‘ShadowMan’ by Ron Franscell: Further reading for ‘Mindhunter’ fans

Our ShadowMan book review discusses Ron Franscell’s detailed account of a Montana killer and the subsequent birth of FBI profiling.

Like many of us, I’ve always been interested in how a killer’s mind operates. Shows like Criminal Minds, CSI, and NCIS were staples of my teenage years, and I was obviously not the only one watching them.

The various spin-offs and myriad of other shows detailing how criminals think and behave proved this genre wasn’t going away any time soon. Bones. Hannibal. Killing Eve. They all had their unique take.

When Mindhunter hit Netflix, I was intrigued by the concept because I didn’t know much about the birth of psychological profiling. Even if it wasn’t an exact account of how the Behaviorial Science Unit came about within the FBI, my previous interests told me this was a show I’d enjoy.

And I did enjoy it. Even an unfulfilling Mindhunter season 2 didn’t put me off. Then we found out season 3 was on hold indefinitely (not cancelled, but not exactly moving into production, either), and I was devastated.

A little over a year ago, I picked up The Killer Across the Table by John Douglas and Mark Olshaker. It scratched that itch I’d felt from the absence of Mindhunter and got me even more interested in learning about the origins of the FBI’s psychological profiling unit and the agents who had founded it.

Enter ShadowMan by Ron Franscell, the subtitle of which literally reads, “An elusive psycho killer and the birth of FBI profiling.” I knew I had to check it out.

This ShadowMan book review isn’t like most of the others I write for Subjectify. I don’t usually cover a ton of non-fiction, and when I do, it’s typically centered on fandom or celebrities. But I felt that those missing Mindhunter would appreciate learning about this book’s existence if they wanted a little further reading.

In the past, I’ve struggled with my fascination for the macabre. The cases explored in documentaries or fictional movies and shows based on real events have affected real people. They had real and deadly consequences. And we should remember that.

Sometimes, it feels like the internet has become numb to the tragedy that has occurred in our collective past and which still occurs to this day. There are people who joke—genuinely, truthfully, unabashedly—about how hot Ted Bundy was. And this was even before Zac Efron stepped into the killer’s shoes for Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile.

Serial killers had groupies then, and they still have them now. The internet has not abated our fascination for these stories; it’s done the opposite. Human nature nudges us to learn more, to want to understand how people can be so twisted. It’s cruel to take it a step beyond that into infatuation, and yet that seems to be part of our nature, too. At least according to TikTok.

These are simply errant thoughts that I have floating around my head on an almost daily basis. It’s what I was contemplating as I cracked open this book, and it’s how I’ve chosen to step into this ShadowMan book review.

shadowman book review

Truth be told, Ron Franscell does his duty as a storyteller to paint a picture of these crimes and the subsequent fallout. At times, the book does read like a novel—he describes the weather, placing you squarely in Montana in the seventies. He depicts towns like he’s lived there his whole life. He talks about body language and dialogue as if he were recounting his own memories.

In fact, he’s simply done his research. Painstakingly so. In the back of the book, he describes the number of interviews he’s conducted, the transcripts he’s read, the news reports he’s watched. He might paint a picture to weave a story, but everything in ShadowMan comes from first-hand accounts.

This isn’t Ron Franscell’s first rodeo. He is a journalist, a novelist, and a true-crime writer, after all. But I feel like even the most seasoned writers must work against sensationalizing the news. We see it all the time on TV. It’s what sells.

But ShadowMan is as much about the crime as it is about catching the killer. We also learn about the killer’s victims as well as their families. And not just while the events were unfolding, but how the legacy of this tragedy has affected them to this day. Of particular note is how Franscell highlights Marietta Jaeger’s strength and the role she played in catching the killer of her seven-year-old daughter, Susie.

It takes several chapters to reveal the murderer’s identity, and by then, we’ve already seen them through the eyes of their fellow townspeople. It turns them into a real person from a real place who did awful things to people who thought they were one of their peers.

What interested me most, and what I wanted to talk about as an anchor to my ShadowMan book review, is the FBI’s involvement in catching this serial killer during a time when that term hadn’t even been coined yet.

It’s fascinating to see two men—Patrick Mullany and Howard Tetan—look at the facts of a case and build a psychological profile for the type of person who would commit such heinous crimes. Even more fascinating is watching them be proven right time and time again.

Franscell makes a point at the end of the book to say some aspects of the profile were incorrect, and while this may be true, the agents’ budding expertise pushed both the local cops and their fellow investigators to keep digging until they caught the killer.

And as we all know, the BSU has honed its skills over the years as its agents collected more data and gained more experience. Not everyone falls into neat little categories—least of all psychopaths—but it’s interesting to see what aspects of their personality and behavior connect them to one another. That is, after all, how we will learn to catch them.

We might never get a Mindhunter season 3, but ShadowMan will at least fill that void for now.

‘ShadowMan’ hit store shelves on March 1, 2022

Buy ShadowMan by Ron Franscell from Penguin Random House, Bookshop.org, Book Depository, or Amazon. You can also add it to your Goodreads list.

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