Even though we are supposedly living in the era of “Peak TV,” it is amazing that few shows really rise above the background noise and stand out. Netflix’s drama Mindhunter was one of these shows. I had looked forward to Mindhunter‘s premiere as far back as last year. I’m a huge David Fincher fan. Some of his films, like Zodiac and The Social Network are among my favorite movies ever. And I’ve also enjoyed House of Cards, which Fincher helped launch. From that first chilling first trailer, Mindhunter announced itself as a tense psychological thriller about the rise of criminal profiling in the FBI in the years after J. Edgar Hoover. The first season surpassed my expectations. Mindhunter also felt literary, and indeed many of the crimes were based off historical cases, in some cases the dialogue the original team collected from interviews was used in Fincher’s drama, too. Ten episodes was definitely not enough, and I was left yearning to learn more about this era and the themes the show explores. Thus the birth of this list of 10 books to read if you love Mindhunter. The titles featured here are divided into five nonfiction and five fiction books I recommend for fans of Mindhunter. Each of these books relate to the show in some way, by exploring similar themes, historical events, and turning points in the way we investigate and understand crime today.
Nonfiction Recommendations for Mindhunter Fans
(1) The Psychopath Test (2011)
by Jon Ronson
I love this book, which is one of the books I most frequently recommend to others (as well as the author, Jon Ronson). As the subtitle says: “A journey through the madness industry,” Jon Ronson takes us on a trip through the landscapes of lunacy. Ronson investigates psychopathology and the people who study and treat psychopaths. He also talks with several psychopaths himself. Key moments in the study of psychopaths are examined, including some of the academic and medical experiments done on psychopaths in mid-twentieth century experiments. One thing you definitely get from this book is the feeling that psychopaths inspire a sort of cult fascination. The psychologists, academics, and sociologists who devote their time to the study of psychopaths operate in their own little bubble, all the more stranger because both psychopaths and most researchers know by now that you can’t cure a psychopath. You can totally see Holden from Mindhunter fitting in with this crowd and geeking out about their findings—and sharing some of his own.
(2) The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir (2017)
by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich
A theme in Mindhunter is just how deeply Holden, Bill, and Wendy want to get to how these criminals think and feel. Holden seems to be nearly immune to what he is hearing. You can see it in his eyes, his body language. This turns him on. You wonder what Holden would think if he were to read The Fact of a Body, the debut true crime / memoir by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnovich. This book weaves the author’s personal history as a victim of childhood sexual abuse with her experience decades later researching a Death Row defendant, a pedophile and alleged child murderer, Ricky Langley.
You can just see by the end of Mindhunter how the team wonders where the line draws between someone who is psychologically disturbed and unable to help their evil impulses and someone who chooses that path. And, really, is one more forgivable? The Fact of a Body is a brutal search into the origins of Langley and whether he was born or made into the monster he became, and how we can or even should reconcile remorse and pity with justice. I haven’t read a better book this year, and it’s November. This book is upsetting and will be triggering to some, but I closed its final pages a different person. It’s stayed with me, and it will stay with you.
(3) Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst (2017)
by Robert M. Sapolsky
Named one of the Washington Post’s Best Books of 2017, Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst is the portable, digestible, and entertaining human behavior class you didn’t get a chance to take in college. So much of Mindhunter is tied to how humans behave. Holden, Bill, and Wendy are investigating why someone would knowingly transgress the code of ethics we live with in society. Is being a murderer, especially a serial killer, a pathology, a disease itself? What do we do with people who cannot help themselves, cannot stop themselves from killing? In the show’s depiction of the dawn of criminal profiling, the team often works backwards from the crime, asking themselves what kind of person would do such a thing. If you’ve been hungry to find answers to these questions, pick up Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst by Robert Sapolsky, a Stanford professor and neuroendocrinologist.
(4) Enemies: A History of the FBI (2012)
by Tim Weiner
I find the history of the FBI to be fascinating. That’s one of the things I love about Mindhunter. I enjoy watching the bureau at a pivotal moment. Now in our current history, we are also at an important turning point for the FBI. Robert Mueller, former director of the FBI, has come back to lead a special counsel investigation of Trump’s campaign and its ties to Russia, as well as possible obstruction of justice when Trump fired former FBI director James Comey, and the shady business deals of Trump, his associates, and others involved with his campaign. This scandal has brought the FBI back into the forefront of national conversation. The world stops when Comey testifies. Reporters stake out Paul Manafort’s house on “Indictment Day.” There are whispers that the intelligence community is in a revolt against the Trump administration. Sometimes it seems like we are living from news alert to news alert, or tweet to tweet, regarding the FBI, intelligence, and crimes of the highest order.
