Although I mainly read fictional thrillers and mysteries, I’m also intrigued by the science behind the criminal mind and the psychology of the psychopath. So two non-fiction titles recently grabbed my attention. One turned out to be an excellent social/political study (if only loosely related to actual psychopathy) while the other was utter trash. I rarely mention books which don’t make the grade, but this one is so particularly awful (and I bought it in paper form, dammit) that I’ll try to save you the pain.
There are damn good reasons why I don’t read much true crime, and they’re summed up in this penny dreadful. Talking With Psychopaths is badly written, self-aggrandising, tabloid-style tripe which delivers zero insight about the mind of murderers, but instead exploits nasty titillating trivia in a truly distasteful form of murder-porn. Ugh. I bought it to read on a train. Half an hour into the journey I was thinking of pulling the emergency cord to make it all end…
At the other extreme, The Psychopath Epidemic is an extremely detailed discourse which provided hours of thought-provoking information and opinion. The author has effectively glued together two different discussions; one in-depth analysis of all that’s wrong with the modern world, and a more lightweight review of how psychopaths may be pulling the strings. The author’s basic argument is that only a psychopath would behave as badly as world leaders / corporate bosses / religious gurus do, so therefore all the people whose actions you don’t like must therefore be psychopaths.
It’s a neat piece of circular logic although I’m not sure it holds up to close scrutiny. It’s a bit like saying everyone is somewhere on the autism spectrum: that may be true, but it doesn’t actually advance matters. It just gives everyone a nice new label.
You can actually ditch the entire psychopath angle to this book, and then you’re left with a lengthy sociological deconstruction of the ills of civilisation. The author hammers almost every aspect of the establishment – religious organisations which condone child abuse; rapacious corporations which pursue profit at any cost; self-interested, self-sustaining governments; massive military influence which skews entire economies – all of which makes for sobering reading.
This is a scholarly piece of work, stuffed full of references to historical and modern philosophy, social observation and economics. Parts of it get a bit bogged down in extended extracts and at times it’s a bit like being lectured by an outraged teenager who just understood that life ain’t fair.
Yet many of the author’s observations have the uncomfortable ring of truth about them, not least the manipulation of the masses by the few. The chapter about Donald Trump’s tactic of providing ‘bright shiny things’ to distract us is particularly apposite.
Perhaps the best section is the final summing up, where the author offers practical advice for coping with those psychopaths we may encounter in daily life. His tactics are pretty straightforward: behave decently yourself, and don’t let other people get away with behaving badly. But you’ll have to read the rest of the book to understand more of the why and how of it all.
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
The Psychopath Epidemic by Cameron Reilly is available at Amazon