In early December Humberside Police published the mugshot of 36 year-old Robert Rimmer, who is wanted for various drugs-related offences in Yorkshire.

People were warned not to approach Rimmer, who is bearded, tattooed and muscle-bound, but simply to report their sightings to the police, as he had previously been sentenced in 2013 to 5½ years in prison for repeatedly stabbing a man, in what the trial judge described as “an eruption of extreme violence”.

So far all this seems to make criminological sense – it’s a typical story of the cops using the public in an attempt to gather information and harness local intelligence. It’s a staple of police investigations the world over, and now so clichéd as to be beyond comment.

And then something unexpected happened.

Scores of people – both male and female – took to social media to comment on Rimmer’s mugshot, with some enthusiastically suggesting “I wouldn’t mind knowing where he is either”; “Wanted? Yes, indeed”; and “Oooft, I’d like to approach him”.

From posts such as these and hundreds of others you should infer that Rimmer is “striking” and “hot”, with one woman even suggesting that she was going to get her partner to pretend to be Rimmer that night when they were in bed.

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Rimmer’s sex appeal reminds me of another “hot felon” – Jeremy Meeks, who was arrested in 2014 as part of Operation Ceasefire in Stockton, California. Meeks, a former member of the Crips street gang, was eventually convicted for being in possession of a firearm and sentenced to 2 years in prison. He also had a previous conviction for robbery.

However, the reaction to the publication of his mugshot on Facebook eerily forecasts what was to happen to Rimmer. Meeks has piercing blue eyes, with a tattooed tear running down his left cheek, neck tattoos and a shaved head. Within a few days his mugshot had become a meme and his Twitter fans created a hashtag #feloncrushfriday On his release from jail Meeks won a modelling contract , and immediately took to the catwalk during New York Fashion Week and has since modelled in Milan, appeared at the Cannes Film Festival, and spearheaded a Tommy Hilfiger campaign.

Now my point here is not that Rimmer and Meeks are handsome – there are obviously handsome men in all walks of life, including amongst those who offend. My point is more nuanced.

Neither Meeks nor Rimmer are handsome in a traditional sense, with “boy next door” good looks – something that has often been suggested as contributing to the modus operandi of the serial killer Ted Bundy. Rather what is making them “hot felons” are physical attributes that were once seen as being indicators of criminality and violence.

It is easy now to laugh at the early biological determinism of Cesare Lombroso, often described as “the Father of Criminology” who, after having examined the “brigand Villella” in 1870, suggested that offenders were “atavisms” – throwbacks to an earlier form of human development, and so it was possible to see physical differences between those who committed crime, and those who were law-abiding.

HeraldScotland: It is suggested that Ted Bundy's 'boy next door' looks contributed to his modus operandiIt is suggested that Ted Bundy's 'boy next door' looks contributed to his modus operandi (Image: Newsquest)

Offenders like Villella were physically strong, had “high cheek bones”, loved “tattooing”, were “excessively idle”, “loved orgies” and had an “irresistible craving for evil for its own sake – the desire not only to extinguish life in the victim, but to mutilate the corpse, tear its flesh and drink its blood.”

As I say, it is easy to laugh at Lombroso, but then again how should we judge someone who is prepared to stab his victim multiple times in an “eruption of extreme violence”?

What all of this seems to suggest is that individual physical characteristics which were once seen as deviant have become mainstreamed within Western culture – what is good is to be bad, or at least to appear to be bad. We perhaps saw this first with bodybuilding to the extent that gyms are now as ubiquitous on our high streets as coffee shops, and then with tattoos. These were once the outward sign of nonconformity, and of being prepared to breach society’s “straight” rules, although tattoos have now also not only become acceptable but expected.

These are of course rather mild expressions of the wider point that Meeks and Rimmer’s cases raise, for the clearly sexual reactions to their appearance frankly hints at cultural fantasies about violence. In fact this is something which, even if with his usual exaggeration, Lombroso was also describing in the 1870s.

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Are the roots of our own contemporary culture’s “girls love a bad boy” (and some boys love bad boys too) to be seen in Villella’s love of orgies? Even if we leave “tearing flesh” to one side just for the moment, the idea that offenders like Villella would want to drink blood would soon be picked up by Bram Stoker, and thereafter become a narrative prop in countless movies in which the vampire now seems aspirational rather than deviant.

And let’s get back to tearing flesh – an extreme form of violence that often leads to death. I would usually describe this as “overkill”, by which is meant that the killer uses more violence than is necessary to achieve his objective. He is using violence for violence’s sake, and so it is no longer serving any instrumental purpose but one which is more psychological.

To extinguish the life of another person – to repeatedly stab and mutilate – becomes a way of channelling an inner turmoil and by doing so creating, or re-creating, a sense of who you are, or would want to be. It’s an expression of individual power and control, and one which is often being expressed by those who have previously been, or felt that they were powerless.

This might take us very far – no doubt some will suggest far too far – from why and what people were posting in reaction to the publication of Rimmer’s mugshot, but these posts are important as they act like a canary in the coalmine about wider trends in our society and culture that we often would prefer to ignore.

Professor Wilson's new Channel 4 series In the Footsteps of Killers, which he co-presents with Emilia Fox, begins in January 2023