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Originally published Saturday, October 23, 2010 at 7:02 PM

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Book review

'The Killer of Little Shepherds': A 19th-century chase for a serial killer

A review of Douglas Starr's "The Killer of Little Shepherds," a gripping history of a 19th-century serial killer and of the French detectives who used groundbreaking forensic-science techniques to catch him. Starr discusses his book at 4 p.m. Nov. 14 at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Douglas Starr

The author of "The Killer of Little Shepherds" will discuss his book at 4 p.m. Nov. 14 at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co.; free (206-624-6600 or www.elliottbaybook.com).

'The Killer of Little Shepherds: A True Crime Story and the Birth of Forensic Science'

by Douglas Starr

Knopf, 300 pp., $26.95

The infamy of Joseph Vacher has faded with the passage of time, passing into the shadows of criminality along with such once-notorious names as Hawley Harvey Crippen, H.H. Holmes and Thomas Neill Cream. But in the 1890s, Vacher was known as France's version of Jack the Ripper, and details of his crime spree still are enough to make one's skin crawl.

For more than three years, until he was finally captured in 1897, Vacher roamed the backwoods and byways of rural France, slaughtering at least 11 people (most of them teens or young adults, many of them shepherds) and mutilating their bodies. Vacher's crime spree, his capture and the subsequent debate about what to do with him form the basis for Douglas Starr's gripping new book.

That Vacher could get away with his crimes for so long speaks not just to his cunning, but to the dismal state of French criminal investigation at the time. The light of belle epoque Paris, Starr writes, didn't extend very far out into the provinces, where police work often involved little more than rounding up a passel of "usual suspects" and beating them until someone confessed. There was no systematic way for the police of one town or department to communicate with those in others, enabling the vagabond Vacher to evade capture merely by hiking into the next jurisdiction.

But by the latter decades of the 19th century, the scientific spirit of the age finally reached the world of crime and its detection. Alphonse Bertillon developed a systematic way to record identifying characteristics (though not, initially, including fingerprints) and invented the mug shot, while Alexandre Lacassagne pioneered techniques of ballistics, blood-spatter analysis and body reconstruction from a cadaver that no TV cops-and-courts show could do without.

For that matter, large parts of Starr's retelling of the Vacher case read like an episode of "CSI: Rural France." The investigating magistrate's questioning of Vacher, which eventually produced his chilling confession, is a masterpiece of interrogation; it was that magistrate, Emile Fourquet, who first realized a serial killer was on the loose.

Vacher's confession wasn't the end of the matter; his trial mainly involved the question of his sanity. Here again, Starr's description of the legal, medical and even philosophical questions around Vacher's responsibility are strikingly current, as is Lacassagne's reconstruction of Vacher's mental state from the manner in which he killed.

Starr, co-director of the Center for Science and Medical Journalism at Boston University and author of "Blood: An Epic History of Medicine and Commerce," 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. (He recounts one instance after another of terrified, suspicious villagers blaming Vacher's crimes on innocent men and persecuting them relentlessly, even after Vacher's confession and execution — another aspect of the story with a contemporary ring.)

My only quibble with the book, in fact, is its subtitle. The Vacher case didn't so much mark the birth of forensic science as its coming of age. As Starr writes: "Science had become part of detective work, used not only to identify the 'who,' 'when,' and 'how' of a crime but also to deduce the criminal's mental state based on crime-scene analysis ... But even the best and brightest in those fields (of science and law), as Lacassagne would admit, would wrestle with doubts about the moral rectitude of their decisions."

Drew DeSilver is a business reporter for The Seattle Times, currently on leave.

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