“Britain’s Mindhunter” had acquired the nickname for good reason. Over a decades-long career, Paul Harrison served with distinction in several police forces as beat cop, serial killer profiler, undercover football hooligan, royal protection officer and security adviser for the Ministry of Defence and the Royal Courts of Justice in London. The front cover of Mind Games – his 33rd book – even offers a glowing endorsement from Martina Cole, often cited as Britain’s queen of crime writing: “Profiling at its best. Paul Harrison is the master of the true crime genre.”
It isn’t often that British police officers in their early 20s are invited to the FBI’s elite Behavioural Science Unit at Quantico, Virginia, or count the legendary profiler Robert Ressler as a personal mentor. Even some of the most reviled murderers of the 20th century felt respect for Harrison’s craft. For Ted Bundy, this was the “guy who gets inside our heads”. After returning to the UK sometime in the 80s, Harrison applied his newly mastered trade for the common good, working for police forces around the UK. Not many could comb the depths of a killer's psyche quite like him. “Why are you so cold and heartless?” Peter Sutcliffe, better known as the Yorkshire Ripper, pleaded during a particularly intense encounter. “You seem completely indifferent to me. I’m scared of you.”
Paul Harrison’s garlanded CV had one major flaw: It was almost entirely fabricated.
In early 2019, journalist Robin Perrie attended a packed-out talk at Newcastle’s Tyne Theatre. It ran through the usual Harrison repertoire: the explosive interviews with Bundy, Sutcliffe, Jeffrey Dahmer and John Wayne Gacy, among others. During the interval, Perrie and his wife had turned to one another. Was this guy, dressed more akin to a children’s TV presenter, for real? The surreal night out sowed enough doubt to kickstart a months-long investigation, first published in The Sun in July 2019.
Harrison hadn’t trained at the FBI or interviewed scores of serial killers. According to Perrie’s investigation, Harrison’s first trip to the US had been in 1999, for a Loch Ness Monster expo. The Sun’s expose went on to attest that the Yorkshire Ripper had never expressed terror in his presence, though the tale had been repeated so often it had gotten back to Sutcliffe, even in the high security confines of HMP Frankland. A handwritten letter was passed from killer to tabloid: “Paul Harrison is an absolute charlatan”, wrote Sutcliffe, “A con man. He never corresponded with me, nor did he ever visit me. He needs to be exposed for the downright liar he is.”
Police searching the ground behind the home of Peter Sutcliffe in Bradford following his arrest in 1981. Photo: Andrew Varley/Mirrorpix/Getty Images
Days later, Mind Games was pulled from sale, and all of Harrison’s scheduled public events cancelled. The author issued an apology via Facebook, before deleting his profile along with the rest of his social media accounts and disappearing from public view. “This monster,” he wrote in the soon to be deleted apology, “is no longer mine, nor is it what I wanted it to be… I've decided to call it a day for now. All I wanted to do was help raise the profile of victims everywhere. Now, it seems I've let everyone down, I'm sorry for that.”
The relationship between Harrison’s falsehoods and the apparent obliviousness of his audiences and publishers raised a number of still unanswered questions. Why had no one before Robin Perrie bothered to check the claims in such a colourful CV? And what does this web of strange deceit say about the nature of true crime fandom and the cottage industry surrounding it?
When the story broke, I’d felt a shock of recognition. In June 2018, I’d exchanged several emails with Harrison, regarding a feature I was researching on the sad, savage story of Bible John, who murdered three women taken from the dancehalls of late 60s Glasgow. Early on, I’d come across Harrison’s 2013 book, Dancing with the Devil: The Bible John Murders. Theories on the identity of “Scotland’s Zodiac killer” oscillate from the plausible to potently deranged, but this book wasn’t really either of those things. Instead, Harrison posited the not-outrageous idea that a police officer might have been responsible.
It was impossible not to be struck by the quality of the book's access and the stridently poetic, occasionally paragraph-long quotes its author seemed to have wrangled from famously taciturn real life characters. This wasn’t – to put it mildly – the same experience I’d had speaking with very similar long-retired Glaswegian detectives who’d also worked the case.
Our diaries hadn’t quite aligned that summer. Harrison told me he was writing a feature of his own and was in the middle of a “serial killer speaking tour”, though he assured me he’d email to discuss more on his return home. No message ever arrived. I’d soon forgotten about our brief exchange. The piece was filed and life moved on. It was just over a year later when the first news reports broke in the national press, illustrated by pictures of a familiar looking, middle-aged man in rimmed glasses and loud tartan waistcoat.
