Skip to main content

The Killer of Little Shepherds – Douglas Starr ****

The cover of this book shouts ‘historical true crime,’ so I didn’t expect to be reviewing it here. True crime is a genre I generally feel uncomfortable about – at least, as long as it’s in living memory. Somehow, Victorian true crime is rather entertaining, with that Sherlock Holmesian feel to it. I assumed then, that the Killer of Little Shepherds would be another Slaughter on a Snow Morn, a book I found fascinating when reviewing for my blog. I was half right.
Around half the book is the story on the man described as ‘the French Ripper’, though in fact he killed significantly more people than Jack the Ripper. It is a fascinating tale of the way a tramp could wander round France, killing with impunity thanks to considerable cunning in his approach, plus the ability to be considered ‘one of us’ almost by the police because he was ex-military. I’d never heard of Joseph Vâcher, but his story makes great reading.
However, the reason the book is here is that interwoven with Vâcher’s exploits and the attempts to catch him is the history of the development of forensic science in France, which, in essence means the development of forensic science in the world, as many of the basics seem to have come out of this period in France. So we see Bertillon and his stress on detailed measurements for identification and most of all the remarkable Alexandre Lacassagne who seems to have single-handedly dragged the practice of autopsy and forensics into the scientific age. Lacassagne would be a key figure in Vâcher’s prosecution, hence the neat intersection of the two stories.
In a way there is very little actual science in forensic science. It almost bears the same relationship to human biology as engineering does to physics. Forensic science makes use of scientific information, and crucially applies the scientific method to the investigation of crime scenes and corpses, but involves little original science in itself. But this doesn’t mean that the book lacks interest to the popular science reader, as it aptly portrays the difficulties and frustrations of bringing the scientific method to a field that previously was little more than guesswork, rumour and old wives tales.
The book won’t appeal to everyone. The crimes are gruesome, and though Douglas Starr is not sensationalist in his presentation of them, he doesn’t hold back on the unpleasant detail. Yet the context of the hunt for Vâcher and the need to be sure exactly what happened in his crimes is important and it gives the book an appeal that it would not have if it were the story of the development of French forensic science alone. Without doubt a riveting read.
Paperback:  
Also in Hardback:  
And on Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Bits to Bitcoin - Mark Stuart Day ***

When I saw the title of this book, I got all excited - at last we were going to get an explanation of bitcoin for the rest of us, who struggle to understand what the heck it really involves. There certainly is an explanation of bitcoin, but it comes in chapter 26 - in practice, the book contains far more. Almost every popular computer science title I've read has effectively been history of computer science - this is one of the first examples I've ever come across that is actually trying to make the 'science' part of computer science accessible to the general reader.

I don't mean by this that it's an equivalent of Programming for Dummies. Instead, Bits to Bitcoin takes the reader through the concepts lying behind programming. If we think of programming as engineering, this is the physics that the engineering depends on. This is a really interesting proposition. Many years ago, I was a professional programmer, but I never studied computer science, so I was only fa…

Through Two Doors at Once - Anil Ananthaswamy *****

It's sometimes hard to imagine that there's anything new to say about the basics of quantum physics, yet Anil Ananthaswamy manages this in a twofold manner (appropriately, given the title). Through Two Doors at Once does so by using the double slit experiment as a constant reference point throughout the book, and by bringing in a number of the more modern variants on the experiment which rarely feature in popular accounts of quantum theory.

Strictly, the book should probably be called 'Through Two Doors at Once and Spooky Action at a Distance plus Things That Have a Similar Effect', as it uses both the double slit experiment and the EPR entanglement thought experiment, plus modern experiments which don't, for example, involve slits but rather beam splitters that are their logical equivalent - but I have to admit, that would be a clumsy title.

Ananthaswamy gives us a good overview of the development of quantum physics - sometimes quite summary - but by making repea…

By the Pricking of Her Thumb (SF) - Adam Roberts *****

Sometimes a sequel betters the original - think Terminator 2 - and Adam Roberts has done this with his follow-up to The Real-Town Murders. (It's sensible to read the first book before this: while it's not essential, there are plenty of references you will miss otherwise.)

Ostensibly this is a murder mystery, or, as Roberts tells us, a combination of a howdunnit and a whodunnit-to, as the central character Alma is called on to work out how someone found with a needle stuck through her thumb was killed and which of a group of four super-rich individuals is dead when all claim to still be alive - though one of the group who hires Alma is convinced that the death has occurred. 

However, this is anything but a conventional murder mystery - far more so than the strange crimes suggest. Alma and her partner Marguerite (the latter still trapped by an engineered polyvalent illness that requires treatment every 4 hours and 4 minutes) don't do a lot of detecting. In fact Marguerite hard…