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Walking Through a Killer’s Mind

Jan 26, 2012 in Guest Posts, Mulholland Authors

Today marks the on-sale date of Mulholland Books’ paperback edition of SHATTER by Michael Robotham–the first time the acclaimed psychological thriller has been published in the format. To celebrate the release, Michael Robotham has written an essay about the origins of series protagonist Joe O’Loughlin that looks back on his debut in SUSPECT and returns in SHATTER and BLEED FOR ME, coming from Mulholland Books in February 2012. Check it out below!

When I began writing my first novel I had no idea it was a psychological thriller. I wasn’t even sure it was a crime novel. I wrote in the first person, using the voice of clinical psychologist, Professor Joseph O’Loughlin, who was perched on the roof of the Royal Marsden Hospital in Chelsea, London, trying to talk to a teenage boy who was threatening to jump.

‘This is some view,’ I say, glancing to my right at a teenager crouched about ten feet away. His name is Malcolm and he’s seventeen today. Tall and thin, with dark eyes that tremble when he looks at me, he has skin as white as polished paper. He is wearing pajamas and a woollen hat to cover his baldness. Chemotherapy is a cruel hairdresser.

There was no hint of a crime in SUSPECT until the second chapter and depending upon which version you read (the US edition is slightly different to the rest of the world) Joe O’Loughlin doesn’t get involved in the investigation until page 65.

When the novel came out, the first question I was asked was: ‘Why crime?’

To be honest, I couldn’t answer it. I had no idea. To start with I didn’t read much crime fiction. My fascination as a reader and a writer has always rested with the characters and their motivations. The plot is important, but only as a vehicle to explore the human condition.

All crime is psychological. When a university graduate in urban preservation flies a passenger plane into a skyscraper killing thousands of people; or when a student barely out of his teens sprays a university campus with bullets; or when a teenage mother give birth in a toilet and leaves the baby in the wastepaper bin, it all comes back to some aspect of human behaviour and interaction. Everything we think we know and understand – the good, the bad and the inexplicable – is produced by four pounds of grey matter between our ears.

The Crying Room - Have a seatClinical Psychologist Joe O’Loughlin has appeared in all but one of my novels and has narrated three of them (a fourth is coming). Joe isn’t your typical fictional hero, as he admits himself.

I am not handsome in the conventional sense. I am tall and pale with watery brown eyes and when I look at myself naked, I am reminded of a winter animal that sheds its fur in the hotter months and looks out of place until the cold returns. That’s one of the reasons that I don’t wear shorts or T-shirts or flip flops which Australians call thongs. I wonder what they call G-strings?

I gave Joe a brilliant mind, but then threw a cruel twist into the mix – a diagnosis of early onset Parkinson’s Disease, which has turned his life upside down.

Nobody ever dies of Parkinson’s Disease. You die with it. That’s one of Jock’s trite aphorisms. I can just see it on a bumper sticker because it’s only half as ridiculous as ‘Guns don’t kill people, people do.’

I began to realise something was wrong about five months ago. The main thing was the tiredness. Some days it was like walking through mud. I still played tennis twice a week and coached Charlie’s soccer team. During our training games I managed to keep up with a dozen eight-year-olds and picture myself as Zinedine Zidane, the playmaker, dispatching through balls and doing intricate one-twos.

But then I started to find that the ball didn’t go where I intended any more and if I took off suddenly, I tripped over my own feet. Charlie thought I was clowning around. Julianne thought I was getting lazy. I blamed turning forty.

In hindsight I can see the signs were there. My handwriting had become even more cramped and buttonholes became obstacles. Sometimes I had difficulty getting out of a chair and when I walked down stairs I held on to the handrails.

It seems especially cruel to give Joe Parkinson’s, but I have always been fascinated by the idea of someone having a brilliant mind but a crumbling body. Think of Stephen Hawking, the greatest mind of our generation, trapped in a wheelchair and suffering from Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

Joe cannot out-run, out-fight and out-bed his adversaries. He’s not a fictional superman like James Bond, Jason Bourne or Jack Reacher. Instead he has to outsmart his enemies. He has to use his prodigious talent to pick apart their crimes and put a face in the empty frame.

Of all my characters, Joe is probably the most autobiographical in the sense that we’re both the same age. We both have daughters. We have similar views politically and socially. He’s a far braver version of me, but also more tortured.

