I don’t watch scary movies. I don’t go to Haunted Houses. And, more than anything I don’t (typically) read thrillers. I’m much too visual of a person and a total chicken. But, after reading The Ripper Gene by Michael Ransom, I think I’ll change my tune.
The premise of the book is our protagonist, Dr. Lucas Madden, is a neuroscientist-turned-FBI-profiler who discovers a genetic signature that produces psychopaths.
Madden puts his theory to the test when a new murderer – the Snow White Killer – begins to terrorize women in the Mississippi Delta.
When Mara Bliss, Madden’s former fiancée, is kidnapped, he must track down a killer who is always two steps ahead of him. Only by entering the killer’s mind will Madden ultimately understand the twisted and terrifying rationale behind the murders-and have a chance at ending the psychopath’s reign of terror.
In Michael Ransom’s debut novel, I found myself riveted to the story of the Snow White Killer and if this Ripper Gene could be a real thing.
I was lucky enough to get to interview Michael and ask him all my pressing questions. Read along and then read The Ripper Gene immediately!
Arden: Thanks for taking the time to speak with me Michael. Now, I’ve gotta ask… is the Ripper Gene real? Do you know something we don’t?
Michael: No problem, it’s a great question and if you’ll permit me, I’ll answer it on two levels.
First, and literally speaking, there’s no “ripper” gene in human DNA. Very few human genes have “cool” sounding names or names linked to pop culture. I was actually inspired to name the gene in my novel based on the work of scientists who study Drosophila melanogaster (the common fruit fly). Fruit fly geneticists are really wonderful…they name fruit fly genes based on what happens when they mutate them. Fruit flies have crazy gene names like “disembodied”, “spook”, “doublesex”, “phantom”, “tinman” and “reaper”.
In my novel I wanted Lucas to be a bit of a maverick geneticist, bucking the trend for assigning boring names to human genes, so I had him name the gene he cloned “ripper” because he’d discovered it was linked to serial killers and violent offenders.
But on that second level… I’m sure that what you’re really asking is whether there are any human genes (regardless of their names) that can cause someone to become a serial killer.
In this case, the answer once again isn’t “yes”… but it’s not quite “no” either. For the record, there is no SINGLE human gene that (when its sequence is different from that of the normal population) makes someone become a serial killer. Not a chance. If such a gene existed, we would have found it years or even decades ago.
But there is a very large and growing body of bona-fide, peer-reviewed, scientifically rigorous literature that confirms there is most definitely a heritable, genetic component to violence. By “genetic component” we mean that there appear to be many small genetic differences in various human genes that can raise the overall probability that an individual will be prone to violence. For instance, they may carry gene variants that make them unable to maintain normal levels of control, exhibit higher rates of aggression, or possess lower levels of empathy. The genes in which these variants are found make a lot of sense- most are directly involved in neurochemical transmission or neurotransmitter metabolism. One of the best examples is a gene known as monoamine oxidase, an enzyme involved in the synthesis of a metabolic precursor to multiple neurotransmitters.
So…despite my long-winded answer…to summarize, there is no “ripper” gene in the human genome…but there is growing evidence that variants in several genes involved in neurochemical signaling can influence the probability that an individual will exhibit aggressive and even violent behavior.
It’s only appropriate to mention as a final word that genetics is certainly only part of the answer, and other factors (environment, socioeconomic status, maternal nurturing, etc) all play important roles as well.
Arden: Whoa! So, with that incredible knowledge in mind, from where did the idea come for this book, this story?
Michael: The initial idea of a neuroscientist who loses his mother at a young age … that backstory was inspired by a very lucid memory of a Halloween night from my childhood when my mother and another lady were driving children from our church through the pitch-black backroads of rural Mississippi for trick-or-treating. As we turned a corner of the gravel road in complete darkness, we saw in our headlights a half dozen blood-covered teenagers stumbling around in the road out in the middle of nowhere, signaling and pleading and screaming for us to stop and help. Luckily my mother didn’t stop, and we drove to the next house and called the police. We never found out if those boys were actually hurt, or if they were just having fun, or if there was something more nefarious at work that night… but I never forgot the terrifying image of those blood covered kids in the headlights as we drove around them and away. Eventually the writer instinct to ask “what if” finally kicked in when I reached adulthood, and I asked “what if my mother had stopped the car and gotten out to help all those years ago?” Thus the Prologue of the Ripper Gene was born.
The idea of a character who was a neuroscientist who eschews a passive career of conducting medical research and exchanges it for a more active and aggressive career of pursuing criminals for the FBI… that idea is one I’ve had many times for myself. The window of opportunity (age-wise) has passed me by at this point, but I can now write about such a character and experience it vicariously in that way.
Arden: Aaaahhh… I think all writers live a little vicariously through their characters. I know I do. The shoulda coulda wouldas or what if’s play so easily as we sit behind our computers creating stories. And Lucas has an incredible story. Will we get more? Will this be a character we come to love & you threaten to kill if we don’t buy your books?
