Book Reviews

The Serial Killer Who Lost His Head

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The Killer of Little Shepherds
by Douglass Starr

–Reviewed by Ellen O’Connell

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In 1894, ten months after his first murder attempt, Joseph Vacher was let out of an asylum in eastern France, an event one newspaper later called “opening the door to the cage of a wild beast.” He had showed signs of rehabilitation and remorse, fooling doctors into thinking his crime was one of passion rather than cold-blooded brutality. In his latest page-turner, The Killer of Little Shepherds, Douglas Starr recounts in gruesome detail the three years Vacher spent on a killing spree in the French countryside, where Vacher killed at least 11 people, mostly young women, mutilating their bodies and leaving them for townspeople to find. Part detective story, part psychological study, The Killer of Little Shepherds is a gripping and richly layered book from a veritable expert with a good sense of story telling. The story is ultimately about the very roots of evil, an examination of criminal psychology and its interplay with biology, religion, poverty and alcoholism.

The chapters alternate between Vacher’s grisly murders (at least twice as many as Jack the Ripper) and descriptions of the detailed work of Alexandre Lacassagne, a criminologist who was instrumental in apprehending Vacher. For the few years Vacher was on the loose, the medico-legal system in rural France was overwhelmed and insufficient to the task of solving the killings. Outside of the bustling European capitals, autopsies often took place on kitchen tables. When a murder occurred, someone pointed the finger at someone else, usually settling a longstanding grudge, and the primitive rural police would make some arrests. In the absence of an organized system of forensics, detection, or an understanding of the criminal mind, Vacher could simply move on to the next town before anyone connected the murder with the vagabond.

In 1889, Dr. Lacassagne was head of the department of legal medicine at the University of Lyon, where he was revolutionizing autopsies for his students. “Death leaves a signature, and they would learn to read the meaning: a peaceful death versus a violent one; a death by accident, suicide, or criminal intent,” writes Starr. This included measuring the angles of stab wounds to determine the killer’s trajectory and position, the bullet’s pathway to conclude the gun’s location. This was the beginning of the forensic systems in place today and the model for current criminal psychology and autopsies. Unlike most of his contemporaries, Lacassagne also rejected the notion of a born criminal and viewed environmental factors as crucial influences.

Starr avoids sensationalism by focusing the latter half of his book on the debate over Vacher’s sanity during his trial. Vacher confessed to eleven murders and brilliantly played up his agitated mental state. Ultimately, the courts found him sane, however, and Vacher went to the guillotine a few months later.

Like the criminologists and detectives he depicts, Starr has a knack for details. The slow but fascinating detection process, the very attention missing from modern crime shows on television today, elevates this account to an elegant and chilling narrative. We see that in real life forensics take time and autopsies are gruesome. In these days of CSI, that’s a useful reminder.

Excerpt: Vacher was groaning like an animal whose leg had been caught in a trap. “The coward!” roared some people in the crowd. “He does not know how to die properly.” The executioners lowered the lunette, the wooden bracket that holds the prisoner’s head in position.

Buy the book: Skylight Books, Powell’s, Amazon

Ellen O’Connell has been published in several national literary magazines and is a contributing writer to the forthcoming book, The Moment (2011 Harper Perennial). This year she was nominated for the 2011 Pushcart Award and currently teaches creative writing at UC Santa Barbara.

*Photo of the Palace of Justice in Paris courtesy of wallyg.