Shadowman: An Elusive Psycho Killer and the Birth of FBI Profilingby Ron Franscell (Berkley Books 2022) was an expertly paced and thoroughly researched true crime book about a strange and tragic series of crimes and the early days of FBI profiling that had me on the edge of my seat until the very end.
Franscell’s new book recounts the disappearance of a seven-year-old girl. Taken in the night from her family’s campsite near the tiny town of Manhattan, Montana in 1973, an unknown individual slit open the tent where Susie Jaeger slept with her family and pulled her out, vanishing before anyone woke. With no witnesses and no leads, the local police and FBI began the largest manhunt in Montana’s history as the searched for the little girl and her abductor. As time goes on with no sign of Susie, Special Agent Pete Dunbar seeks out the help of psychologist Patrick Mullany and criminologist Howard Teten at the FBI Headquarters in Virginia. The two men had recently created the Behavioural Science Unit, and Dunbar was willing to try anything, including the newfangled science ‘criminal profiling’ to find Susie.
What sets this true crime book apart is its atmospheric setting and pacing. The sleepy town on Manhattan, Montana provides a vivid backdrop against which this unbelievable story takes place. Franscell does an excellent job of painting a portrait of this town’s character and daily life, which makes it all the more jarring when an unknown assailant disrupts the lives of every resident with their crimes. FBI Agent Pete Dunbar’s suspect pool seems endless, as neighbours and friends alternately begin to suspect and report each other. Even so, one name keeps appearing on his desk, even as his gut tells him the suspect, the son of a well-known businessman, couldn’t be connected with the crime.
This novel had an expertly crafted structure, with a pace that was both maddening and suspenseful. Franscell is extremely skilled at placing breadcrumbs throughout his narrative. He moves quickly through events and crimes that initially seem unconnected, and then brings everything together at the end in a shocking conclusion. There is a back-and-forth quality in the text in relation to the main suspect; like Pete Dunbar, while I was reading, I was alternately convinced of the suspect’s guilt and then positive it couldn’t have been him. I couldn’t even imagine how Franscell would tie everything together, and yet somehow, he did. This book contained a twist in every chapter. In part, that is the nature of this case; this crime leads nowhere you might expect, but Franscell must be credited with his careful structure and pacing because it really underscored the importance of presenting the facts of a case in the right way in true crime writing.
Oddly, although this text’s subtitle underscores the birth of FBI profiling as a key feature of the narrative, I didn’t find myself overly interested in that aspect.. Certainly, the case could not have been solved without the extra push from Agents Mullany and Teten and their profile, but this case alone is so complex and intense that I was hooked from the opening chapter. Furthermore, Franscell treats his subject with a great degree of authorial distance; his own perspective and authorial voice does not enter into the narrative. Instead, Franscell is careful to present the thoughts and opinions (based on extensive records and interviews) of the people involved in the case as they actually were, for better or for worse. One of his most poignant portrayals is of Marietta Jaeger, Susie’s mother, who never stopped advocating for her daughter and against the death penalty for even the worst of criminals. His portrait of her develops across the book; from a crusading mother who kept her daughter’s killer on the phone for hours in order to catch him, to a woman who became a public advocate against capital punishment, and finally to an elderly woman in her eighties in a nursing home, having kept her daughter’s memory alive for decades, is especially powerful.
Shadowman is a fascinating and thorough look into small-town America and the dangerous consequences of one individual’s violent impulses. I really recommend this book to those interested in traditional true crime written with a great degree of authorial distance.
Please add Shadowman to your Goodreads shelf.
About the Writer:
Rachel M. Friars (she/her) is a PhD student in the Department of English Language and Literature at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. She holds a BA and an MA in English Literature with a focus on neo-Victorianism and adaptations of Jane Eyre. Her current work centers on neo-Victorianism and nineteenth-century lesbian literature and history, with secondary research interests in life writing, historical fiction, true crime, popular culture, and the Gothic. Her academic writing has been published with Palgrave Macmillan and in The Journal of Neo-Victorian Studies. She is a reviewer for The Lesbrary, the co-creator of True Crime Index, and an Associate Editor and Social Media Coordinator for PopMeC Research Collective. Rachel is co-editor-in-chief of the international literary journal, The Lamp, and regularly publishes her own short fiction and poetry. Find her on Twitter and Goodreads.
A digital copy of this book was graciously provided to True Crime Index from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.