Tuesday, 8 February 2011

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.
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Review by Brian Clegg

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