An appreciation of the author Colin Wilson (1931-2013) - philosopher, critic, novelist
Only an entrée
A review by Vaughan Robertson of Colin Wilson's Serial Killer Investigations
This is an interesting and well-written book that also adds nothing new to the Wilson pantheon in terms of novel ideas or departures from what Colin has written before; indeed in many ways it is just a rehash of his earlier titles such as The Corpse Garden (1998), A Plague of Murder (1995), The Serial Killers (1990) – co-authored with Donald Seaman, andWritten in Blood (1989).
The entire text is a polar opposite to other recent tomes such as Atlantis and the Kingdom of the Neanderthals (2006), which – as I have made more than clear elsewhere – is rubbish because of stylistic and factual liberty. Serial Killer Investigations is well edited, quite cohesive, not very diversionary, and easy to follow and comprehend without raising ones’ eyebrows at bizarre and silly claims by the author. That Wilson can have such a diametric face-off between non-fiction books published in the same year is in itself rather worrying in terms of the lack of consistency in style impacting on overall credibility, especially if we further reflect that another 2007 publication, The Angry Years, fluctuates between sober reflection and far more intrusive and sometime vitriolic author invasions and speculations. Which voice then is the ‘real’ Colin Wilson’s and how much control does he have over his prodigious output? I much prefer the sensible Wilson here – no histrionics at all.
So, the book under review contains no essential Wilsonian seizures of tone and pace and flow via the exaggerated hyperbolic or the non-logical synthesis, and as even he points out in the Epilogue, an End in Sight: "…a book like this is hardly the place for philosophical reflection..." Serial Killer Investigations is all the better for this abstemious, (self) restrained Colin Wilson – only Nietzsche (once) and Van Vogt (a couple of times) wind/find their ways into the text before this Epilogue.
There is, however, another more palatable form of Wilsonian intrusions into this book, although they are here relevant to the process and are rooted in fact: his own lifetime correspondence with notorious killers such as Pee Wee Gaskins, Ian Brady, Gerard Schaefer, William Heirens and Danny Rolling. Colin Wilson also admits to learning from Brady and to his own giving up some of his earlier , somewhat Romantic notions that serial killers might somehow see sense: Ian Brady – like 99% of the others of his ilk - is a self-deluded, somewhat puerile self-justifier. "Ten years of exchanging letters taught me something that I should have realized sooner – that even an intelligent criminal remains trapped in the vicious circle of his own criminality, and cannot escape." This is author as participant, not proselytizer
Given all the above, then, what is this book ‘all about’, if it is not really a book of speculative philosophy, like most other books in the Wilson oeuvre? The back cover states that "Wilson explores such areas as psychological profiling, genetic fingerprinting, and the launch of the Behavioural Science Unit…" and generally the book does do this, although as it progresses there is far less about the B.S.U as chapters become more digests of serial killers and their nefarious killings, culled I believe, in large chunks from Wilson’s earlier writings, as adumbrated above. So while early on there is a good deal about Robert Ressler in particular (especially relevant is Ressler’s own tome, Whoever Fights Monsters), and James Brussel, John Douglas, Pierce Brooks, Roy Hazlewood, Howard Tete; later on – in a geographically-centred and generally sequential exposition of serial killers, sheer summaries outweigh the profilers and the forensic. By geographically-centred I mean that much of the book revolves around the putative home of the serial killer – U.S.A. The corps of this corpus is American in gestation, genealogy and grossness.
I will digress myself here a little and ask why the U.S.A is the home of such ‘nutters’. Wilson does not here raise the issue – which would be interesting, because I would value his insights here. Perhaps some reflection on the writings of William Blum, Noam Chomsky, John Tirman and Steven Kinzer would show that the U.S.A is itself a self-centred, puerile, self-justifying, iconoclastic, selfish and bombastic state. No wonder so many of its citizens are serially dispatched by its own citizens.
However, Wilson does go global later in the book, although historically this all somewhat skew-whiff in that only in the fifteenth chapter, Sex Crimes – theBeginnings, does he start to talk about his pet, Jack the Ripper, perhaps the granddaddy of all the others he has already invoked! And then the U.K and – to a lesser extent other locations like Canada and Austria – have their sections about their serial murderers, with a small acknowledgement also of David Carter, Gregg McCrary and one Dr. Schickelgruber as their profiling nemeses.(Again one ponders if other countries have caught the U.S.A disease of mass murder as globalization as fuelled by the U.S.A in the first place (via the Internet, advertising, films etcetera, all built from economic avarice) kicks in…just as the U.S.A spread and continues to spread tobacco and its iniquitous proliferations to non-Western countries after the historical adoption of it from Native Americans, so does it now sow the seeds of serial killing beyond its own gun-addled shores, as societies turn to Ronald McDonald and Bill Gates whilst forgetting their own now sublimated indigenousness and adopt Americanized responses to Americanized impositions.)