Michael: I have to say yes, there will be another Lucas Madden novel. I’m not sure if it will come right away or after a book or two, however. I am very pleased that most readers, when they have come up to me at readings or when they’ve reached out to me by email or via my website- have expressed a profound affinity for Detective Madden… whether it be his hobby of rehabilitating injured hawks and falcons, his love of dogs, his out-in-the-country Antebellum mansion, his close connection with his nieces, or his Southern charm…perhaps all of it together just makes him a very sympathetic first person narrator. He has a distinct voice, but it’s neither bitingly sarcastic nor full of naiveté, either. He’s committed to his work, and to helping victims, and to solving cases. He isn’t perfect- his familial relationships aren’t optimal by any means- but he tries and I think that resonates with a lot of people.
Arden: True. And don’t forget his love life. I wanna know about his love life! In a different vein, what is it like to write a book like this? Do you see people & think… yea, he’d be a serial killer?
Michael: It was tough, to be honest. The capacity humans possess for committing evil acts is… actually it is terrifying, and I had to force myself at times to read through all the source material I was studying about serial killers while researching the book.
If you don’t mind I’ll clamber up onto a soapbox for a moment here. Most scientists in this field have chosen to explain (or accept the explanation) that there is an entity known as “empathy” and it is the relative lack, or abundance, of this objective attribute within an individual that explains whether certain people are serial killers or violent criminals versus law-abiding citizens.
The concept of empathy is that most normally functioning individuals can feel empathy for another living being- for instance, when they witness another individual being hurt or injured or mistreated, they feel sorry for that person. That’s “empathy”. It’s not happening to them, but they feel badly for someone to which it’s happening. When they see a person in danger, their natural response is to try to save them… at least if its safe for them to do so. Not so, for those who lack empathy.
Now, for me, empathy is just a scape goat quantity made up by scientists who don’t want to admit that there is anything so morally universal as absolute good or absolute evil. For them, it’s all just a continuous scale of “empathy” that differentiates us all. But empathy, or the lack thereof, to me doesn’t explain the absolutely ghastly and perverted ways that other humans have invented to torture or hurt other humans- be they present day serial killers, past witch hunters, ancient druids or religious zealots.
To me, this capacity for cruelty isn’t a passive lack of empathy, but rather evidence of a very ACTIVE presence of something else. The original designer of the Iron Maiden wasn’t simply a poor soul who lacked empathy and therefore didn’t really care (or appreciate) that it would hurt people to be closed up in a casket made of metal spikes. That’s what the empathy argument would say. But rather this was someone who actively sought out, designed, and created ex nihilo a device that would be unbelievably cruel, painful and terrifying. To me, there’s a difference. It’s not about the lack of a throttle, but the presence of a very active capability to commit evil acts. There’s a difference.
And now I’ll step down from my soapbox to answer your other question! Sure, I often peg certain people as serial killers. I don’t do so out of cruelty or for humor, but rather just out of recognizing the outward characteristics that typically define them. A writer becomes a sort of untrained profiler if they research enough and write enough fiction- certainly not gaining the same level of expertise as formally trained agents in the FBI or law enforcement…but definitely capable of recognizing patterns shared amongst offenders we read about. Let’s just say I know enough to be very aware of the extreme outliers lurking out there in the human population, and take reasonable precautions for myself and the ones I love whenever I’m in a crowded place.
Arden: Michael, these answers… you have me thinking and pondering… I like it. As you think and ponder all of these patterns and behaviors, you eventually being to write. What’s the best part of the writing process? What’s the worst?
Michael: For me the best part of the writing process is in completing the first draft. It’s not the ideation phase, where I have too many ideas and am bogged down for months while I struggle to determine which subset I follow up and make into a story. And it’s not the editing phase, which usually feels endless and repetitive. But there’s nothing like hitting a rhythm while you’re writing that first draft and the words and scenes and dialogue are just flowing out of you and you know that it may not be perfect, but its really good and effective and that its going to be a key scene in your finished novel after all the editing and revision is done. And, you guessed it, the editing and revision phase is probably my least favorite part. It’s absolutely essential, but it’s repetitive and boring and long before you’re finished, you’re ready to move on to the next project.
I think a lot of writers (not all, but most) would probably say the marketing and self-promotion phase between books is their least favorite. I actually don’t mind the marketing phase. I welcome the chance to step away from writing creatively for a while and recharge my batteries, and to rather focus my creative energies on coming up with abbreviated, effective ways to communicate to readers what my new story is about and why they’ll love it. I actually enjoy that part too. Not as much as writing a good first draft…but marketing can be fun, too.
I hope you all enjoyed Michael’s responses as much as I did. Honestly, I think a new star is born in thriller land with Dr. Lucas Madden and The Ripper Gene by Michael Ransom.