Review: Catch Me a Killer, Micki Pistorius

catch-me-a-killer An insightful profile of South Africa’s leading Profiler

Every crime writer needs his or her good sources, and this is one of those autobiographies by a top forensic profiler which is invaluable, particularly when you’re writing about serial killers in South Africa. The political and social landscape of that country are unique, and it is terrifying to see the kind of violence which that country’s apartheid history bred. When Micki first came to work for the police, South Africa had over twenty serial killers on the loose – if I’m not mistaken. For a country that’s smaller than Texas, that was a shockingly high number. Lucky for the rest of us, she became a big cog in the large engine that brought the situation under relative control.

If the rumour mill amongst some of the forensic people I’ve spoken to is to be believed, South Africa is now one of the most effective countries in apprehending serial killers. Its small size helps – serial killers can’t make a run for it as they can in, say, the vast expanse of the USA, but it also helps having one police force, and a tight communication network within it, which now understands profiling, and no longer treat this art as witchcraft.

This is Micki Pistorius’s much acclaimed autobiography as an investigative psychologist with the South African police service. It documents her involvement in the country’s most notorious serial killing investigations, and offers an excellent behind-the-scenes account of how, amongst others, Moses Sithole, the Saloon Killer, the Phoenix Killer and the Station Strangler were captured. Concurrent with the story of the killers and killings, Micki allows us a glimpse of her professional development, and the many hurdles she faced in the police service, particularly in the company of hardened and distrustful detectives from the various Murder and Robbery Units in South Africa.

Her biography is a raw story, nothing like the clean-cut profilers on television. She is a brave woman who faced things better left unsaid, and paid a hefty Faustian price for her success. It is a pity that for all her honesty about the killings and the murderers – even some aspects of her personal life – I was left feeling that I still did not know much about this remarkable woman. But then, she certainly deserves some privacy after such gruelling and taxing work.

A great big thumbs up for her meticulous and descriptive accounts of South African serial killers and the police work that went into catching them. Readers of crime fiction and students of psychology and criminology alike will gain a lot from reading this book. – Penguin


7 Responses to “Review: Catch Me a Killer, Micki Pistorius”

  1. Lalie du Toit Says:

    I’ve just read catch me a killer and can not understand your comment. You blame the apartheids government for being the breeding grounds of these killers. If this kind of thing happens due to racial discrimmination, then why is the current government doing the same? And why do you fail to mention this very important fact?

    The amount of cerial killers already increased considerable since 1994. And this is only the begining of a brand new era.

  2. Lalie du Toit Says:

    correction – “Serial” Killers.

  3. Hi Lalie,

    My intention was to give a context for the book which Micki Pistorius wrote, and in many ways she and her team of detectives had a real mess to mop up. Serial killers in the truest sense of the word are products of internal psycholgical conflict and conflict in their environments. Often a psychopathic personality, which is not necessarily given to the violence that Moses Sithole exhibited, is tipped into extreme violence by the things that person witnesses or experiences. Thus, the violence that black communities experienced (whether this was white-on-black or black-on-black, if you really want to get into that distinction) made it far more likely for unbalanced individuals to learn that violence was the best solution to achieve certain ends.

    I cannot say anything about an increase in serial killers since 1994 with any degree of certainty, but my understanding is that the presence of true serial killers in our society has decreased — that is, serial killers who kill to satisfy an internal drive that is rich in violent fantasy. Violent crime — and excessively violent crime — has undoubtedly spread in South Africa. This is something I will not dispute, and something my own family and cirlce of friends has experienced to the worst levels — but from a policing and psychological perspective these crimes need to be separated from serial killing.

    There is a distinct difference between what is happening now in South Africa and what happened in Apartheid South Africa. Apartheid officially and unofficially condoned violence against non-whites, which, I might add, affected non-whites and whites alike, while the current government supports a constitution that treats all groups as equal. Now, I think we can both agree that the current government is failing us in its duty to protect us from harm, but this is still fundamental distinction – one form of widespread violence was state-condoned and the other not. This is why I say that the state-sponsored violence between 1948 and 1995 had a massive impact on individuals with a propensity for becoming serial killers, and other individuals who ultimately learnt from their environments that violence does pay (for example gang violence).

