Killer Instinct – Having a Mind for Murder by Donald Grant

Killer Instinct

Reviewed by Dr Kathleen Huxley

Note to Readers: When this book was reviewed it was taken at face value (as is any other book). We in no way support any unethical disclosure that has recently been associated with this work. The name …… that appears in the review is not known to us and is used only for the purpose of making a point.

This book is written by leading forensic psychiatrist Donald Grant, the first State Director of Forensic Psychiatry in Queensland and a member of the bench of the state’s unique Mental Health Court.  It is an interesting and insightful account of the workings of the murderous mind when considered by an eminent expert in the field. The book begins with reviews from distinguished individuals including Margaret McMurdo (past President of the Queensland Court of Appeal), Fiona Judd (Professorial Fellow in Psychiatry, University of Melbourne) and Julian Davis (forensic psychiatrist) who consider the book to be ‘an intriguing read’, ‘a painful, honest and unflinching account’, with ‘the authenticity of the authorial voice’. This is fitting praise for a book that so succinctly and professionally conducts a scientific examination that aims to understand the killer mind and the reasons why certain individuals embark upon murderous acts.   The writer tells us he is concerned not with ‘who did it’ but ‘why they did it’.

The Author’s Note at the start of the book prefaces a descriptive account of ten murder cases in which the author has been called upon to undertake psychiatric evaluations of the perpetrators. He reassures us in this note that ‘murder is a rare event’ the incidence in Australia being ‘around one for every 100,000 people’.

We are informed that the profile of the most common offender is a male between the ages of twenty-five and forty-five with the majority of murders occurring in cities more frequently than rural areas. Additionally, there are strong associations between murder and ‘domestic violence, alcohol and drug abuse, general criminality, gang activity, social instability and sometimes ethnicity’ whilst ‘two thirds occur in the home’, ‘the commonest weapon is a knife’ and ‘three quarters of offenders are caught and charged within a short time’.

Grant believes that the killer instinct is a primitive predisposition that exists in all of us, a theory that is supported by research and studies into early brain development in humans, observation of animal behaviour and evolutionary evidence. Fortunately for the majority of evolved humans, it has been established, that we have a brain structure and chemistry that allows us to harness our aggression, control our impulses and make intelligent decisions that allow us to protect ourselves by alternative means.

The ten case histories which are eloquently written about in the book present us with a diverse range of murders and offenders. There is a detailed clinical discussion of each case that concisely conjures up the acts, the scenes and the actors involved in them. Sadly, they are not staged or invented but are accounts of actual murders that have taken place in Queensland. Each report contains details of clinical interviews and formal assessments which paint a picture of the locations, histories, victims, offenders, motivations, events, families and friends, consequences and current location of the murderers in vivid detail.

The first narrative in the book describes the case involving the 1989 murder of Edward Baldock by Tracey Wigginton. Described sensationally by the press as the ‘Lesbian Vampire Killer’ Grant gives us a comprehensive account of the psychiatric examination of Tracey. He carefully traces the reasons, with history and supporting arguments, as to why she was found guilty of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment. The gruesome crime involved Tracey and her three friends luring Baldock into a car with the promise of sex and then frenziedly stabbing him 27 times nearly severing his head.

Solving the murder was fairly straightforward as a bank card belonging to Tracey was found in one of Edward’s shoes which lay beside his body. Her defence lawyers looked for a psychiatric defence and she was thought to be possibly suffering from multiple personality disorder as under hypnosis she was said to have revealed six different alters. However, during two long interviews undertaken by Grant for the court he found that ‘despite the awful content of her history, Tracey virtually showed no emotion; she shed no tears. The only sign of what might have been beneath the calm façade was anger in her voice describing her mistreatment by others, particularly her recent problems with Debbie. There was never any hint of psychotic symptoms such as delusions or hallucinations, either in the present or the past. I was intrigued, however, when she told me that she could not recall the name of the psychiatrist who has interviewed her at least sixty times but described the fact that his glasses were always dirty.’

From a clinical point of view the author tells us that ‘Tracey’s case was important as a legal precedent because it made clear statements about the status of dissociation and multiple personality when it comes to legal responsibility. It made clear that the whole person, not any alter, bears responsibility for a crime.’ Tracey served 23 years for her crime and is now back in society on strict parole.

The remaining nine depictions in the book are no less fascinating than the first and encompass a wide range of psychiatric conditions and murders with chapter titles including ‘The Devoted Son Who Murdered his Mother’, ‘A Dangerous Prisoner’ and a ‘Delusion of Love’. All of the case histories reveal in-depth portrayals that conjure up images of the alarming nature and complexity of a murder.

This book is a fascinating analysis of the diverse range of backgrounds and motivations that provoke one person to kill another. The accounts impress on us the importance mental health professionals place on the accused’s background factors, personality and context of the crime. It is a rare insight into the world of forensic psychiatry and how it probes and predicts human psychology and behaviour in a methodical, detailed and meticulous way. If the workings of the criminal mind of murderers and how they are assessed and observed interests you this book is a must. It is a highly readable, addictive and compelling snapshot of a world not many of us have the chance to hear or read about in our everyday lives.

Killer Instinct 


by Donald Grant

Imprint: Melbourne University Press

ISBN: 9780522873597

AUD$34.99; 277pp

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