Bookworm: Murderous thinking; living a lie

Terri Schlichenmeyer

“The Killer Across the Table”

  • By John Douglas and Mark Olshaker
  • c. 2019, Dey St.
  • $26.99, $33.50 Canada; 340 pages

A penny for your thoughts. What do you think about that? Is it enough: one cent for what could be incredibly profound, helpful, intelligent, change-making? Can we really put a dollar sign on what’s inside someone’s head? Before you answer, read “The Killer Across the Table” by John E. Douglas and Mark Olshaker. Knowing what’s in a murder’s mind could be incalculable.

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“What was I thinking?”

You probably ask yourself that three times a day: when you lose your glasses, when you walk blankly into a room, when you do something wrong. For you, it’s humorous or self-chastising but if former FBI agent John Douglas asks the question in an interview with a “monster,” the answer could stop a killer.

"The Killer Across the Table" by John Douglas and Mark Olshaker.

When he sits for the conversation, Douglas says, “It is a verbal and mental chess match without any game pieces,” and security is of the highest priority. He has prepared for his sessions; it takes time to get a murderer to trust enough to talk to someone in an official capacity, and Douglas relies on past interviews and psychology to know when the killer’s telling the truth. And yet, even lies are noted; they tell Douglas a lot about the personality of a man – serial murderers are overwhelmingly men – who’s killed and killed and killed again.

This unique program started when Douglas had just joined the FBI and noticed that a criminal’s past reasons for committing crimes could predict future possibility of criminal behavior in others. He began to understand that while psychiatrists were helpful in crime-prevention, they “had only limited relevance to law enforcement.”

That was when he and a colleague established and refined a protocol to build data that could ultimately save lives. Each interview, he says, shows him another side of a murderer’s mind, but there are three major characterizations that most motivate killers – “Manipulation. Domination. Control.”  – and one “single word” that everything “eventually comes down to”: Choice.

"The Killer Across the Table" authors John Douglas and Mark Olshaker.

If you are a parent, or are prone to nightmares, you can stop right here. Authors John Douglas and Mark Olshaker are going to terrify you, and that’s all you need to know. You’ll sleep better if you choose a nice mystery instead.

If you relish cat-and-mouse life-stakes tales, however, here’s your book.

Ignore that the crimes committed were gruesome and terrifying – which may be a tall order here – and you’ll see that the killers’ attitudes are the feature and fascination of this entire book. The authors keep readers rapt through descriptions of interviews done and crimes that were committed, which helps to explain the processes used to understand the psychology of serial killing. Indeed, Douglas knows things about his subjects that they often don’t even know themselves.

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Suffice it to say that this is chilling and, to be sure, it’s the stuff of which movies are made; in fact, Douglas has consulted on films you’ll recognize, works that keep sensitive souls up all night. And if that’s the kind of read you relish, “The Killer Across the Table” absolutely won’t change your mind.

“How Not to Die Alone”

  • By Richard Roper
  • c. 2019, Putnam
  • $26, $35 Canada; 336 pages

The house is so quiet. The kids are away at sleepovers. Your spouse is out, the TV’s off, and it’s just you and a cup of something relaxing. You can almost hear your heart beat, it’s so quiet. It’s almost too quiet. As in the new novel “How Not to Die Alone” by Richard Roper, silence is sometimes very loud.

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Andrew was the only one at the funeral. That was usually the case these days: just he and the vicar and the deceased, who likely didn’t care how many mourners showed up.

He didn’t have to go to any funerals; that wasn’t part of Andrew’s job. His actual job was to visit an apartment when someone had died alone, to find stashed cash or possible next-of-kin. If neither was found, then the Queen’s coffers paid for a ceremony and Andrew thought it respectful if he attended.

"How Not to Die Alone" by Richard Roper.

And when his workday was over, he went home straightaway, where he had his vinyl Ella Fitzgerald albums and his model trains to keep him company.

Sometimes, he saw the irony in his situation. Mostly, he fretted about it. He fretted because he’d accidentally allowed his boss to believe that Andrew had a wife and kids at home. There was no graceful way out of the lie then, and there was no good way out of it now, so he made up little stories at work about an entire family that didn’t exist. It was a lie he might’ve maintained, too, if it weren’t for a round of job-cutting that frightened the boss into forcing the staff to “bond” through mandatory pot-lucks at each of their homes.

Then there was Peggy, Andrew’s new colleague, who’d been assigned to him to mentor, and who’d become his new friend before she became his new love, although she didn’t know that last part because Andrew couldn’t tell her without revealing his lie, and what if she hated him then? What if she told him to get lost? What if Andrew decided to do something drastic?

“How Not to Die Alone” author Richard Roper.

Reading “How Not to Die Alone” is like unpacking that very last box after a move: you’ll wonder why you didn’t open it first because the things inside are so delightful.

By taking a sobering premise and sprinkling it heavily with the wryest, darkest humor, author Richard Roper offers a story you’ll really hate to put down. Roper’s Andrew is a fellow with a bull’s-eye on his head, a target on his back, and he’s lonesome enough to be happy for the attention – until he gains a friend. At that point, this book becomes origami-like: it folds inward to make us gasp in surprise and unfolds into a real charmer as Andrew blossoms and we fall in love, too.

This is one of those books that’ll make you laugh at one line, say, “Awwwww” three paragraphs later, and be entertained everywhere in between. Get it for yourself and buy two because “How Not to Die Alone” is a novel you won’t be able to keep quiet about.

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The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. She has been reading since she was 3 years old and never goes anywhere without a book. Terri lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books.