  4. Lalie du Toit Says:

    Hallo Richard

    With regard to your uncertainty of the increase in serial killers since 1994, I have to mention that it is evident in this book that Micki started out with one serial killer at a time to profile (late 80’s I think), yet it seemed that towards the end (late 90’s) she and the team managed 17 profiles at a time. This is an alarming increase. I ask myself the question why these killers didn’t feature under the previous “regime”? Surely they had the same misplaced desires, yet no murders were committed, at least not to such extend and with such arrogance? Micky mention a confused nation after transition. Maybe, but I do not feel convinced.

    You differentiate between violent crime and methods used by serial killers (that is, serial killers who kill to satisfy an internal drive that is rich in violent fantasy) I am stunned by this remark as I’ve seen this so-called “violent crime” and apart from exponential increase in their victims, there is no difference at all.

    Further to this you feel the only blame on government is that they failed to protect us? If it is a question of incompetency, why then did they never fail to protect themselves. For instance, simply compare SARS resources and technology with that of the SAP, Home Affairs, or any magistrate court for that matter. You can even do it online, no IQ required.

    The following section of your last paragraph is in my opinion actually the most questionable of all. “Fundamental distinction – one form of widespread violence was state-condoned and the other not” I totally disagree here. Both are state condoned as proved above, the fundamental distinctions is in the mandate, approach and the goal.

  5. richardkunzmann Says:

    There are a number of reasons why Micki and her team ended up with more serial killers in the late nineties, and these cannot necessarily be linked with a change in government or even a rise in violent crime. Micki had to work hard to embed herself in the team and then spend more time training police officers in how to route similar cases through the same task team. It is through a number of such innovations that they finally brought about an “increase” in open serial killer dockets . In other words, there weren’t necessarily more serial killers, the police were just finally detecting them better and classifying them correctly. I’m not saying this is the only reason for the increase, but it certainly played a large part.

    If you read closely, you’ll notice that Micki Pistorious only came onboard in the mid-90s, and that a number of the better known serial killers had already been operating throughout the 80s, e.g. the station strangler and Moses Sithole. It is generally accepted that countries in flux – i.e. high levels of social unrest – tend to see a rise in serial killing. This, most likely because the additional stresses in the society strain potential serial killers to a level were their cross psychological thresholds from “dormancy” into active killing, to relieve the stress they feel. The social upheaval created by apartheid was therefore a major contributor to the number of serial killers we saw in the nineties — but not the only contributor. If you look at the social upheaval that Russia experienced when the USSR fell apart, there was a similar rise in serial killing. And of course, social upheaval does not bring about only an increase in serial killing; other forms of violent crime also rise. In discussing the issue of serial killers, I’m less interested in which government is to blame for what; instead, I discussed apartheid because at the time of Catch Me a Killer’s writing it was a major contributor to all forms of violence. And to a degree it still is, even if we are fifteen years on since a new government was elected.

    I must stress that there is a massive difference in violent murder for gain and serial killing. I must also stress that there is a large difference in gang-related sadistic murder (e.g. burglaries or hijackings gone horribly wrong) and what is historically termed a sadistic killing by a serial killer. The motives are different; the psychological processes are different — even if the horrible end result is the same. If you’re interested in why I say this, please pick up a copy of John H. Douglas’ excellent Mindhunter, a book which Micki also often references. Mr Douglas headed up the FBI’s Behavioural Sciences Unit, when it was transformed into the profiling team depicted in films like Silence of the Lambs. It’s quite complex to differentiate between the sadism as expressed by serial killers and other forms of sadism, and perhaps it’s an academic point no one gives a poop about when your family’s been attacked. But it does make a massive difference in how a police investigation organises itself around a series of murders. If a series of murders is incorrectly identified by police officers, police resources are wasted and more lives are put at risk. So cops and profilers have to make damn certain why they’ve decided murders are related or not. I understand that you might have witnessed violent crime, but unless we know what that person’s motivations are, we cannot automatically assume that he is a serial killer in the traditional sense of the word.

    Other books you might want to try:

    Roy Hazelwood’s The Evil that Men Do and Dark Dreams
    Gregg O. McCrary’s Unknown Darkness

    If you want to know more about South African crime, I can very much recommend Anthony Altbeker’s The Dirty Work of Democracy, and Jonny Steinberg’s The Number.

  6. Lalie du Toit Says:

    Hallo Ridchard

    Thank you for the information, I will most certainly have a look at those books. It sounds interesting.

  7. richardkunzmann Says:

    Hi Lalie,

    No, thanks for challenging me on that sentence. And I hope the books I recommended are worthwhile.

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