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

I, Mammal - Liam Drew *****

It's rare that a straightforward biology book (with a fair amount of palaeontology thrown in) really grabs my attention, but this one did. Liam Drew really piles in the surprising facts (often surprising to him too) and draws us a wonderful picture of the various aspects of mammals that make them different from other animals. 

More on this in a moment, but I ought to mention the introduction, as you have to get past it to get to the rest, and it might put you off. I'm not sure why many books have an introduction - they often just get in the way of the writing, and this one seemed to go on for ever. So bear with it before you get to the good stuff, starting with the strange puzzle of why some mammals have external testes.

It seems bizarre to have such an important thing for passing on the genes so precariously posed - and it's not that they have to be, as it's not the case with all mammals. Drew mixes his own attempts to think through this intriguing issue with the histor…

Foolproof - Brian Hayes *****

The last time I enjoyed a popular maths book as much as this one was reading Martin Gardner’s Mathematical Puzzles and Diversions as a teenager. The trouble with a lot of ‘fun’ maths books is that they cover material that mathematicians consider fascinating, such as pairs of primes that are only two apart, which fail to raise much excitement in normal human beings. 

Here, all the articles have something a little more to them. So, even though Brian Hayes may be dealing with something fairly abstruse-sounding like the ratio of the volume of an n-dimensional hypersphere to the smallest hypercube that contains it, the article always has an interesting edge - in this case that although the ‘volume’ of the hypersphere grows up to the fifth dimension it gets smaller and smaller thereafter, becoming an almost undetectable part of the hypercube.

If that doesn’t grab you, many articles in this collection aren’t as abstruse, covering everything from random walks to a strange betting game. What'…

A Galaxy of Her Own - Libby Jackson ****

This is an interesting book, even if it probably tries to be too many things to too many people. I wondered from the cover design whether it was a children's book, but the publisher's website (and the back of the book) resolutely refuse to categorise it as such. The back copy doesn't help by saying that it will 'inspire trailblazers and pioneers of all ages.' As I belong to the set 'all ages' I thought I'd give it a go.

Inside are featured the 'stories of fifty inspirational women who have been fundamental to the story of humans in space.' So, in some ways, A Galaxy of Her Own presents the other side of the coin to Angela Saini's excellent Inferior. But, inevitably, given the format, it can hardly provide the same level of discourse.

Despite that 'all ages' comment and the lack of children's book labelling we get a bit of a hint when we get to a bookplate page in the form of a Galaxy Pioneers security pass (with the rather worrying…