The French seem to possess a uniquely close relationship with death—probably because they eat unpasteurized cheeses. A serial killer from their ranks would be armed with a vast foreknowledge of la grande mort. It would probably make him, or her, a better murderer than some lazy American. And yet we seem to produce the largest amount of them.
The Killer of Little Shepherds: A True Crime Story and the Birth of Forensic Science concerns a real-life Franco serial killer named Joseph Vacher, a rather unfriendly guy who terrorized the countryside by stalking, murdering and generally looking creepy. Vacher apparently had a penchant for rabbit-fur hats. He was also a rather prolific writer. Go figure.
The book is nonfiction, but author Douglas Starr writes it like a novel. He transports you to a world in transition, the turn of the 20th century. The industrial revolution is in full tilt. Up to this point, mental-health care mainly consisted of cold baths followed by ice picks in the nose, but it’s beginning to veer toward therapy and Schedule II narcotics. Police work is becoming scientific. Suspects are to be interviewed, not just beaten until they confess. Criminals are studied, rather than filed away as morally deficient sinners. This academic way of looking at criminals has its problems. So many people are being called crazy—and drunk and syphilitic—that the asylums are packed. Men like Vacher are often sent to the loony bin, rather than the pen where they belong.
Before the modern era, shooting your date because she didn’t want a second one was considered a “crime of passion,” one that would be dealt with lightly. That’s where we find Vacher, shooting his date and then himself. They both survive, though he becomes horribly disfigured. He’s carted off to a mental institution. A doctor caring for Vacher actually believes that his patient is depressed because his fiancée left him. I fail to see how one date followed by months of stalking and multiple gunshots makes you betrothed, but maybe that’s just me.
This is basically a true crime book, but with better writing. Most books of this genre appear to have been written by a disembodied hand who dropped out of barber college.
The book also follows the work of Dr. Alexandre Lacassagne, a pioneer of forensic science, and Emile Fourquet, the man who investigates Vacher. The chapters that deal with Vacher clip along at a brisk pace. He is a maniac, and Starr really drives that point across. But when Starr writes about the good doctor and the investigator, the pace slows and the story gets bogged down with facts. Don’t get me wrong, I love facts; the more trivial the better. It’s good to have a vast knowledge of interesting bits of information to bring up during conversation. For example, an autopsy in turn-of-the-century France was usually performed by the local doctor on the nearest table. That is just fabulously disturbing. But the fast-kill-crazy juxtaposed against slow-learn-not-crazy makes the narrative as a whole feel unstable—and not in an interesting, heighten-the-drama sort of way. The book is presented as a sort of thriller, so drama is important here. Though the history of forensic science is something worth knowing about, I found myself skipping over it to get to the murdering.
The Killer of Little Shepherds is engaging, if occasionally too grim. It’s like reading an an autopsy report, the multiple injuries found on victims laid out like items on a shopping list. I guess it’s important in the grand scheme of things to enumerate the myriad ways in which to desecrate a body, but taking it down a notch might have been beneficial. Having said that, some of the more gory details make for the most compelling historical facts Starr presents. I refer the reader back to the paragraph about autopsies and kitchen tables.
This is basically a true crime book, but with better writing. Most books of this genre appear to have been written by a disembodied hand who dropped out of barber college. Starr shows he can write a sentence, and we thank him for it. Still, the dust jacket has a large fake blood stain on it, so I’d hardly call this an academic work.