Interview with Professor Elspeth Grant
Professor Elspeth Grant is one of our most distinguished criminologists, frequently assisting the police as a profiler. She is also a senior academic and Research Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford. She has more doctorates than I have had wives.
I first met her at a conference in Los Angeles where she gave a brilliant lecture on body language, something the FBI had been developing for years. To come to America and teach the FBI a thing or two was both audacious and somewhat brave - characteristics for which Elspeth Grant is famous back in the UK. She is also eccentric, feisty and forthright in her views.
It was, therefore, with some trepidation that I grabbed her during a coffee break and introduced myself. Since we were both graduates of Wadham College, Oxford the ice was soon broken. So you see, an expensive education at the best University on the planet does have its advantages after all!
Elspeth Grant is short, somewhat stout and with long brown hair that she usually wears in a tight chignon, held in place by an ornate comb. She must be fifty-something although I did not have the nerve (then or subsequently) to inquire any closer. Despite the heat that August morning, she was dressed in Scottish tweeds and sensible shoes - as if she planned to walk back to her hotel. Walking in LA is an offense so I hope that that was not her plan!
Anyway, she agreed to meet up with me in Oxford later that month and it was in her rooms at All Souls College that I finally had a chance to properly interview one of the greatest profilers police forces all over the world have had the good fortune to employ.
All Souls College (right), Oxford
At least we have one attribute in common!
I began (glass in hand - Elspeth loves fine red wine) by asking her how she got into the murky waters of hunting down serial-killers and other criminally deranged individuals.
EG. ‘Curiosity, mainly. The criminally insane are hugely entertaining. Mind you, its notoriously difficult to tell what the bastards are planning to do next, even if you are an experienced profiler. Hence the challenge. I read law at Wadham but soon got bored. Lawyers can be very pompous and I did not want to turn into some smug QC earning millions. So I switched to psychology, specializing in the criminal mind. The rest, as they say, is history!’
MH. ‘But what makes a good profiler? Experience? Instinct?’
EG. ‘Both, plus a huge amount of luck. You guys in the press only get to hear about our celebrated victories, not the ones that get away. It’s also a deadly game in which you try to think like a criminal. Get inside their heads. The danger, of course, is that if you get too close they get inside yours! Remember Hannibal Lector? He may be fictional but the really dangerous bastards can screw you too if you let them get too near.’
MH. ‘Has that ever happened to you?’
EG. ‘Yes. James Ledbetter, Scotland’s most celebrated serial-killer, was an extremely dangerous individual. He actually enjoyed mutilating his victims. I think on that case I got too close and at times lost sight of the ‘big picture’. Getting close is essential but you must always retain the ability to step back and look objectively at your subject. Dennis Nilsen was another, although I only read about his case. His acts of butchery were so horrendous that at first the police were incredulous and that slowed down their investigation. Had I been on that case, with the knowledge that I have now, I could have told them that there were many other bodies in that flat.’
MH. What are you working on at the moment?
EG. ‘Ah, now that would be telling! Come back in a few months time, once the trial is over and I will tell you. One interesting case, though, that I covered recently involved poison-pen letters. Not your most sensational crime perhaps but fascinating in itself.’
MH. ‘Sounds like one for ‘Miss Marple’!’
EG. ‘Quite. It began with an entire village in Cumbria receiving poison-pen letters, each of which was a prelude to blackmail. Being British, of course, no one told anyone else - until, that is, a farmer hanged himself. The police found a letter in his pocket accusing him of deliberately exposing his cattle to others known to have foot--and-mouth. His motive was to get compensation, like many of his ‘get rich quick’ neighbors.’
MH. ‘What happened then?’
EG. Following his death, the local Catholic priest stepped forward. He knew everything because each of his parishioners had confessed to him and told him all about the letters they had each received. Although his vows forbade him to reveal anything said in the confessional, the death of the farmer proved too much for his conscience. The police then broadened their investigation and gathered together all the letters. There were twenty-three in all, some typed and some hand-written but all quite different. It was then that I was called in.’
MH. ‘Do you mean that there was more than one person writing these letters?’
EG. ‘Well, that’s what the police believed. I disagreed. To begin with, each letter revealed a complete lack of DNA - by anyone. That in itself was suspicious. Close examination of the letters also showed me that although each was typed on a different typewriter or hand-written with a different pen and in a completely different writing style, what they had in common was their syntax. Its like a writer’s DNA. Choice of words, grammar or sentence construction is unique to each of us. That’s why scholars can tell if a text is in Shakespeare’s hand or that of some other, near contemporary writer. I proved that there was only one person at work.’
MH. ‘So it was blackmail then?’
EG. ‘On the contrary. It was murder!’
EG. ‘Yes. The poison-pen letters were a very clever ‘smoke-screen’ to make it look as if the farmer, faced with exposure, had killed himself. His murderer had therefore made it look as if he had hanged himself because of the incriminating letter found in his pocket.
MH. ‘But who did it? Who was the murderer?‘
EG. ‘He turned out to be a neighbor - who had also sent himself a letter! It seems that he had held some long-standing grudge, now culminating in murder. He nearly got away with it - had I not intervened. Forensic then took a closer look at the victim and discovered traces of some sedative in his body. Clearly the murderer had fist drugged his victim then strung him up in the barn. When the poor man came to he found himself hanging by the neck, his hands tied behind his back. By which time it was too late. Once dead, the murderer untied his victim’s hands and slipped away into the night. Clever, eh?’
To be continued….