So this is Serial Killer Investigations. More ‘about’ psychological profiling than anything much to do with DNA/genetic fingerprinting or even to fingerprint databases. More about the killers’ whimsical fluctuations, dastardly deeds, and evil inconsistencies than psychological profiling itself, as it further proceeds down its pages. Not a hell of a lot of forensic detection at all, in fact.
Yet, the cover advertising cannot really be castigated in its claims as to what the book is ‘all about’ – unlike another earlier Wilson tome entitled The Devils Party (2000) where one reviewer named Dr Chris Arthur angrily wrote in Contemporary Review 277: "Finally, an author cannot, naturally, be held accountable for the shortcomings of his publisher, but [the publisher] should take more care with their publicity material. In particular, they [the publisher] need to re-examine their press release about the book…" – for Serial Killer Investigations basically does do what it is promised and no more, although it would have been good to see a bibliography and an index in addition to the supportive photographs sprinkled throughout. It is, ultimately, a mere minor chord in the opera of this prolific writer.
I also must state that there are a few important points that Wilson does raise, rather too fleetingly, about serial killers, that need to be acknowledged here. Not so much conclusions, but soft statements that crop up now and again and are never really expanded on: all a little frustrating for the enquiring reader:
* any serial killers had serious head injuries, either from one or a series of major knocks to their skulls.
* seral killing seems to become addictive, like a drug-dependency that requires bigger bursts and results in a concomitant carelessness, sometimes leading to an obvious desire to be caught.
* folie a deux is a fascinating chemical and psychological (psychotic?) interfusion of two personalities toward mayhem.
* are serial killers born bad, that is ‘born to kill’, somehow genetically predisposed to their craft/trade?
* there are - it would appear – different sorts of motivations for these societal pariahs: "Some are psychotic…Some are violently oversexed…some are inspired by hatred of women…Some regard themselves as social rebels…But some…emerge simply as spoiled brats…and felt no compunction about killing for a few hours of sexual pleasure."
* most if not all serial killings have a sexual side, and sex crime per se is a power/control deviation, that is the perpetrators relish forced potency over their victims. Intercourse as recourse to control of/over.
Good points, but that’s all.
Even the six page Epilogue offers little really in terms of authorial perambulations – almost as if Wilson himself has been straitjacketed by an Editor. There is the usual incorporation of Romantics and/as Outsiders and their urgent need to find some internalized installation of a peace that kills all existential angst once and for all – thus murder as ontological panacea. There is a gracious nod once more to Abraham Maslow and his hierarchy of needs, that murder has evolved historically and divergently as various needs are met, and Wilson’s optimistic hope that serial killings will abate as the highest need, that of ‘self-actualization’ kicks in – although, personally I feel that this will never be a unilateral, equal process in today’s World of minority haves and mass have-nots. I cannot see an Age of Self-Actualisation anytime soon, indeed it is in the best interests of the West’s predominantly White globalizers, not to have any such thing, but rather to promote subjugation and inequity, no matter how cunningly!
Finally, very late in the piece, Wilson introduces us – again optimistically – to Rupert Sheldrake and his ideas of ‘formative causation’ and ‘morphogenetic fields’ in the hope that such – as yet unproven, despite Wilson’s unreferenced ‘examples’ otherwise – will also lead to the end of the need to write such books as this because there would be no more such crime, for the sheer exponential impact of formative causation: "…guarantees the increase in the number of self-actualisers…When the number of self-actualisers in a society has increased beyond a certain critical mass, it will go on increasing by this action of morphogenetic fields."
I have intimated strongly immediately above that this ideal scenario will remain in the field of pipe dreams: there is no pragmatic way any such occurrence will occur in the near future, indeed such are the pragmatics and dynamics of our postcolonial and postmodern lives that there will in all probability be more serial killings all around the Earth for some time yet to come, especially beyond the shores of continental U.S.A. I live in PR China (Hong Kong SAR to be exact) and serial killers are raising their ugly heads all too often on ‘The Mainland’ nowadays. Most of them are smokers too!
More, despite Wilson’s effervescent late quips of ‘we can see’ and ‘and of course’ and ‘this explains why’, which thankfully are largely absent from this book, I cannot actually see that Sheldrake’s notions are necessarily viable, especially after reading writers like Richard Dawkins, who can sight no life-force amidst their own genetic gyrations.
Indeed Colin Wilson’s own very recent (11 September, 2007 Interview at Tetherdown, available online) missing-the-point and erroneous responses re: Dawkins are very similar in kind to his rather wide-ranging and again, questionable, Epilogue statements like: "…no creative artist has ever committed a premeditated murder…"Just like his admiration of Sheldrake, one must question: Proved? Valid? True?
Better to appreciate Serial Killer Investigations for what it is – quite a quiet read written by a quieter writer - and smile as you encounter the usual louder suspect – Colin Wilson – only in the last clutch of pages!
A fine entrée only – easy on the eyes, the gut and the brain. Leaves you hungry for more.