Book Review: A Killer by Design

Full title: A Killer by Design, Murderers, Mindhunters, and My Quest to Decipher the Criminal Mind by Ann Wolbert Burgess and Steven Matthew Constantine.

Her research with victims began when she co-founded, with Boston College sociologist Lynda Lytle Holmstrom, one of the first hospital-based crisis counseling programs at Boston City Hospital.

She then worked with FBI Academy special agents to study serial offenders, and the links between child abuse, juvenile delinquency, and subsequent perpetration.”

In Killer by Design, Ann Wolbert Burgess gives you an overview about the birth of criminal profiling. She describes how her work in the assessment and treatment of victims of trauma and abuse got her on the FBI Academy’s radar to help develop criminal profiling in the Behavior Science Unit.

The Academy had to prove that profiling was science, not a lucky guess, and worth the investment of time and funding.

Burgess describes how Special Agents Robert Ressler and John Douglas wished to interview convicted killers to learn all about their motives and thinking patterns. In doing so, they hoped to gain insight that could be used to solve other crimes. That’s where Burgess came in as they needed someone with a background in psychology.

We learn how with Lynda Lytle Holmstrom, she had launched an interdisciplinary research project to focus on the victims’ responses to rape. “The goal of our research was to better understand the emotional and traumatic effects of sexual violence, which often far outlast the physical effects of the act itself.” The notions of control and power caught the FBI’s interest.

We learn why people kill, how they perceive violence, and how their use/thoughts about violence evolve over time. Burgess helped streamline interview guidelines and questionnaires to document childhood, incidents of violence in and around families, traumatic incidents, real or perceived danger, how power struggles were played out, and much more.

She kept the focus on retelling the crime but with the subtle change to gradually switch from fantasizing about a crime, taking steps to make it more real, preparing for reality, plotting, the first attempt in real life, the absorption/reflecting on that attempt, and the steps made after that towards successful criminal acts, and reliving crimes.

While reading Chapter 2, the book started to become familiar to me. Yes, having studied criminology I have read my fair share of books about (serial) killers but it was something different. Bellevue, Nebraska, 1983. Bells started to ring as I read the words ‘newspaper route.’ It was the case of Danny Joe Eberle (13) and I knew where I read about the struggle to get this case solved.

Retired-FBI Agent Pete Klismet detailed in his book ‘FBI Diary, Profiles of Evil‘ exactly this case but from another perspective. Klismet worked on the case with local law enforcement agencies until Robert Ressler flew in to assist. It starts in chapter 24 in Klismets’ book.

As a result, I got to read about a few cases that puzzled local law enforcement and what they needed to solve these crimes. And then, with this book, I saw what the FBI had to offer and how together, they solved some of the most gruesome cases. Wonderful experience!

Even if you have read similar books on serial killers and profiling, this one gives a clear overview into profiling and the methodology to make questionnaires, to conduct interviews, and most importantly, it has almost verbatim content of the interviews conducted so you experience the answers along with the interviewers, and then read about their assessments.

If there is one thing that you should take away from this book, it is the struggle to update law enforcement, to streamline processes (locally and nationally), and the prejudices regarding other professions. But most of all, the reluctance to embrace help from others especially from non-law enforcement officers.

This book comes out in December 7, 2021. The pace is good and the chapters are well proportioned. As I read an advance reading copy, it only had a few footnotes, no cross-referenced index, no bibliography, and no recommended reading listings. I assume that the ultimate version of the book will have those resources.

Highly recommended reading!

Three last notes:

Cowriter Steven Matthew Constantine is the assistant director of marketing and communications at the Boston College Connell School of Nursing. He lives in Boston, MA.

Burgess and Constantine describe gruesome crimes in detail. What exactly happened is part of the profiling. That means that this book can be upsetting as it includes cases of sexual assault and crimes against children.

Last, I received an advance reading copy of this book from Ashley Kiedrowski from Hachette Books in exchange for an honest review.

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