If you’re wondering how we got from Holden and Bill’s FBI to our Federal Bureau of Investigation today, check out Enemies: A History of the FBI by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Tim Weiner. This book focuses on the relationship between the government, in particular the presidency, and the FBI. Enemies is the first comprehensive history of the FBI and frames the bureau not as a law enforcement agency, a common misperception, but as an intelligence gathering resource tasked with gathering information that can be used to make decisions of national and international importance. (There are also of plenty of juicy details of notable FBI workers, including J. Edgar Hoover and Robert Mueller.) Enemies was named a best book of the year by the Washington Post, the New York Daily News, and Slate.
(5) Incendiary: The Psychiatrist, the Mad Bomber, and the Invention of Criminal Profiling (2017)
by Michael Cannell
The joining of forces between psychiatry with law enforcement is portrayed brilliantly in Michael Cannell’s Incendiary: The Psychiatrist, the Mad Bomber, and the Invention of Criminal Profiling. You could easily mistake this work of nonfiction as a novel with the breathtaking pacing and suspense that Cannell uses to tell the true story of a man who planted bombs in notable New York City locations for nearly 20 years without being caught. As the police failed to find any viable avenue to find and stop the bomber, eventually Police Captain Howard Finney enlisted a psychiatrist who specialized in studying criminal psychology, Dr. James Brussel. Together with Seymour Berkson, the publisher of The Journal-American, the men teamed up to find the bomber.
This case was a breakthrough in criminology because it helped lay the groundwork for criminal profiling. You can bet that whatever books Holden and Bill had available to consult were influenced in some way by this case. Part of the Mindhunter story is the struggle Holden’s team has to prove that their work in profiling can be extremely useful. They want to prove there is a science behind it, that their research has a method to it and a strategy behind the choices they make. Cannell’s book is an excellent entryway in the development of criminal profiling in a high profile case. You’ll read it rooting for these breakthroughs to finally intersect with the Mindhunter gang.
Fiction Recommendations for Mindhunter Fans
(1) The Girls (2016)
by Emma Cline
Charles Manson is frequently referenced throughout Mindhunter. Manson (who passed away this November) enigmatically created a cult that attracted young women. Whether it is through learning about Manson or about Scientology, we’ve all said to ourselves, “How could anyone join a cult!?” Emma Cline’s widely lauded debut novel, The Girls, is an answer to that question. The story is set in Northern California during the summer of love in 1969. Evie Boyd, just sixteen, is captivated when she sees a group of seemingly carefree girls at the park. Evie befriends Suzanne, who beckons Evie to join her at the commune-like ranch where she and other young women fawn over Russell, a charismatic musician. Soon Evie will do anything to escape her fractured home life and find a sense of belonging and purpose with Russell and Suzanne, even though it eventually awakens a darkness she did not realize was deep inside her.
This novel is a good pick for Mindhunter fans because inevitably Holden, Bill, and Wendy’s work will intersect with Manson and cults. While Manson was certainly a serial killer and probably a psychopath, it’s another question how innocent young women were manipulated to follow him and commit violence in his name. To understand a psychopathic leader of a cult, it’s important to also understand how people could become so possessed. I have no doubt that Holden and Bill would want to learn more about a cult’s victims turned into criminals against all logic.
(7) American Psycho (1991)
by Bret Easton Ellis
Holden, Bill, and Wendy are eager to get inside the mind of psychopaths and serial killers and the closest they can get to that is through interviews directly with the murderers. Oh, what they would have given to have Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho around back then. First published in 1991, this cult favorite and critical darling is narrated by Patrick Bateman, a mid-20s investment banker during the late 1980s Wall Street boom. Bateman is handsome, cunning, smart, and, oh yeah, a serial killer. Through his hypnotizing and scandalous first-person narrative, Bateman describes what it is like to think and feel as a psychopath.
Ellis’ book was provocative and caused a huge uproar for the mere suggestion that a psychopath could be just another Wall Street man, and that’s one reason why the book has been so influential. American Psycho showed that a hunger for crime, a taste for murder, and a pleasure in pain could easily invade Wall Street and by extension the elite arenas of America and the world. At its most literal, American Psycho suggests that psychopaths and serial killers not only exist among powerful political and economic circles, they blend right in. And when you look at how badly Wall Street bankers have failed this country, driven it into a recession, and made victims of everyday Americans, you totally see that pathological and clinical detachment from having empathy for others is almost a requirement to work in that world. Holden, Wendy, and Bill would kill to get a chance to read Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho (or see the film or musical adaptation).