On a comically desultory afternoon in early December 2021, I punched in the phone number for retired FBI agent Mark Safarik’s office in Fredericksburg, Virginia. After a short blast of small talk, we got straight to the point. Safarik was at the FBI between 1984 and 2007, with his final 12 years spent as a senior profiler in the Behavioral Science Unit.
The unit was, as it remains, made up of a small, tightly knit cadre of professionals. That’s what initially intrigued him, he explained to me, after being approached by reporters in 2019. "I'd never heard [of Harrison] before and I know everybody’s name [in the unit]. When [it] came up, it was like 'who the hell is that?”
Before rushing to judgement, Safarik thought it better to double check. Perhaps there was a Paul Harrison, who really did have the credentials he'd been trading off. The results were unanimous. No one at the FBI had ever heard of him.
The FBI’s Behavioural Science Unit was formed in 1974 to investigate serial rape and homicide cases. In the latter half of the decade, several agents – most famously John Douglas and Robert Ressler – interviewed dozens of serial murderers to help build understanding in what was then a novel field of study. The idea behind profiling is that by studying the details of a crime, it’s possible to build a psychological profile of its perpetrator, right down to age, race, class and employment history.
To this day, not everyone is fully convinced of profiling’s efficacy. “If you’re looking for the person who killed and mutilated someone on the roof,” Malcom Gladwell wrote in a 2007 feature, “you don’t really need a profiler to tell you to check out the dishevelled, mentally ill guy living with his father on the fourth floor?” Back in the mid 90s, he continues, “In the mid-nineties, the British Home Office analyzed a hundred and eighty-four crimes, to see how many times profiles led to the arrest of a criminal. The profile worked in five of those cases. That’s just 2.7 per cent…”.
Either way, the contemporary cultural mainstream is saturated with brilliant, often quirkily flawed, fictional figures devoting their lives to swimming in the gory flotsam of the serial killer subconscious. John Douglas alone has written several bestselling memoirs and reputedly served as inspiration for at least four beloved characters, including Jack Crawford in “The Silence of the Lambs” and Holden Ford from David Fincher’s Mindhunter.
Put succinctly: Audiences love it. Profiling takes the enduring fascination with serial murder and coats it with a gloss of intellectual respectability. It suggests that this is no ordinary guilty pleasure; that there might even be juicy psychological insights to be gleaned from its indulgence.
There are others in the field who, like Harrison, have lied. Safarik told me that several cases have involved retired FBI staff who have puffed up their credentials in the US media. "We know that's not true. Either you were or you weren't [a profiler]. It's the same dynamic [and] drives me as crazy as anything else… For me personally, it's not only unprofessional but unethical.”
The further one digs into the Paul Harrison extended universe, the more uneven the terrain becomes. Even simple biographical details aren’t too easily come by in a story with such an unreliable narrator. Harrison did serve as a police officer – a fact Northamptonshire Police confirmed to me via email with a brief note explaining he’d left the force as a CMU Constable in March 1999.
Born in the early 1960s, he’d spent his childhood (dominated, he writes in “Mind Games”, by an abusive, domineering father) in Carlisle, the small city at the very north of England. Some of those who remember Harrison before his pivot to serial killer expert recall an avuncular presence with a range of intense interests, including unsolved mysteries, UFOlogy and the local football team, Carlisle United.
2019’s revelations weren’t the first time questions were raised about Harrison’s publishing output. Three years earlier an article had appeared in the Cumbrian newspaper, The News & Star. “Brought to book – the man who’s meant to be dead” is a methodical work of reportage by the paper’s sports correspondent, Jon Colman. With quiet humour, it charts the story of a local football writer who’d unconvincingly faked his own death, at the start of the decade.
In August 2010, an email purportedly from a “consultancy firm” arrived in the inbox of the then chairman of Carlisle United’s London Branch supporters group. It reported the “untimely passing of Paul Harrison”, who had succumbed to a heart attack on an archaeological dig in Egypt the same month. Harrison was a well-known figure in the world of Carlisle United fandom, as a regular match-goer and author of three books on the club. The message made dark reference to poisoned relations between club and faithful scribe (legal action had already begun over the copyright status of some photographs, the only plausible, if still unconfirmed, motive for such a lacklustre pseudocide), as well as the writer’s already faltering health.
