Tag Archives: 3 stars

#31: The Killer of Little Shepherds, by Douglas Starr

Begun: 4/06/2011
Finished: 4/25/2011
Format: Kindle
Rating: 3/5

First of all, this book has a bit of a misleading subtitle.  It purports to be “A True Crime Story and the Birth of Forensic Science” but it’s really more about forensic psychology.  As if becoming a common pattern among historical true crime books, the author follows two threads, one about a criminal and the other about an investigator, until the two converge.  Now, the investigator here is Alexandre Lacassagne, who is considered one of the founders of modern forensic science, but the trial detailed in the book, that of French serial killer Joseph Vacher, was not really about forensic science, nor was forensics used to convict him (he confessed, but pled insanity).

The advent of modern forensic techniques, many of which were developed by Lacassagne, did help to corner Vacher and capture him, but most of the work was done by a magistrate named Fouquet, and he tracked Vacher the old-fashioned way.  The connection between this case and forensic science is pretty thin, although much is made of the difficulties of rural autopsies in late 19th century France and how Lacassagne worked to standardize the practice of medico-legal investigation and developed techniques that are still used.

None of which really impacted Vacher’s capture and trial.  In fact, most of that boiled down to the then-heated (and still murky) debate about what constitutes criminal insanity, how you know someone has it, and the ethics involved in trying and executing someone who may or may not have a mental illness that excuses him from culpability.

Vacher’s crimes were indeed horrendous.  Starr’s descriptions of Vacher’s vagabond life in the French countryside is vivid and interesting, as is the historical information about the development of the scientific side of things in urban centers, but the connective tissue here is pretty thin.  The writing is serviceable, although some maps and illustrations would have added much to the text.

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#21: Death’s Acre, by Dr. Bill Bass and Jon Jefferson

Begun: 3/20/2011
Finished: 3/21/2011
Format: Kindle
Rating: 3/5

I have a keen interest in forensic science and true crime.  I studied forensic anthropology for a little while in grad school (and I feel compelled to add that I did this before it was The In Thing).  My interest in the subject was sparked by a book by Dr. William Maples, one of the founders of the field, called Dead Men Do Tell Tales. Dr. Bass is another of the giants in the field, although Maples’ book is more artful and creative than this one, which is somewhat formless and meandering.

I felt like I’d heard some of these stories before.  Given how many books in this field I’ve read, it’s entirely possible that I have, but the similarities between Bass’ career and Maples’ are sometimes striking.   Bass is a friendlier narrator than Maples (at times Maples’ ego shines forth like a pair of neon green fuzzy dice hanging from a rearview mirror) but his voice wanders, and he inexplicable gives the same explanations several times in different chapters, almost as if the chapters were written as standalone articles and later compiled, resulting in some repetition of expository information.

His discussion of his work at the so-called Body Farm (actually the Anthropological Research Facility) is actually pretty minimal.  Most of the book is about his other cases.  I would have liked more insight about the work they’ve done at the facility.  My enjoyment of the book (which I read very quickly) was probably impeded by my familiarity with the subject matter; a lot of things that would be interesting and new to a less prepared reader were old hat to me.

It’s an interesting read but at times wearying and repetitive.  I’m surprised his co-author didn’t corrall the prose a bit more.  Weak, Jefferson.  Weak.