When I wrote SUSPECT, I never imagined bringing Joe O’Loughlin back. Instead, I chose lesser characters to star in subsequent books. It wasn’t until I came up with the idea for SHATTER that Joe returned to centre stage because the story was so dark and confronting, that I felt it needed someone like Joe to guide readers safely through it and not leave them traumatised. He has such a wonderful sense of humour and sense of humanity that he lightens up the darkest moments.

In my upcoming novel BLEED FOR ME, Joe is back again, this time at the request of my wife, who insisted that I couldn’t leave Joe with is private life in tatters and had to give him a happier ending. (Which I can’t promise. No spoilers here.)

Although Joe is a fictional creation, I have worked with clinical and forensic psychologists who have helped the police investigate violent crimes. Fifteen years ago I spent a lot of time with Paul Britton, the forensic psychologist, who became the inspiration for the brilliant BBC series CRACKER in the early 1990s.

Experts like Britton aren’t called into most murder investigations, because most murders are mundane. (Tragic, of course, but also boring and pointless.) When two men get into a fight in a bar and one hits the other over the head with a barstool, you don’t need a psychologist to tell you what happened.

The police call on psychologists when the crime is beyond their comprehension – either so violent or random or motiveless they have little grasp on where to start looking for the perpetrator.

Britton once described to me the process of examining a crime scene, looking for the psychological clues left behind.

‘People sometimes talk about ‘reading between the lines’ as a way of explaining the abstract processes used in inference and deduction. In my work the analysis has to leave the page and go into the mind of the killer. To know him, I have to be able to see the world through his eyes.

‘This means putting aside my own compassion and moral values. I step away from the vocational impetus of my clinical career and sink fully into the killer’s sense of climactic achievement. At the same time, I see the shock, pain and final terror of his victims.

‘As always, I asked myself four questions: What has happened; how did it happen; who did it happen to, and why? Only when I had answers to these questions could I address the fifth: who is responsible?’

This is what fascinated me – the process of ‘walking through the killer’s mind’. In February 1994, Paul Britton was called to 74 Cromwell Street in Gloucester where police had recovered the remains of three people in the back garden. The house belonged Frederick and Rosemary West and the bodies were believed to include the couple’s eldest daughter Heather Ann West who was last seen alive seven years earlier.

The police struggled to understand what they were dealing with and asked Britton to help. He read the statements and viewed the remains. He walked through the garden and the house and looked at Fred and Rosemary West being interviewed. At this point they were denying all knowledge of how these bodies got into their garden.

Finally the psychologist sat down with the senior investigating officer and listed point by point what the police were dealing with.

‘These are sadistic sexual psychopaths,’ he said. ‘They have a combined depravity – a husband and wife working together, each legitimising the actions of the other. These victims were play things who were tortured and abused.’

Paul revealed how this couple, driven by their corrupt fantasies, had kidnapped, raped and tortured their victims, keeping them alive for as long as possible before burying their bodies close because they lied to fantasise about what they had done.

‘So that’s why he used the back garden?’ sad the senior detective.

‘No,’ said Britton. ‘They used the garden because the house is full.’

That is when the police dug up the basement of 74 Cromwell Street and discovered five more bodies.

I wasn’t interested in how those young women died – and they died in terrible ways – I wanted to know how Paul Britton knew where they were buried. Where did that sort of knowledge come from?

That’s why I write psychological thrillers. I’ll leave it to Joe O’Loughlin to explain. In SHATTER he talks to a group of first-year university students:

‘Forget everything you’ve been told about psychology. It will not make you a better poker player, nor will it help you pick up girls or understand them any better. I have three at home and they are a complete mystery to me.

 ‘It is not about dream interpretation, ESP, multiple personalities, mind-reading, Rorschach Tests, phobias, recovered memories or repression. And most importantly it is not about getting in touch with yourself. If that’s your ambition I suggest you buy a copy of Big Jugs magazine and find a quiet corner…

‘Apiece of human brain the size of a grain of sand contains one hundred thousand neurons, two million axons and one billion synapses all talking to each other. The number of permutations and combinations of activity that are theoretically possible in each of our heads exceeds the number of elementary particles in the universe…Welcome to the great unknown.’

Michael Robotham was an investigative journalist in Britain and Australia before his career as a novelist. SHATTER is in bookstores now, and BLEED FOR ME  will be released in February 2012. Both will be available wherever books or eBooks are sold.

Michael lives in Sydney with his wife and three daughters. Learn more at http://www.michaelrobotham.com.

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