The Readers’ Writers: Bestselling authors John Douglas and Mark Olshaker, part 2

DA Kentner

Editor’s note: This is the second part of a two-part interview that DA Kentner did with John Douglas and Mark Olshaker – and that’s not the whole of this fascinating interview, as we’ll be placing the full, uncut interview online. Check it out at the paper’s website.

MARK) John won’t say this about himself, but I will. He became a legendary figure in law-enforcement circles to the point where some observers started asking him if was psychic. His response was always, “No, but I wish I was.” It was simply an illustration of Sherlock Holmes coming to life. It all seemed like magic until John would explain each analysis, and then it all made perfect sense – a combination of inductive reasoning, deductive reasoning and some inspiration and imagination based on both innate talent and hard-won experience.

Q) Mr. Douglas: The horror of murder in all its aspects (the crime, victims, and perpetrators) has been a part of your life for so long, I have to ask how you step away from it to maintain your sanity and embrace life.

JOHN) It’s difficult, and you can’t always do it. I was in my 30s in December 1983 when I collapsed in a Seattle hotel room while working on the Green River Murders. I came down with severe viral encephalitis that basically shut my brain down. I was in a coma at Swedish Hospital for a week and not expected to live. They even picked out my burial spot in a Veterans Cemetery. I was handling so many cases at the same time, traveling so much, feeling this intense pressure from the bureau and responsibility to all the victims and all the individuals who would become victims if we didn’t take some of these serial killers off the street, I had this premonition something was going to happen to me. In fact, just before I left on the Seattle trip, I took out additional life insurance. Altogether, I was out on disability five months.

Even beyond situations like that, you realize from time to time how much you internalize what you do. … When our kids were young, I’d be with them in a park or someplace, and I’d suddenly think to myself, This looks just like the stream they pulled those children’s bodies out of down in North Carolina.

So ultimately, I think, you just have to embrace life and realize there is more good than evil in the world. You have to maintain that perspective, you have to maintain a sense of humor, and you have to try to reassure the gift of every day.

Q) Mr. Olshaker: You keep returning to crime, but your expertise also lies in health. What sparked your interest in virus and disease to become actively involved to a level of national recognition and respect?

MARK) First of all, I come from a medical family. My late father was a pediatrician and then a psychiatrist who did a stint a St. Elizabeth’s mental hospital and taught part-time at the George Washington University Medical School for 50 years. Both of my brothers are doctors; one in emergency medicine and one in radiology. The radiologist’s wife is a gastroenterologist with a specialty in liver transplantation. So that all might have given me some background. But what I think made me so interested in the subject is that crime and disease have a lot in common. They are two great evils that plague the human race and both are wrapped in mystery. Shortly after the publication of “Mindhunter,” while John and I were getting ready to tackle “Journey Into Darkness,” I collaborated with Dr. C.J. Peters, a legendary epidemiologist with the Army and later Chief of Special Pathogens for CDC, on “Virus Hunter,” chronicling his exploits against mysterious and deadly diseases around the world. And I realized that what C.J. and John do are not too dissimilar from each other. Not to overdramatize it, but they are both detectives engaged in single combat against death and injury and pain, or as the docs call it, morbidity and mortality. These men are both specialists – when you have a case that you haven’t seen the likes of before, that is baffling and potentially deadly, these are the guys you want to call in.

Q) Mr. Olshaker: Your film work has covered history, architecture, science, medicine and drama. On the outside, Mark Olshaker appears to be a complicated, resourceful, driven man. How do you hope your family views him?

MARK) I suppose what I really hope is that they think of me as someone who is endlessly curious about just about everything. And I’ve been very fortunate in my career as a writer that I have been able to spend so much of my time “living other people’s lives” vicariously. I’m amazed and extremely grateful everyone time a fascinating man or woman lets me “tag along” on his or her career so I can get it right when I write about it. I am a huge fan of both theater and architecture, and have been privileged to be able to write about and produce films with some of the modern greats in each field. And as for history, I think that has to be the central discipline for any writer.

Addressing your three highly complimentary adjectives: I guess I am driven and I hope I’m resourceful. But as to “complicated,” once you get to know me, I think I’m fairly simple and straightforward.

Q) Lastly, do either of you have any parting comments for fans or those not familiar with your work?

JOHN) In some ways, “Law & Disorder” is a departure for us. Our previous books, from “Mindhunter” through “The Anatomy of Motive,” all had as a general theme the idea of catching the bad guys and delivering justice to victims and their families. “The Cases That Haunt Us” was kind of a transition, in that we were taking cold murder cases from Jack the Ripper to JonBenet Ramsey and trying, after you clear away all the myth and hype, to figure out what actually happened and didn’t happen.

When I was in the bureau and headed up the Investigative Support Group at Quantico, we were overwhelmed by case consultation requests and could only work for the police/prosecution side. Except for rare exceptions like David Vasquez in Virginia, we were not in the exoneration business. But when I retired and started getting consulting requests from both sides, I came to realize that profiling and the kind of behavior-based criminal investigative analysis we had developed was just as applicable in determining who had not committed a given crime as it was in determining who the actual perpetrator might have been. This caused me not only to agree to work for the defense in certain cases, but also to reflect on and re-evaluate a number of cases throughout my career. It’s difficult ever to admit you might have been wrong in a certain case, but if you have gained the insight and perspective to understand why you might have been wrong, that can be a very useful and enlightening experience. Why investigations and prosecutions go bad and what can be done differently is one of the main themes of “Law & Disorder.” It is really a cautionary tale of what happens when theory supersedes evidence and prejudice deposes rationalism.

DA Kentner is an award-winning author. Learn more on