READALIKES: Mindhunter

Article published on November 14, 2017.

In the first of a new series of features on Nudge, Dean Muscat recommends some ‘readalike’ titles for fans of the television series Mindhunter:

When the new David Fincher (Se7en, Social Network, House of Cards) show dropped on Netflix this October, there seemed to be a collective groan from couch potatoes the world over. Do we really need yet another detective show? Does it have to be another period piece? And hasn’t Fincher already done this exact same thing with the brilliant 2007 film Zodiac?

All valid points. But what no one seemed to count on was how endlessly fascinating TV serial killers happen to be, especially when those on-screen psychopaths are based on real-life convicted criminals.

Based on the true crime book of the same name, Mindhunter follows FBI agents Holden Ford and Bill Tench as they travel around the country interviewing imprisoned serial killers in order to understand their thought processes and apply this knowledge to solving ongoing cases.

Admittedly, the show is a bit of a slow burner with an emphasis on character building rather than action, but it made for compelling viewing with plenty of creepy memorable moments (Brodos and that shoe, Speck and that bird, Kemper and that hug). The end of the first season only sets up what promises to be a much more complex overarching case to solve during season two.

So while we wait with bated breath for Agents Ford and Tench to return to our screens, here are three recommended reads to tide you over.

1 – The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris

If you are looking for a pitch-perfect Mindhunter readalike then look no further. Thomas Harris’ seminal The Silence of the Lambs will surely tick all the right boxes for you. FBI Behavioral Science Unit agents. Check. Killer on the loose. Check. Crazed dangerous pyscho locked up in an asylum who you are inexplicably drawn to and wish to spend hours on end picking his shrewd, demented brain. Check, check, and check.

And just in case you needed further convincing, Mindhunter and Lambs share common DNA. Mindhunter’s Agent Ford was based on real-life FBI criminal psychologist and source material author John Douglas, who also served as inspiration for the character of Jack Crawford in Lambs.

Most people will probably have already seen the hit 1991 film starring Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins, which is surprisingly faithful to the novel, especially considering how most Hollywood book-to-screen adaptations go. But the novel still makes for a thrillingly addictive binge-read.

A number of flayed female corpses are found in nearby rivers. The FBI believe a serial killer is at large. Agent-in-Charge Jack Crawford calls upon Clarice Starling, one of the FBI’s top students, to assist him in the investigation. It is Starling’s job to consult the brilliant forensic psychiatrist Dr Hannibal Lecter, who may have the requisite insight to help solve the case and save the life of a recently kidnapped victim. The ting is, Lecter himself is serving life behind bars for a series of gruesome murders and acts of cannibalism, and he is not always willing to play ball.

Personally, I have never been a fan of thrillers as they tend to lean towards fast-paced action-driven plot whereas I prefer, for lack of a better term, more “literary” writing. However, what sets Lambs head and shoulders above most popular suspense fiction is undoubtedly Dr Lecter. Whenever he is on the page, this novel really comes into its own. Lecter’s refined mannerisms, his witty retorts, his Holmesian deductions and, of course, his desires of the flesh (in this case actual human flesh) make him a magnetic presence and an iconic villain for the ages. Couple that with fellow antagonist Buffalo Bill, as well as a strong level-headed female lead, and The Silence of the Lambs really is a dark twisted tale quite like no other.

2 – The Enchanted by Rene Denfeld

If your favourite moments in Mindhunter were spending time with the damaged serial killers Tom Kemper and Jerry Brodos, piecing together their broken childhoods, coming to grips with their oddly compelling warped logic, then The Enchanted is the book for you.

Pretty much the inverse of the action-driven thriller The Silence of the Lambs, Rene Denfield’s novel puts you smack-bang in the middle of a death-row prison and incarcerates you in the mind of a mute nameless narrator who has committed atrocities “too terrible to name”.

The pace is glacial, the story meditative but surprisingly beautiful and poignant. As the murderous inmates count down their days until they’re ushered into the lethal injection chamber, we learn about their lives and crimes. Quiet tensions arise from the death-row visitors, a doomed romance blossoms between a death penalty investigator and a fallen priest. By the final page you feel a deep genuine connection with these damaged strangers, and your heart breaks for their tragic lives despite all their unspeakable crimes.

The novel manages to elicit horror without ever really making things explicit. It’s not that it shies away from gore, only that Denfield seems to intuitively know when to pull back on detail and let the imagination of the reader fill the gaps with the bloody carnage. The result is that we are unwittingly forced to step into the shoes of the killer. It is a neat little trick and extremely effective. After all, if our minds can conjure up such abhorrent visions, then maybe we aren’t so different from the locked-up monsters.

The Enchanted aptly makes for a darkly enchanting read. It offers an insightful, unflinching glimpse into the minds of men that society, for the most part, dismisses as being worthless non-entities who should be disposed of.

3 – The Girls by Emma Cline

Aside from the “sequence” murderers we do get to meet in person, the first season of Mindhunter also alludes to some of the starrier names in the burgeoning serial killer world of the 1970s. Whether Agents Holden Ford and Bill Tench will come face to face with enigmatic real-life criminals such as Charles Manson or David Berkowitz, a.k.a. the Son of Sam, in season two is yet to be seen.

In the meantime, if you wish to delve into the myth of a Manson-like character, pre-capture and incarceration, then you may want to check out Emma Cline’s The Girls. Thanks to Cline’s lyrical prose, which is at once as clear as the Californian skies of the novel’s setting and as evocative as a sunshine drenched Polaroid picture, The Girls perfectly captures the twilight years of the hippie era, where the rot of its seedy drug-fuelled underbelly shattered the dream of peace and love and culminated in a gruesome massacre that shocked the world.

Flipping between the present day and the past, the novel primarily follows the story of a teenage Evie growing up in California in the late-60s. Disillusioned by her broken home life and the pettiness of teenage lusts, Evie befriends the alluring free-spirited Suzanne, who invites Evie to the Ranch: a ramshackle commune that is home to a motley group of lost girls and their charismatic cult leader Russell, based on the notorious Manson Family. Evie falls under Russel’s spell and gets to know his harem of apostle-ettes as well as all the other devotees, drop-in rock stars, drug dealers, and hangers-on. At first this existence emancipated from humdrum American suburbia is exciting and exotic, but soon the blurred lines between free love and sexual assault, the internal jealousies, resentments and paranoia reach boiling point, and things spiral violently out of control.

Dean Muscat
November 2017


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