The Killer Across the Table by John Douglas and Mark Olshaker (William Morrow, 2019)


Why + How = Who

The formula above represents the manner in which criminal profilers assess the suspects in a serious crime. In the gripping new Douglas and Olshaker book, The Killer Across the Table, the authors write, “We study these people (criminals) not as psychologists or sociologists, but as criminologists. We examine their backgrounds and upbringings to help us understand why they do what they do and how they go about it----to understand motivation and predict behavior---so we can apply it to our discipline of crime-solving and our mission of criminal justice.”

Sign Up for Milltown/Spotswood Newsletter
Our newsletter delivers the local news that you can trust.

The Killer Across the Table is the ninth collaboration between Douglas and Olshaker, who began writing as a team with the phenomenal success, Mindhunter, which Netflix used as a riveting series aired in 2017. (It is still available on Netflix, and if you haven’t seen it, watch it, but be prepared to binge). 

John Douglas has been credited with creating the FBI’s profiling unit. In the beginning, Douglas’s boss at the FBI did not buy into the theory that by researching a suspect’s upbringing, behavior as a child, criminal records, sexual identity, and many other traits, closure to the thousands of unclosed cases could happen. Douglas, who holds a doctorate in education based on teaching police officers the techniques that will help them to solve a crime, has solved over 5000 cases in his 48 year career. Indeed, by identifying behaviors of the perpetrators of particular types of crimes, law enforcement is having tremendous success in identifying and tracking down the most vile killers.

The title of the book, The Killer Across the Table, explains precisely what the book is about. Douglas visits four incarcerated murderers to expand his understanding of why these men commit such shockingly violent crimes. Douglas begins by taking us through the history of Joseph McGowan, a well liked teacher in Rockland County, NY. Although McGowen gloried in the admiration of many of his students, “a number of female students said they felt uncomfortable around him.”

McGowan, who was known in his neighborhood, took advantage of an opportunity to rape, choke, and bludgeon 12 year old Joan Angela D’Alessandro, when she came to his door to sell Girl Scout cookies. Considering that Joan’s mother knew that her daughter was going to McGowan’s house, this was a high risk for McGowan, but he just could not control the urge to kill her.

While the authors include the conversations that Douglas had with the convicted murderers, they take the opportunity when they can tie a similarity to one killer from another. In the case of McGowan, Douglas brings up one of the first crimes he profiled, that of Ed Kemper, a highly intelligent man, who was devoid of emotion and empathy. The authors reveal that “While McGowan did not suffer the same emotional trauma growing up as Ed Kemper had, his domineering and controlling mother clearly had a profound effect on his development.” McGowan’s self-image suffered greatly from his mother’s nagging, until he wanted to prove his superiority by committing heinous murder.

Several other murderers are assessed in the book including Joseph Kondro who ultimately pled guilty to the first and second degree murders of two young women in Oregon, Todd Kohlepp, who killed several people, and Donald Harvey, a seemingly polite and kind man who may have been “the most prolific serial killer in American history.” Between 1977 and 1987 he may have killed as many as 87 elderly people in nursing homes. Dubbed the Angel of Death, Harvey differed from the other serial killers in The Killer Across the Table, in that he did not get off on having victims fight for their lives. He preferred to send his victims on their final journeys by poisoning, smothering, or turning off the ventilators while they slept. 

The central question of The Killer Across the Table is are violent predators born evil or do people develop into monsters because of tough upbringings? John Douglas states, “I would argue that, while no one who does not have certain inborn tendencies toward impulsivity, anger, and/or sadistic perversions is going to evolve into a predator because of a bad upbringing, there is no doubt in my mind that those possessing such inborn tendencies can be pushed along the path to predation by negative influences as they grow up and mature.” 

In relaying the stories of the criminals that he interviews, Douglas continues to hold up the mirror of the essential question to each case. In fact, Douglas acknowledges that in some cases, the killers to whom he speaks, want to know why they have done what they have. 

It is my belief that people are drawn into the darkness of unspeakable crime as a way of facing their personal boogeymen. Trying to assess what has twisted in the brain of a deviant human being is fascinating as well as elusive.

If the genre of True Crime is your favorite, as it is mine, you must read The Killer Across the Table. My one caveat is, if you are reading it in the evening, make sure that you don’t have an early morning obligations. This is a page turner that will keep you reading from sundown to sunrise.