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Interview: February 26, 2010

February 26, 2010

Gregg Olsen's latest stand-alone thriller, VICTIM SIX, centers on a seemingly unpatterned string of murders that occur around Washington's Puget Sound. In this interview with's Joe Hartlaub, Olsen provides a bit of insight into the minds of serial killers regarding the "proximity zones" and unwritten "rules" of their crimes, and describes some of the hands-on research he performed to accurately portray elements of the plot and setting. He also discusses some recent advancements made in the field of forensic science, reflects on the difficulties of working on several writing projects at once, and shares his thoughts on two of the most high-profile and influential true crime stories in recent years. VICTIM SIX, your latest novel, concerns a serial killer named “The Cutter” who may be your most chilling creation to date. One of the elements that makes The Cutter so frightening is his unpredictability when choosing his victims. The Cutter himself notes that there are five rules for a serial killer and proceeds to list them. How did you compile these five rules? In your experience, do killers of this type generally follow them, or are the deviations in behavior of this class of people too wide to achieve a consensus?

Gregg Olsen: Of course, we can never know if a serial killer has really compiled or used any of the rules that Sam Castile creates in VICTIM SIX, but considering that violating those tenets have often led to the arrest of a number of serial killers, maybe they should. For the list of rules, I simply considered the most famous cases and what led to the killer’s undoing. I wondered if a serial killer had sat down to figure it out --- or did they only act on compulsion or obsession? One thing that made me think it was possible was the cache of true crime books that have been frequently found in the possession of some serial and spree killers. Maybe they were studying up?

BRC: On a related note, there seems to be some disagreement in the academic community regarding the so-called “proximity zones” of serial killers. Some researchers hold that serial killers operate best within a comfort or proximity zone and risk getting caught once they leave that area. Another view is that such individuals can somewhat easily move and pick up where they left off. What is your opinion, based upon your own research?

GO: I agree that serial killers who have been most prolific find a sinister rhythm and repeat their actions over and over. That often means clusters of bodies in remote areas. They return to the place where they feel safe and can remain undetected. Ted Bundy is a perfect example. Once he deviated from the pattern, he spun out of control, took more and more risks. He killed in Colorado and Florida, but never with the tragic success of what he’d done when he followed the “rules” in Washington.

BRC: VICTIM SIX is set around Puget Sound, in and near Port Orchard, Washington, in Kitsap County. How closely does the Kitsap County in VICTIM SIX mirror the real world? Would someone living or visiting the area be able to do a “Cutter tour,” if you will, from your book, or did you exercise some degree of artistic license when describing the area?

GO: Funny that you should ask. One of our local booksellers suggested doing a scavenger hunt or some kind of event tied to the very real locations described in VICTIM SIX. So yes, those who read the book could do a Kitsap Cutter Tour. Go seven miles from Port Orchard, drive down Banner Road, look for body part…

BRC: The first victim is Celesta Delgado, a field worker who is employed part time in the “greens” industry. I was basically unaware of this industry until reading the book; it gave me a new appreciation for the greenery in floral arrangements that I had heretofore pretty much taken for granted. How did the Delgado character evolve into the first victim? And how did the greens industry figure into the creation of your character?

GO: When we first moved to Kitsap County from the Seattle side of Puget Sound, we met with the school principal at the elementary school to learn more about the community. He told us that a lot of the students were Navy kids --- not surprising since we are close to a Navy shipyard and submarine base. He also said a number of families worked in the brush industry. My wife and I thought that he meant there was a paintbrush or hairbrush factory nearby. We quickly learned that he was actually referring to the floral greens industry. Locals around here are responsible for so much of what is used as filler in flower arrangements. We’ve seen the pickers --- and seen the signs posted that tell them they aren’t welcome in certain locations. I interviewed the sheriff about the industry. I even cut salal and huckleberry to see how easy or hard it might be to do. Celesta isn’t a real person, but I had no problem imagining her job or how she might feel about it. Every time I pass the floral department in Safeway, I think of people like Celesta. I’ve heard from other readers who had no idea about the pickers who work in the woods. I’m glad I could share that in VICTIM SIX.

