence that is far more valuable an accurate.
Love Em (The Little Blogger)
Other amazing crime thrillers to read:
Birdman – Mo Hayder
Say you’re sorry – Michael Robotham