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“Am I Getting Too Close to the Serial Killer I’m Tracking?” An Advice Column for TV Cops

Are you a TV cop who’s on the verge of blurring the lines between professional diligence and obsession? Then this column’s for you.

Ringer illustration

There might be more serial killers on TV than there are in real life right now. This is not a complaint—serial killers are as entertaining in fiction as they are abhorrent in real life. But alongside every great TV serial killer is the detective trying to stop them, and sometimes the only way to stop a murderous psychopath is to think like one. That’s frequently to said detectives’ detriment.

Most people who follow their true vocation in life—as opposed to a mindless 9-to-5—run the risk of obsessing over their job and lapsing into an unhealthy lack of work-life balance. I know I’ve laid awake at night unable to shake off a story I’m working on, and that impulse is deleterious enough for a writer. For someone who gets inside the minds of serial killers for a living, though, it can be downright dangerous.

Fortunately, I’m here to help, in the form of an advice column for TV cops who are on the verge of blurring the lines between professional diligence and obsession. Nowhere is that distinction more dangerously muddled than on Fox’s Prodigal Son, whose second season premieres Tuesday. With any luck, we’ll save some lives by saving these investigators from themselves.

On to the letters.

I’m a former FBI profiler and consultant to the Major Crimes unit of the NYPD. I’m also the son of a serial killer called the Surgeon. In fact, the officer who arrested my dad was the one who hired me after I got kicked out of the FBI. He thinks I’ll be able to work through my unprocessed trauma better if I keep busy, but we’ve been butting heads. I’ve also sought advice on certain cases from my father in prison, which has put a strain on my relationship with my mother and sister.

Since my dad and I reconnected, he’s admitted to attempting to kill me, I’ve stabbed him, and I think my father’s wealthy former associate had my girlfriend killed, but we’ll never get the whole story because my younger sister killed said former associate in front of me. Also I think my super-overbearing mom is in love with my boss. Is this a healthy environment for me, from an emotional perspective?

—Malcolm B., New York, Prodigal Son


First: Kudos for trying to deal with your trauma in a way that helps others. And if nothing else, it seems like you’re surrounded by people who care about you and want to support you, from your boss/surrogate father to your coworkers to your sister to, in her own way, your mother. In that respect, you’re quite lucky.

However, it does seem like your professional and personal lives are blending together in a way that’s unhealthy, not just for you, but for the people around you. I understand your desire for answers about your own childhood—a desire that must be extremely difficult to ignore, given your gifts as a detective—but so far those answers have led only to further suffering. Consider taking a step back from your relationship with your serial killer dad. Write letters instead of visiting in person. That distance may help you become more independent, and will hopefully stop your sister from slitting anyone else’s throat. It’s a long road to recovery, but I have faith in you.

I’m a Louisiana state trooper working a serial killer case. I’ve had a hard time connecting with people after the death of my young daughter, which led to the end of my marriage, and I’ve long struggled with an addiction to alcohol and hard drugs. In a previous job I killed at least four people in the line of duty and was committed to a mental hospital. During the course of this investigation, I went undercover without telling my superiors and took part in a gang robbery in order to kidnap a potential informant. I’m also having an affair with my partner’s wife. How can I establish a better work-life balance?

—Rust C., New Orleans, True Detective


It seems like your job is putting you under a lot of stress, and instead of dealing with that stress healthily, you’ve chosen to dive deeper into your work. I’d recommend asking for a transfer to a less demanding department, or leaving police work altogether, and diverting your attention toward a hobby. Maybe something outdoorsy that would force you to unplug mentally from the job. Otherwise it seems like you’re headed for burnout.

In the course of my work as the head of an FBI profiling team, I apprehended a man named George Foyet, otherwise known as the Boston Reaper, who’s killed more than 30 people. Foyet recently escaped police custody, broke into my home, stabbed me nine times, and stole a page from my address book that allowed him to track down my ex-wife and our son. (My wife left me because I was spending too much time at work.) Despite the FBI putting my ex and our son into witness protection, Foyet found them and killed her while I listened on the phone. I should pursue this case further, correct?

