October 20, 2015

The Science and Voodoo of Profiling Killers: an interview with Michael Ransom, author of "The Ripper Gene"

A neuroscientist-turned-FBI-profiler discovers a genetic signature that produces psychopaths in The Ripper Gene, a thrilling debut novel from Michael Ransom.

Dr. Lucas Madden is a neuroscientist-turned-FBI profiler who first gained global recognition for cloning the ripper gene and showing its dysfunction in the brains of psychopaths. Later, as an FBI profiler, Madden achieved further notoriety by sequencing the DNA of the world's most notorious serial killers and proposing a controversial "damnation algorithm" that could predict serial killer behavior using DNA alone.

Now, a new murderer-the Snow White Killer-is terrorizing women in the Mississippi Delta. When Mara Bliss, Madden's former fiancée, is kidnapped, he must track down a killer who is always two steps ahead of him. Only by entering the killer's mind will Madden ultimately understand the twisted and terrifying rationale behind the murders-and have a chance at ending the psychopath's reign of terror.

Gef: What was the impetus behind The Ripper Gene?

Michael: This won’t be the answer you expect, but the real impetus behind this novel was actually a request from the former editor at Time Warner’s Mysterious Press, Ms. Sarah Ann Freed.  A long time ago I’d written a biomedical thriller which she really liked, and for a time it looked like we’d get a deal with her.  But over lunch one day she told me that she’d ultimately decided that it wasn’t quite their style.  That said, she made an informal deal with me- she told me if I would go back and write a bona fide mystery that 1) was in line with what she was publishing and 2) lived up to the first thriller I’d written, then she’d buy both of my first two novels.  Unfortunately she passed away before I finished The Ripper Gene.  But, she was a kind, generous person and she was the reason (the impetus) I tried to tackle the mystery genre.  I did, and fell in love with it.

Gef: What was one of the big eye-openers for you in the research of this novel?

Michael: Such a great question because there were so many.  The three main topics I had to research for this novel were: 1) the neurogenetics of antisocial behavior, 2) FBI profilers, and 3) serial killers.  Some of the more terrifying eye-openers undoubtedly came from my research into the methods and minds of the serial killers.  But the biggest eye-opener was probably the uncanny ability of FBI behavioral profilers to accurately predict so many characteristics of killers-at-large based only on their analysis of the crime scenes, the victimology and their empiric understanding of previous cases.  It’s definitely one of those pursuits that is part-voodoo, part science. Amazing stuff.  

Gef: With nature vs. nurture in regards to serial killers, I assume you lean towards the former?  

Michael: Well, I’m convinced that there is a biological basis for antisocial behavior: dozens of well-controlled, sufficiently powered genetic studies prove this, in my estimation.  However, I don’t believe “nature” is the major driver. I actually believe that nurture is probably the more important determinant, even if only by a narrow margin.  It’s important to note that neither one (nature or nurture) by itself is often a terribly strong predictor of outcome- rather, recent studies are essentially confirming what we’ve suspected for a long time ... that it's the interaction between nature and nurture that is important.  Nature and nurture can lead to catastrophic synergies when both predispose an individual to violence (‘bad’ genes in the context of a ‘bad’ or non-nurturing environment).  In other cases, however, they may be able to cancel the effects of each other when they’re opposed (‘bad’ genes negated by a ‘good’ environment, or vice versa).

And of course, it’s always the exception to the rule that fascinates us… the individual with perfectly sound genetics and a loving, caring up-bringing throughout childhood…who still nonetheless goes on to become a serial killer obsessed with cannibalizing their victims’ body parts…it’s typically the exceptions to the rule that grab our attention.

Gef: Different fields in law enforcement benefit from advances in technology. Did you find out about any particular advancements in how FBI profilers do their work nowadays as opposed to decades past?

Michael: Definitely.  ViCAP is a good example.  Nowadays, FBI and law enforcement use the Violent Criminals Apprehension Program to enter data about crimes across the country so that officers in other locales, regions or even states can search the characteristics of their local crimes and determine if they match an M.O. for cases in other states.  This often helps identify clues that help them break the cases.  There was no such tool in the old days…in fact it was a predecessor group to today’s BAU in the FBI that identified this need and proposed its use. 