BRC: Kitsap County Sheriff’s Detective Kendall Stark is tasked as the primary investigator into the disappearances and murders that take place in VICTIM SIX. Stark and her husband must also deal with their son’s autism, the severity of which prevents him from attending mainstream school classes. Your novel presents a very true-to-life picture of a person with autism and the issues that their caregivers face. Were you familiar with these issues regarding autism before you began writing the book, or did you need to do research on this topic?

GO: I don’t personally know anyone who has gone through the heartache and frustration that surely must come from raising a son or daughter with autism. So yes, I had to dig into research to create that challenge for Kendall and Steven Stark. As a true crime writer, I know that research is the key. Research is not clicking away on the Internet either. You have to talk to people to understand the nuances of what they’re going through.

BRC: Margo Titus, a forensic artist whose work figures prominently in identifying one of the victims in VICTIM SIX, appears only briefly but is one of the most interesting characters in the book. Forensic artists do extremely important work in criminal investigations, not only by bringing criminals to justice but also by bringing closure to the families of missing victims. In your opinion, who is currently the foremost forensic artist in the United States?

GO: There are so many great artists working in the field that it is hard to single out anyone. I thought the age progression photos created of Jaycee Dugard were astonishingly accurate --- especially considering that no one had seen the girl for 18 years. The work was done by artists associated with The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, an organization that routinely provides the public with accurate depictions of those who’ve gone missing.

BRC: In VICTIM SIX, the identity of The Cutter is discovered using a combination of forensic tools, detective work and deduction. What, in your opinion, is the most important forensic discovery of the past five years as far as criminal investigation is concerned? And what new forensic tool or instrument would you like to see developed?

GO: I think all of us appreciate the advances made with DNA recovery from old and even very degraded samples. Each year we get better and better, and more cold cases become solved. Every now and then we hear the story of someone falsely imprisoned who has been exonerated by science that was not possible even five years ago. What forensic tool would I like developed? Sure wish they could come up with a BS meter as we know that witness statements are often contrived, incorrect, and subject to all sorts of problems. Science is great, but what convicts most people is what the witnesses say happened --- or what the defendant told them. Nothing is more powerful than the story that the prosecutors offer to the jury. Juries love a story.

BRC: 2010 is going to be a big year for you given that you will have two books --- VICTIM SIX and a new true crime book --- published. What, if anything, did you do differently in terms of adjusting your writing schedule to accommodate the research and writing of two very different works at once?

GO: While I know many writers who can juggle multiple projects with the greatest of ease, I did find dueling crime stories --- fiction and nonfiction --- to be quite a challenge. A TWISTED FAITH took its sweet time from start to finish (about a four-year project). In between interviews and writing for that project (the story of a minister convicted of killing his wife), I wrote three novels. Whew! Tell me not to do that again!

BRC: VICTIM SIX contains an excerpt from your next novel, which looks as if it might be just a bit different from your past books. What would you care to tell us about this?

GO: I don’t like to offer up any spoilers, so suffice to say that the new book is more psychological than grisly. Not that there’s anything wrong with grisly.

BRC: What have you read in the past six months that you would recommend to our readers?

GO: I read a mix of true crime, history, and of course, mysteries and thrillers. I enjoyed Gregory Funaro’s debut, THE SCULPTOR, very much. I also found a lot to like about M. William Phelps's latest true crime, DEATH TRAP. Phelps gets better and better with each book. I also enjoyed FLAWLESS by Scott Selby and Greg Campbell --- a dazzling book about a diamond heist that reads like a thriller. That sounds a bit like a blurb, doesn’t it?

BRC: What in your opinion was the most interesting true crime story of 2009? Of the past decade?

GO: I’m fascinated by the Jaycee Dugard case. The whole idea of being lost --- stolen, really --- and then found draws me in like no other tale. I’m sure there will be more than one book on that case. The most important case of the past decade still resonates with every one of us who sends a child to school. Of course, I’m thinking of Columbine. After that shooting, everything changed for all of us. Dave Cullen’s book, COLUMBINE, is outstanding as it lays out the tragedy and the heartache --- along with a dose of understanding of how that crime occurred.

BRC: If you could write about anything BUT serial killers, what would you write a novel about?

GO: Some day I’d like to try my hand at a whodunit --- a single killer, a single murder. I think that would be a fun challenge. VICTIM ONE, maybe?

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