Thursday, January 28, 2021 12:46

Book Review: the Killer of Little Shepherds by Douglas Starr (2011)


I’ve just completed this thoroughly engaging book, one which manages to sustain the weight of humanising its key players as well as providing an in-depth history of the state of play of criminology at the turn of the twentieth century. This is no mean feat, but Starr does it very well, interweaving the particularities of the Vacher case into a wider narrative of the times.

Joseph Vacher is often known as the ‘French Ripper’ – his case came within easy memory of the Jack the Ripper murders in London, and the ‘ripper’ epithet has been beloved of tabloid journalists ever since, so it’s not hard to see why the term came to be coined for Vacher. The son of a farmer, Vacher didn’t follow in the family footsteps but joined the local regiment, where he soon became renowned for erratic, violent behaviour and was roundly avoided by most of his peers. When a local maidservant, Louise Barant, refused Vacher’s advances, he decided to shoot her in the face (she survived) and then to attempt suicide (he also survived, albeit living out the rest of his days with a bullet lodged in his head.) This landed him in the asylum at Dole and thence at Saint-Robert where, a mere ten months after trying to murder someone and kill himself, he was pronounced ‘cured’ and released. When he was released, he started walking – sometimes seeking work as an itinerant – and wherever he walked, he started to murder, typically young shepherds, but anyone young, isolated and unfortunate enough to cross paths with him.

As the book recounts how Vacher was cutting a swathe across the French countryside, from Normandy to Lourdes and everywhere in-between, it alternates chapters on his exploits with chapters which more generally discuss the state of play in criminology and forensics at the time. It’s a simple enough structure, but it allows the reader to relate a single case to a much broader picture. The life and times of Dr. Lacassagne, the prolific criminologist who eventually tested his wits against Vacher, features prominently throughout the book: I got the distinct impression that Starr has an admiration for the doctor, although to be fair to the author, he presents a very balanced view of everyone he describes, including Vacher. There is no moralising here, and when it seems that Starr is going to join the consensus which proclaims Vacher sane and fit to stand trial, he presents an alternative view, one which makes a powerful case for Vacher’s insanity. The overriding sense given is how damn difficult it can be to call these things, especially when the price for getting it wrong is death by guillotine.

As well as lots of detail on the case and on important figures in the field (such as the slightly barmy but incredibly dogged Cesare Lombroso), Starr broadens his scope, discussing everything from France’s ‘vagabond problem’ to the role of true crime in the press and entertainments, the treatment of the mentally ill, and the competing theories on what made people commit criminal acts – heredity? Environment? Much of this is done by giving people their own voices in the book, and Starr draws upon the masses of documentation and correspondance left behind by the figures he discusses. An interested but largely neutral voice organises an exhaustive amount of material into a very readable, intriguing study of how one serial killer case illustrated a great deal about the state of play in France at that time. It never feels too weighty, and it’s cleverly done. Thoroughly recommended.

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