Gef: With a novel like this, do you think the first person perspective offers a more immersive experience compared to if you had written it in a third-person style?

Michael: Absolutely.  As soon as I decided to write a mystery, I decided to write it in first person.  One of the reasons to do that was exactly as you say- because it's more immersive in terms of getting into the mind of the FBI profiler…but I think it's importantly immersive in another way too.  I like writing a novel in the first person because as the story proceeds, the reader only knows exactly as much as the narrator knows.  That makes for high tension and page-turning drama.  The mystery stays a mystery until the narrator figures it out.  I love that about first person mysteries.

Gef: How much emphasis do you place on setting as character?

Michael: I don’t overdo it, so I don’t put setting on the same importance level as the major characters in my novel, for instance.  I think characters are more important.  But setting is extremely critical nonetheless.  It helps set the mood.  I wanted The Ripper Gene to be instantly recognizable as a dark novel, and I wanted people picking it up to browse the Prologue to understand that this wasn’t a walk in the park or a biomedical thriller that takes place in the day time.  Rather, this was a serial killer thriller and mystery that has an edge and most of the action takes place in the dark, unlit areas of the human soul.  In this case, setting the beginning of the book on Halloween night in the back country gravel roads of the swamps and swampy wetland forests of rural Mississippi in the pitch black night served that purpose well.  

Gef: Who do you count among your writing influences?

Michael: I admire Michael Crichton for his ability to take cutting-edge science and ask “what if?”.  I admire Robin Cook and (the late) Michael Palmer for their ability to weave science and medicine into their stories.  I admire Thomas Harris and Patricia Cornwell for their ability to write FBI thrillers, and Michael Connelly for his ability to write compelling mysteries.  I admire Stephen King for his ability to pick you up and put you in the scene.  And just lately, I’ve begun to admire Harlan Coben for the way he just completely controls the first person narrative and makes it so authentic.  They’re all major influences on me. 

Gef: What's the worst piece of writing advice you ever received? Or what piece of writing advice do you wish would just go away?

Michael: Well this is a very subjective thing but one of the worst pieces of wiring advice I personally ever received was to create detailed character sketches for all the charters in your novel prior to starting to write it.  I tried to do that before I began writing my novel and found it to be the most ridiculous exercise.  I didn’t know half the things I was forcing myself to guess or make up about those characters, and I would rather discover these details as the characters come onstage and endure.  So the recommendation to create complete character sketches prior to writing my novels was probably the worst piece of advice I ever received.  It may work for some, but definitely not for me.

Gef: What kind of guilty pleasures do you have when it comes to books or movies or whatnot?

Michael: Video games and horror movies. I’m a video game fanatic. I even review video games from time to time.  I’m so addicted to them that I have to use them as a reward system.  I don’t permit myself to play them unless I’ve written the minimum number of target words that day.  I also really love horror films that truly scare or unsettle me.  My brother and I will text each other whenever we stumble upon a good one.  It Follows was excellent this year, and I was surprised by Daylight as well.  I love finding a good horror film…which reminds me…did I mention that I’d love to see The Ripper Gene made into a movie? 

Gef: What projects are you cooking up that folks can expect in the near future, and how can folks keep up with your shenanigans?

(c) Frankie Corrado Photography
Michael: Folks can keep up with me by following me on Twitter, Goodreads or Facebook but the best way is probably at my author website www.michaelransombooks.com.  I like to work on multiple projects in parallel but will soon have to focus on only one.  For now, I’m working on three projects: 1) a biomedical thriller about a graduate student from Penn who discovers something he’s not supposed to find, 2) a biomedical mystery tentatively entitled Mythological Genomics, Inc., 3) and a follow-up to The Ripper Gene.  Looks like #3 is going to rise to the top!

The Ripper Gene [Forge Books / Macmillan] is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million and in brick-and-mortar bookstores across North America.

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