(8) In Cold Blood (1966)
by Truman Capote
Is it a novel? Or nonfiction? It’s hard to know what exactly to categorize Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, but what is indisputable is how this book is a pivotal work of literature. Truman Capote was curious about the shocking quadruple murder of an entire family in a small, rural community in Kansas in 1959. When the murderers were found and arrested, Capote studied them, trying to find why they did what they did. After six years, In Cold Blood was published in 1966 to much acclaim even though reviewers, readers, and scholars to this day have questioned how much of the book was true and how much was fiction. The book and Truman Capote’s life served as inspiration for the screen; I highly recommend Capote, the 2005 film starring the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, who won an Academy Award for his betrayal of Truman Capote. That film still haunts me.
Like Holden, Capote became emotionally invested in the criminals and their stories to the point where the distinctions between right and wrong, evil and good, and justice and mercy started to blur. As in Mindhunter, Capote became almost spellbound by the two men who committed the crime. Another parallel between the show and the book is the focus on close-knit communities and the shock of violence. Holden and Bill traveled the country training police officers in small towns about the basics in criminology. As we saw from some of the reactions of these cops, brutal and unthinkable crimes were indeed happening in their sleepy communities and they lacked the resources, training, and even vocabulary to handle it. The idea that “nobody here would do that” and “he isn’t capable of carrying out a murder” and “not in our town” are prevalent and interfere with investigations and punishments. You definitely get the sense in both Mindhunter and In Cold Blood that the country is buckling under the severity of these new crimes and the horrors of dealing with this reality, something they want to bury rather than confront. Capote’s book captures this zeitgeist perfectly when he profiles the community where such a crime could happen, the tipping point when Americans and American law enforcement had to confront the evil in their own towns, on their own blocks, in their own homes.
(9) In the Woods (2007) + the Dublin Murder Squad novels
by Tana French
I loved Mindhunter‘s really intense interrogation sequences. When Holden and Bill would try to crack a suspect, there would be all manner of skilled manipulation playing out. The performances felt like theater, much like Tana French’s novels. Tana French’s mystery / thriller series focuses on detectives, investigators, and other Dublin law enforcement officials. Her novels are told from the perspective of detectives fighting demons both outside and inside their mind, rotating narrators with each novel. These books consider the past, the present, the unresolved, the ambiguous, and how our own human biases blindsight us. If you’re into contemplating the nature of good and evil, a criminal’s motivation, and the criminology of the mind, you’ll eat these mysteries up. French really excels at the confession room scenes. When her characters, all flawed and fascinating, clash during interrogations, it is a high similar to watching Bill and Holden sort it out in a small and dimly lit box with creeps and murderers. Tana French has a theatre background, too, and you definitely get that in the riveting dialogue. Join her cult following by reading the first in the series, In the Woods. You’ll want to clear your schedule first.
(10) The Sherlock Holmes stories and novels
by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
All mysteries lead back to Baker Street. Rivaling perhaps only Shakespeare, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories are the most influential works of imagination in the history of English literature. While it’s difficult to not sound hyperbolic with that praise, it’s really true. Every story, novel, scripted TV show or film that calls itself a mystery is instantly framed in terms of Doyle’s stories. Of all the stories that have ever been published, the Holmes canon has staying power more than a hundred years later. Authors like Brittany Cavallaro, who wrote A Study in Charlotte, which was one of my best books of 2016, are able to reinvent the Holmes stories with endlessly creative and original interpretations.
You can definitely see some of that influence with Mindhunter. Like Sherlock Holmes, Holden is forging a science of his own. Holden has an unnaturally and uncanny ability to think like a criminal, and he is willing to try different tactics, including experimental ones, to find a criminal by working backwards from the crime and any “calling cards” or unique characteristics left behind. Holden’s method could be considered closer to inductive reasoning, while Holmes favored deductive reasoning, but in both cases, the heroes are applying a schema of logic to understand crime, implying that yes, crime can be predictable and connections can be made across crimes. That’s in contrast to the idea that crime is random, unplanned, that criminals have no methodology.
As we have already seen from the first season, Holden finds some success creating an entirely new field. To Sherlock Holmes—and to Holden Ford—there is a method to the madness. It is possible to find a map through “the jungle out there.” I think that’s what I find most exciting about this show, to see a paradigm shift in the way we study criminals from a psychological, sociological, and ethical standpoint. I had chills watching that history happen, and I wasn’t even shivering in the same cold and dark prison cells where Holden and Bill sat across from psychopaths like Ed Kemper. Mindhunter captures the thrill—and danger—of creating science from scratch, a feeling Sherlock Holmes fan still find fresh when they reread one of the stories for the umpteenth time.
Where to start with Sherlock Holmes? The edition I’m linking to is the one pictured above, a Barnes and Noble anthology of the Holmes stories that is still my preferred edition: The Complete Sherlock Holmes, Volume I.