The Killer of Little Shepherds
Title: The Killer of Little Shepherds: A True Crime Story and the Birth of Forensic Science
Published by: Vintage
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 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, bold, and full of the spirit of the age—typified the Belle Epoque, a period of scientific achievement and fascination with its promise to reveal the secrets of the human condition.
With high drama and stunning detail, Douglas Starr recounts Vacher’s infamous crime wave, interweaving the story of how Lacassagne and his colleagues were developing forensics 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 chilling and horrific events leading to the murderer’s arrest. And we witness the twists and turns of the crucial trial, celebrated in its day. In an attempt to disprove Vacher’s defense by reason of insanity, Fourquet recruits Lacassagne, who in the decades previous had revolutionized criminal science by refining the use of blood spatter evidence, systematizing the autopsy and doing ground-breaking research in psychology. Lacassagne’s efforts lead to a gripping courtroom denouement.
Winner of the Gold Dagger Award for nonfiction, finalist for the Edgar Award, The Killer of Little Shepherds is an important contribution to the history of science and criminal justice, impressively researched and thrillingly told.
Read the Q&A and view the gallery
"Engrossing and carefully researched." (more)
—The New Yorker
"Absorbing …Starr’s thought-provoking journey, through the strange underbelly of a vividly rendered France, lingers in the reader’s memory." (more)
—The New York Times Sunday Book Review (Editor's Choice)
"Gripping, almost novelistic...The Killer of Little Shepherds is like an episode of CSI: 19th-Century France." (more)
"A true-crime blockbuster with a historical edge...Starr has created a book with every bit as much tension as a thriller, as much detail as a meticulous police procedural, and a court-room drama that's up there with the best." (more)
—The Independent (London)
"Fascinating...compelling...written with the dramatic tension of a good novel and the impeccable detail of a well-researched history." (more)
"An exemplar of historical true-crime nonfiction."
—The Providence Journal
"Starr manages his material superbly and turns this study of the birth of forensic science into a gripping, sometimes horrific, sometimes funny page-turner."
—The Telegraph (London)
"A must-read for anyone who likes tales about intelligent investigators matching wits against wily offenders… Starr gives both men so much life and dimension that readers will feel as if they’re right there in the courtroom, awaiting the outcome." (more)
—Katherine Ramsland, The Writer's Forensic Blog
"An intriguing read..."
—The Bookseller (UK)
"Starr's description of the legal, medical and even philosophical questions around Vacher's responsibility are strikingly current." (more)
—The Seattle Times
"Fascinating...the perfect true-crime book to curl up with on an autumn night..."
"The grandaddy of all true crime stories...Graceful and accessible..."
"Starr, a veteran science writer, intertwines the stories of Vacher and of the men who would prove to be his downfall, in a gripping account of a crucial stage in the creation of the modern criminal justice system." (more)
—The Chronicle of Higher Education
"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.”
"A book so painstakingly researched should not be so smoothly readable, but the craftsmanship is just part of the ride . . . the details are mesmerizing... Compelling and readable."
—Douglas Lord, Library Journal
“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.”
—San Francisco Book 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.”
“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
“Expert...You’ll be richly rewarded...”
—The Crime Segments blog
"Elegant and chilling...Part detective story, part psychological study, The Killer of Little Shepherds is a gripping and richly layered book." (more)
—Ellen O'Connell, Zocalo Public Square
On a drizzly spring evening in 1893, in the French provincial city of Besançon, nineteen-year-old Louise Barant was walking along the riverside promenade when she crossed paths with a man wearing the dress uniform of the French army. His name was Joseph Vacher (pronounced Vashay). "Ugly weather, isn't it?" he said, and automatically she responded, "For sure." Normally Barant, tall and wholesome-looking, with curly blond hair, would not have spoken to a stranger, especially one brutish-looking as he; but Vacher projected a kind of disarming innocence, and the sergeant's chevrons on his sleeve reassured her.
So they chatted and walked and shared dinner in a café. They learned that they both came from small towns: she from Baume-les-Dames, a pretty village near the Swiss border, and he from Beaufort, a nondescript hill town southeast of Lyon. As they lingered over shared stories about their pasts, he told her he had never felt this comfortable with anyone, and she, too, sensed she could speak freely and easily. Yet she felt a shiver of doubt when she looked up from her meal and saw his eyes burning into her. Later that evening, he ardently proposed marriage. When he vowed that he would kill her if she ever betrayed him, she realized she had made a terrible mistake.