A riveting true crime story that vividly recounts the birth of modern forensics.
At the end of the nineteenth century, serial murderer Joseph Vacher, known and feared as “The Killer of Little Shepherds,” terrorized the French countryside. He eluded authorities for years—until he ran up against prosecutor Emile Fourquet and Dr. Alexandre Lacassagne, the era’s most renowned criminologist. The two men—intelligent and bold—typified the Belle Époque, a period of immense scientific achievement and fascination with science’s promise to reveal the secrets of the human condition.
With high drama and stunning detail, Douglas Starr revisits Vacher’s infamous crime wave, interweaving the story of how Lacassagne and his colleagues were developing forensic science as we know it. We see one of the earliest uses of criminal profiling, as Fourquet painstakingly collects eyewitness accounts and constructs a map of Vacher’s crimes. We follow the tense and exciting events leading to the murderer’s arrest. And we witness the twists and turns of the trial, celebrated in its day. In an attempt to disprove Vacher’s defense by reason of insanity, Fourquet recruits Lacassagne, who in the previous decades had revolutionized criminal science by refining the use of blood-spatter evidence, systematizing the autopsy, and doing groundbreaking research in psychology. Lacassagne’s efforts lead to a gripping courtroom denouement.
The Killer of Little Shepherds is an important contribution to the history of criminal justice, impressively researched and thrillingly told.
Starr (Blood) eloquently juxtaposes the crimes of French serial killer Joseph Vacher and the achievements of famed criminologist Dr. Alexandre Lacassagne during France''s belle époque. From 1894 to 1897, Vacher is thought to have raped, killed, and mutilated at least 25 people, though he would confess to only 11 murders. Lacassagne, who headed the department of legal medicine at the university in Lyon, was a pioneer in crime scene analysis, body decomposition, and early profiling, and investigated suspicious deaths, all in an era when rural autopsies were often performed on the victim''s dinner table. Lacassagne''s contributions to the burgeoning field of forensic science, as well as the persistence of investigating magistrate Émile Fourquet, who connected crimes while crisscrossing the French countryside, eventually brought Vacher to justice. Vacher claimed insanity, which then (as now) was a vexed legal issue. Lacassagne proved the "systematic nature" of the crimes. Starr, codirector of Boston University''s Center for Science and Medical Journalism, creates tension worthy of a thriller; in Lacassagne, he portrays a man determined to understand the "how" behind some of humanity''s most depraved and perhaps take us one step closer to the "why." 16 pages of photos.
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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.
“Chilling . . . An exemplar of historical true-crime nonfiction.”
-Mark Dunkelman, Favorite Books of 2010, The Providence Journal
“Absorbing . . . Starr’s thought-provoking journey, through the strange underbelly of a vividly rendered France, lingers in the reader’s memory.”
-Elyssa East, The New York Times Book Review (Editor’s Choice)
“Engrossing and carefully researched.”
-The New Yorker
“A- . . . Gripping, almost novelistic . . . Like an episode of CSI: 19th-Century France.”
-Tina Jordan, Entertainment Weekly
-Laura Spinney, Nature
“Gripping . . . Starr’s description of the legal, medical and even philosophical questions around Vacher’s responsibility are strikingly current.”
-Drew DeSilver, The Seattle Times
“The perfect true-crime book to curl up with on an autumn night.”
-Doug Childers, Richmond Times-Dispatch
“Riveting, yet cerebral . . . Besides focusing on Joseph Vacher, also known as the Killer of Little Shepherds, Starr explains and expands on the fascinating achievements of those studying the criminal world.”
-Elizabeth Humphrey, San Francisco Book Review
“A gripping book that alternately appalls and fascinates.”
-Mark Dunkelman, Providence Journal
“Superior . . . This book is sensational and swift. But its real strength is the ability to show the history and progress of forensic science and its effect on the criminal justice system . . . This book reads like fiction and fascinates with fact.”
-Bethany Latham, Historical Novel Review
“Lively . . . With drama and stunning detail, Starr documents one of the earliest examples of criminal profiling, Vacher’s murders, his arrest, and the twists and turns of the trial that followed. The Killer of Little Shepherds is an important contribution to the history of criminal justice. It is crisply written, meticulously researched, and rich in historical detail.”
-Larry Cox, Tucson Citizen
“Douglas Starr’s riveting, sophisticated book provides the distance and perspective needed to facilitate systematic but critical thinking about forensic science.”
-Stanley J. Morse, PsycCritiques
“Fascinating . . . Compelling . . . Written with the dramatic tension of a good novel and the impeccable detail of a well-researched history.”
-Erika Engelhaupt, ScienceNews
“Deft . . . Admirable . . . Riveting . . . The Killer of Little Shepherds is deeply rooted in historical sources and subtle context, but Starr also has a journalist’s flair for the colorful detail.”
-John Williams, The Second Pass
“Graceful and accessible . . . The granddaddy of all true crime stories.”
-David Walton, Louisville Courier-Journal
“Expert . . . You’ll be richly rewarded . . . A good book that will keep you reading.”
-The Crime Segments blog
“Eloquent . . . Starr creates tension worthy of a thriller.”
-Starred review, Publishers Weekly
“Starr’s heavy immersion into forensics and investigative procedure makes interesting reading . . . [A] well-documented mix of forensic science, narrative nonfiction, and criminal psychology.”
Douglas Starr is codirector of the Center for Science and Medical Journalism and a professor of journalism at Boston University. His book
Blood: An Epic History of Medicine and Commerce won the 1998 Los Angeles Times Book Prize and became a PBS-TV documentary special. A veteran science, medical, and environmental reporter, Starr has contributed to many national publications, including
Smithsonian, Audubon, National Wildlife, Sports Illustrated, the
Los Angeles Times, The Christian Science Monitor, and
Time, and has served as a science editor for PBS-TV. He lives near Boston.