Four months later, a new book on Leeds United legend Billy Bremner appeared. The launch of Keep Fighting was marked by a book signing. Its author, the avid (and very much alive) Leeds fan Paul Harrison, was in attendance. Over the next nine years, further books by Harrison appeared on sport and true crime, including a biography of Leeds legend Albert Johanneson.
When I spoke with Jon Colman, he told me his initial reaction to Harrison’s Lazarus act was plain incredulity. The two weren’t exactly close, but they’d met a couple of times before Harrison’s untimely temporary passing. "I wrote the article and emailed what I thought was [Harrison's] email address. I got a reply, declining to comment but it was quite evidently him. I couldn't prove it, but he was obviously around."
Colman still wishes he’d picked up the story earlier, when the bogus death notice had initially circulated. "To my great shame and to everyone else's up here, I don't think anyone really looked into it much [in 2010]. Nothing was really said or followed up on. As a journalist, I look back and think 'this is crazy'".
It had certainly come as a shock to Neil Nixon. The Cumbrian writer had been friendly with Harrison and even penned his obituary. They’d shared a love of Carlisle United and an interest in the paranormal. After news of Harrison’s fabrications broke in 2019, Nixon was understandably bemused, just as he had been when it became apparent his former friend was still alive. But the passing years have brought a new kind of understanding. Cultivating his interest in the paranormal has sometimes brought him into the orbit of individuals who, like Paul Harrison, have fantasy double lives.
“I feel a lot of sympathy [for him],” Nixon wrote to me via email. “I think he's probably stuck with some of the consequences of his choices for the rest of his life, because the online evidence follows people more than [it did] before the internet.”
For months, I’d wanted to hear from Urbane Publishers, the small and otherwise respectable independent press who’d put out “Mind Games” in 2018. After pulling the book, they’d issued a shocked statement and pledged to donate any profits to charity, according to an article in The Guardian. In late 2021, I contacted a former senior figure at the company, which had – unrelatedly – closed its doors that spring. They understood why I’d be interested in their former writer, though it wasn’t a topic they wanted to comment on. No, they hadn’t come across a trace of him since. To be honest, they didn’t want to give him another thought.
True crime has always had bluffers and bullshitters of varying levels of prestige and talent. Even Truman Capote’s masterpiece “In Cold Blood” could hardly be described as straightforward nonfiction. In late 2021, The Guardian published a deep dive into the life and lies of the French celebrity true crime author, Stéphane Bourgoin. Like Harrison, he’d falsely claimed to have worked with the FBI and interviewed an array of infamous serial killers. And like Harrison, he’d hidden behind the profiler's mystique to keep the deception going for as long as possible.
Though Harrison commanded a significant fanbase, it never tipped over into anything like the same level of mainstream recognition as his French counterpart. On contacting Nielsen Book Search, a spokesman confirmed that their database showed 600 sales for “Mind Games” in hardback. For contrast, Harrison’s best selling title, 2008’s “Hunting Evil”, written in conjunction with celebrity criminologist David Wilson, has shifted 19,000 copies over its lifespan: a steady, if unremarkable figure. The arrival of apparently endless big budget serial killer documentaries and podcasts hasn’t obliterated the UK’s true crime book market. There’s still money in print, despite a 2010s slump in sales for the genre. The last reliable, non-pandemic disrupted Nielsen figures show 2019 (£7.5m) to be the most profitable year for true crime publishing since 2009 (£9.7m).
For Harrison, it doesn’t seem to have purely been about financial gain. Conducting fictional interviews with an ensemble cast of the late 20th century's most infamous and reviled killers doesn’t appear to have been enough either. Though fabricated they, inadvertently or not, occasionally speak to a wider truth. His killers aren’t romantic outcasts, or cloaked in any undue glamour. They are usually dull or squalid, and often both. Charles Manson embarks on a soliloquy in which he describes himself as a “bad-smelling fart that won’t go away”. John Wayne Gacy asks us if we’re ready to walk into the gates of hell, before treating us to several pages of pure cliche.
Ronnie and Reggie Kray in 1966. Photo: © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images
Harrison had to have his creations like him, too. In a 2018 blog interview, he outlines the origins of his relationship with Reggie Kray, the fractionally older and stabler of the Kray Twins, London’s most notorious celebrity gangsters of the 60s. In Harrison’s telling of this particular tale, Kray had reached out in the early 90s after the publication of Harrison’s first true crime book, a study of Jack the Ripper. An offer arrived to write an access-all-areas biography of the twins, but life got in the way of such a generous and potentially career-making opportunity. At the time, Harrison claimed, he was still a serving police officer and the higher-ups wouldn’t allow it.
