What I’m Reading

The Killer of Little Shepherds: A True Crime Story and The Birth of Forensic Science  by Douglas Starr

Hooray!  I’ve finished a few of those 10 books I was telling you about :) So here’s an update!

I was given this book by a friend after discovering our mutual interest in true crime.  As an avid reader of mysteries from a young age, I quickly became fascinated with the criminal mind, and have spent WAY too many hours watching Investigation Discovery before bed.

At this point, though I get to call it research, as I am now working on a mystery series of my own.  In an effort to keep my plot lines original, yet realistic, I am always keeping my eyes and ears open for the newest developments in police work, forensics, and of course, crime sprees.

So, while the events in this book may have occurred over a hundred years ago at the end of the 19th century, I was surprised to learn just how relevant the investigation and technologies were today.

Centered around the crime wave of Joseph Vacher, a vagabond who terrorized the french countryside for years, The Killer of Little Shepherds was a remarkably interesting true story of one of history’s most notorious serial killers, and the forensic science that grew alongside the attempt to capture him.

The thing I enjoyed most perhaps, was that author Douglas Starr did a very thorough job of researching both Vacher, but also the men – including the famed Dr. Alexandre Lacassagne – who were responsible for his prosecution. There was a very nice balance between learning about the crimes and the criminology.

Also, it was amazingly informative!  I had no idea that until the 1960s, we were using microscopes invented in the 1800s – and that they were actually accurate to boot!  In fact, the most surprising aspect of the read was to discover that things weren’t as “backwards” as we often think of life being, before the advent of “technology.”  For all that they lacked – refrigeration, proper lighting, etc – investigations and autopsies were nearly as thorough as they are today.  When you think of the conditions under which most coroners and police officers were working – and add in the fact that basically all of their knowledge of the human body came from operating on those who were already dead, (since surgeries were still quite risky, much of our knowledge of anatomy came from autopsies performed on criminals sent to the guillotine) – it’s pretty impressive that we figured anything out at all!

Starr also touches on the social commentary of the time. Overlaps between law enforcement and the bourgeoning study of psychology began to lead to discussions on how to treat the sane vs. the insane during trials, and which factors (biological or social) created a criminal.  In addition, a lack of widespread education lead to a large disparity between the incomes and belief systems of those who lived in the city vs. the country – this, among other factors, lead to significant numbers of homeless people and vagabonds (making tracking Vacher extremely difficult at times).  In fact, as Starr alludes, in some ways, many of the issues faced by our ancestors over 100 years ago are still things we struggle with today. One of the most haunting lines of the book was this quote from Dr. Alexandre Laccassange: “Society has the criminals it deserves.”  *Shudder*  I can’t help wonder about it’s continued truth.

Whoever said “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it” may just have been on to something!

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4 thoughts on “What I’m Reading

  1. Really interesting post. I love thrillers and mysteries, and a lot of what I watch on TV is mystery, crime drama or something informative about crime. Not sure about watching it or reading about it before going to bed…sometimes I don’t sleep well.

  2. As I was reading, about your interest in crime and criminals, and the criminal mind, couldn’t help but wonder. Why would anyone be interested in that?
    Think about it.
    And yet, my daughter was going to choose Criminology, as a career in Mexico. She steered toward medicine instead, but she is evidently interested. Her dad was, too.

    I hate murder mysteries. But I loved your ending!
    We get the criminals we deserve.
    I guess, I like what you wrote so much because, when I read or watch, stories about “criminals”, that is what I’m thinking. How could this whole thing have been avoided?

    How can healing still happen here?
    The Lovely Bones was a good one.
    It wasn’t the criminal that mattered to me, it was the way the people changed and grew around that horror. The end was especially lovely. Everyone valued the life they had even more, the love deepened, experience intensified. The perpetrator became irrelevant. One would-be-victim made him forever irrelevant.
    I see people growing. the Serial Killer even grew as he became irrelevant, with no one to blame.
    It bores me when people are stereotyped “criminal”.
    So uninteresting.
    You really made me think. : )
    Good one.

    • I think one of the reasons I have such an interest in such things is actually pretty similar to why you enjoyed The Lovely Bones. I feel like the best way to prevent crimes and protect/promote healing for victims is by understanding what factors come together to create a criminal, and how their minds work. It really is more about the psychology, or the “why” for me than the thrill.

      Although I still love solving puzzles and a good suspenseful moment or two as well :)

      Thank you for such a thoughtful comment! I’m glad you enjoyed the post.

      • Thanks for your thought and incite of your replay.

        Do you ever wonder if what Einstein said, applies to crime? A problem cannot be solved from within the same thinking that created it?

        As soon as a victim didn’t play victim, that was out of the problem in the lovely bones. And the previous victims all grew out of victimhood too.
        I really like this perspective. I’m not sure our prison system and our society, all the families of all the bad guys can handle being overcrowded and ripped apart. No one seems to have any consideration for the families of our three million in prison in this country. We hold the gold now for most prisoners in the world.
        Just a different perspective. : )
        Yet, were would we get any good stories without the bad guys? Who knows.

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