—Aaron H., Quantico, Virginia, Criminal Minds


It’s good that you wrote in when you did, because your personal drive to resolve this case is also preventing you from looking at it objectively. I would recommend you hand this case off to another profiler. If and when you do find the Reaper, I worry that your anger will cause you to do something that will jeopardize your own safety or the investigation. For instance, rather than taking Foyet alive, you might be tempted to beat him to death with your bare hands. Such an outcome is to be avoided if possible.

I’m a police investigator, recently seconded from London to Belfast to head an investigation into a serial killer there. The investigation itself was relatively straightforward, but my team lost a few people along the way. I had a one-night stand with one officer, who turned up dead soon after. Our forensic investigator quit after I propositioned her at a bar, and my supervisor recently resigned after I rebuffed his sexual advances. Another detective, the one I’m currently seeing, was shot by a man trying to kill our prime murder suspect. I think I’ve maintained an appropriate professional distance from the killer, but he became obsessed with me before his arrest and recently attacked me while I was interrogating him. Should I have done anything differently?

—Stella G., Belfast, Northern Ireland, The Fall


I think you did what it took to apprehend the killer, something no one else seemed capable of doing. You’re responsible only for your own actions, not his, so if you’re able to put this case behind you, I see no point in reliving it. In fact, it’s refreshing to see an investigator understand their subject without becoming obsessive.

However, and I say this knowing Belfast isn’t that big a town, I’d recommend not sleeping with your subordinates in the future. Does the phrase “Don’t shit where you eat” not exist in the U.K.? It seems your issues with work-life balance have nothing to do with the killers you investigate, but instead with your coworkers. Try to keep your office trysts to a minimum going forward.

I’m a forensic criminologist who works from home. Three years ago, I was paralyzed from the neck down while in pursuit of a serial killer called the Bone Collector. In addition to adapting to life as a tetraplegic, I admit I’ve struggled with my failure to catch the Bone Collector despite coming so tantalizingly close. The good news is, I’ve managed to recruit a team of forensic scientists to build me a state-of-the-art computer rig that allows me to continue working. I’ve also recently befriended a rookie NYPD officer and convinced her to wear a camera and radio into the field so I can see and hear whatever she sees and hears. It’s the next-best thing to being on active duty!

—Lincoln R., New York, Lincoln Rhyme: Hunt for the Bone Collector


It seems you’re so convinced that what you’re doing is healthy that you forgot to ask a question. It’s OK, this isn’t Jeopardy! I’m very happy to hear that you’re living a purposeful and productive life after your injury. However, it might be time to put your intelligence and ingenuity to work on another project, as your continued pursuit of the Bone Collector speaks to a void that—I fear—may not be filled if you catch your nemesis. Also, leave that poor NYPD officer alone. She’s not your puppet.

I’m a blood spatter expert with the Miami Police Department. I, myself, am a serial killer.

—Dexter M., Miami, Dexter


Umm … I’m not even sure what to do with this. Stop being a serial killer, man.

I’m one of the founders of a new FBI unit that studies serial killers. It’s a small group, but I’m enjoying working with my new colleagues. However, I find I have the strongest connection with our interview subjects. No one else seems to understand. My girlfriend recently left me, and I’ve come under professional scrutiny for my interview techniques. I’m thinking about flying out to California alone to see one killer I’ve developed a good rapport with. Should I continue to pursue this friendship?

—Holden F., Quantico, Virginia, Mindhunter


Your work seems fascinating, and extremely useful. In order to prevent crime, we must understand its causes, and your willingness to examine those causes is commendable. However, it’s important to remember that these killers are research subjects, not your friends. Not just because these are largely extremely dangerous men you’re studying, but also because professionalism demands a certain distance. Your friends and coworkers are right to be concerned. Consider their advice and take it to heart.

I hope all TV cops have learned a valuable lesson about the importance of setting professional boundaries. Serial killers must be caught, but professional objectivity can be the difference between life and death.