According to Harrison, upon Kray’s release from prison on health grounds after 33 years inside, in August 2000, the two finally met. “It was there,” Harrison said in the same 2018 interview, with the aged gangster close to death, “that he referred to me as his favourite crime writer and someone unique: a copper he actually respected.” Freddie Foreman, the Krays former enforcer, was incredulous after being approached by reporters in 2019: “Paul Harrison was definitely not there in his dying days, like he says. Reggie would never have entertained police.”
There are echoes of Stephen Glass, the disgraced wonderkid of late 90s American magazine journalism, who was found to have at least partially – and often elaborately – fabricated 27 of the 41 pieces he’d written as a young staffer at The New Republic. His ambition was only matched by a deep set desire for affirmation. “Are you mad at me?” was the mantra Glass would constantly repeat, faced with any perceived challenge or threat.
It’s hard not to feel sympathy when confronted with Harrison’s poorly cloaked fabrications. In many ways, they are straight out of childhood: Outrageously bold and colourful, badly structured and, when set against the mildest scrutiny, on the verge of collapse. Compared to Glass’s ornate cathedrals of deceit, they seem as robust as papier-mache. It can’t have been much fun, constantly waiting for it all to collapse. But how to safely dismantle something so vast, yet fragile? “Maybe it didn't start out that way, but you tell one lie and you tell another and pretty soon it's morphed into something almost beyond your control” is how the former FBI agent Mark Safarik puts it.
Underneath some of the falsehoods lies a strain of almost relatable yearning. After all, who doesn’t want to be liked and respected? Or to be considered unique in the eyes of another, even a fictional Reggie Kray?
"Once any of us go down a path of deceit, it gets complicated,” explains Dr Chris Hand, a senior lecturer in psychology at The University of Glasgow, when we speak over the phone. “Sometimes all the person wants to do is get to the finish line without being tripped up. In this case, it has totally snowballed out of control."
The sheer volume and level of detail is a surprise, he explained. “[This type of fabulism] is driven by a complex set of factors, but it all comes back to need: for professional recognition or kudos, whether it's a self esteem or emotional thing. It's a story where you desperately want to sit down and talk to the person and get to that root cause."
Whatever Harrison’s patchwork of motivations, this isn’t simply the story of an amateur crime buff who swept himself away on a tide of his own enthusiasm. Money was made, despite the modest book sales. There’s a pricing guide at the bottom of a short promotional piece for a 2019 talk at Lancaster’s 457 capacity Grand Theatre. Twenty quid was enough for a ticket, though a photo opportunity and signed copy of “Mind Games” would have set you back double that. The most lucrative of these “serial killer talks” were allegedly worth up to £15,000 for an evening's work.
Sympathy for the legions of the duped depends on one’s personal predilections. If you believe true crime simply equates to exploitation, then it isn’t likely to stretch very far. Paul Harrison, the British Mindhunter, wouldn’t have been possible without his considerable audience's collective suspension of disbelief. To his fans and readers, Harrison was a source of macabre entertainment. Though their deception isn't edifying, it’s hardly the most uncomfortable consequence of his actions.
Mind Games opens with the pledge: “To victims of crime everywhere, I will always give you a voice.” Several of those I spoke with expressed their distaste for this faked piety. “You're actually harming these victims,” said Safarik, “by giving them [information] that is completely inaccurate. You're giving them false hope. And that's much more dangerous and harmful.”
The further I dug into the story, the keener its main character's absence became. From the moment the first reports had broken in 2019, I’d wanted to speak with Paul Harrison, to hear his side of what increasingly seemed to be a sad, fractious saga. No matter how many other people I spoke with, no one else was going to be able to answer some of the lingering questions. Did he ever think about coming clean? What about regrets? And was the almost inevitable humiliation ever going to be worth it, just for a few faked interviews with a cast of celebrity murderers?
In early January 2022, I followed up an unanswered email by posting a letter to Harrison’s last known address. I’d kept things simple, explaining who I was and what I was working on. That there was no value in a hit piece and that I’d be there if he ever wanted to give his side of things. As the days turned to weeks, I accepted that my letter would likely remain unanswered.
In a 2018 video interview with VICE, Harrison describes the pitfalls of spending so much time with serial killers. It’s easy, he says, to carry the guilt away with you for the rest of your life, if you allow it. With the faintest hint of a smile, he adds that there’s invariably a deficiency underpinning their carefully constructed personas; that when it comes down to it, they’re just trying to be something they're not.