Bookmarks Issue: 

A True Crime Story and the Birth of Forensic Science

A-The Killer of Little ShepherdsDouglas Starr, codirector of the Center for Science and Medical Journalism at Boston University and a former PBS science editor, is the author of Blood: An Epic History of Medicine and Commerce (1998). In The Killer of Little Shepherds, Starr traces the roots of forensic science in fin de si├Ęcle France.

The Topic: Less than a decade after Jack the Ripper infamously terrorized London, France witnessed with horror the murderous spree of Joseph Vacher, an even more prolific serial killer, as he stalked the countryside in search of victims. After nearly a dozen cold-blooded murders--many of his targets were young shepherds--Vacher still roamed free, easily outwitting the efforts of a disorganized and overmatched police force. Enter Dr. Alexandre Lacassagne, a Holmesian figure who specialized in ballistics and blood-spatter analysis, and Alphonse Bertillon, the father of the mug shot. Thanks to the nascent CSI: France, Vacher's reign of terror ended in 1897, and "science had become part of detective work."
Knopf. 300 pages. $26.95. ISBN: 9780307266194

Dallas Morning News 4 of 5 Stars
"Starr is ... adept at putting a story into its larger historical and scientific context. ... Part of the book's appeal is the way Starr weaves in so much historical information--on French vagabonds in the late 1800s, on the debate whether a criminal was a physical type, on a dozen other informed topics that together create a vivid sense of an era, of a particularly horrific killer, and of the power of the truth, scientifically demonstrated, to triumph over ignorance and lies." David Walton

Entertainment Weekly 4 of 5 Stars
"How the bumbling French authorities finally pieced together the evidence--while learning to study bodies and crime scenes for clues and to compare details about the killings--represents, Starr says, nothing less than the birth of forensic science. In gripping, almost novelistic chapters, he alternates between Vacher and Alexandre Lacassagne, the criminologist who helped crack the case." Tina Jordan

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"[Starr] is clearly at ease with the medico-legal aspects of the Vacher case. He uses it not only to recount the development of forensic science, but also to vividly portray a part of France that in many ways had barely made it into the modern world. ... The Vacher case didn't so much mark the birth of forensic science as its coming of age." Drew DeSilver

New York Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The moral significance of [the author's] inquiries--trying to isolate the roots of criminality is, at heart, a quest to understand the origins of evil--comes as an afterthought that slipped from the path of Starr's own densely detailed wanderings. Nonetheless, his thought-provoking journey, through the strange underbelly of a vividly rendered France, lingers in the reader's memory." Elyssa East

Critical Summary

Douglas Starr is an old pro at reporting and writing science history, which puts The Killer of Little Shepherds squarely in his wheelhouse. The author ably tells two stories--of the serial killer Vacher's lust for murder and of the developing science that finally caught up with him--and there are enough fascinating details here to keep even the most jaded forensics fans entertained. More popular journalism than a failed "quest to understand evil" (New York Times), Starr's compelling history can be added to the growing library of books (Devil in the White City, The Lost City of Z, The Ghost Map) that brings to life forgotten or neglected events by playing on a reader's sense of adventure and the unknown, as well as the satisfaction of witnessing a confounding puzzle well solved.