Monday, April 2, 2012

Book Review: The Killer of Little Shepherds: A True Crime Story and the Birth of Forensic Science by Douglas Starr, narrated by Erik Davies


In the 1890s in France, a very disturbed young man killed man more people than Jack the Ripper, and it is surprising that we still know who Jack the Ripper is, but no one's heard of Joseph Vacher. Perhaps he could have been okay if he'd stayed in the army or if he'd been lucky in love, but it seems unlikely either would have happened, and that his disturbing behavior began early. But he didn't seem to completely lost control until Louise Barant, the young woman he became obsessed with rejected him (they never were in a relationship but he imagine they were). He tried to kill them both and did not succeed, but was placed in two insane asylums. He got out pretty quickly and soon began traveling the countryside as a vagabond, killing mostly teenage boys and girls (I was confused why they are called shepherds when they aren't herding sheep but are herding cows. I assume it's a translation issue.)

Meanwhile Dr. Alexandre Lacassagne has been revolutionizing the field of forensics. Methodical and creative, Lacassagne made many things that were formerly guesswork, into science. For instance, he had one of his graduate students do a study of bone lengths compared to a person's height, and the results were made into a very accurate chart that could give a height within a centimeter from just a single bone. He had worked on some renowned cases and wrote many definitive articles and books, and when followed, his techniques were terribly advanced. I had no idea that more than a hundred years ago, pathologists already knew about lividity and patikia and mostly about rigor mortis (their theories on why rigor mortis doesn't seem to affect the whole body at once were pretty amusing and thoroughly wrong as it does affect all muscles simultaneously.) Another Frenchman in a police department started keeping detailed records of not just appearance but also many measurements of the length and breadth of body parts, which helped immensely to identify criminals who, until then, could easily obscure their looks and go to another county and continue to commit crimes.

Luckily for the young boys and girls of rural France, Vacher was identified thanks to the cards of measurements and identifications. Prosecutor Emile Fourquet along with Lacassagne, helped prove Vacher was not only guilty of murder, but was sane and should be imprisoned, not returned to an asylum. This book was not really written as true crime - there's never any suspense, no worry about who the bad guy was or if he would be caught. It's much more of a history of forensics, using Vacher as a case study. I did find the chapters about Lacassagne to be the most fascinating, but Vacher is so sick and twisted that the other parts certainly aren't boring. I was irritated by the repeated incorrect use of the word "entitled" to mean "titled," but that's a minor error.

The audio is well read. With all the French names and geography, I was a little bit confused at times, but I don't know how much that would have improved with reading the printed version. Overall I enjoyed it okay. I wish I'd had longer blocks (like a road trip) to listen to it as it didn't go as well broken up into small bits over a couple of months.

This book is a part of the Audiosynced roundup of audio book reviews at Stacked and at Abby the Librarian. They alternate hosting the monthly post. The April roundup will be at Stacked.


I bought this book from Audible.com.

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