Forensic science is not as infallible as some modern TV shows would have us believe. In fact, “In 2009, a committee of America's National Academy of Science found so much to question about the precision of modern forensics that it recommended a wholesale revamping of the field...” (244) In recent years more than 230 people have been freed by DNA analysis and over half of them were found to have been convicted by faulty science.
Starr takes us back to the beginnings of forensic science. The setting is a number of murders in the French countryside at the end of the nineteenth century. The murderer was Joseph Vacher. He became known as “The Killer of Little Shepherds.”
Starr interweaves Vacher's crimes with the work of Dr. Alexandre Lacassagne, renowned criminologist. Lacassagne and his colleagues were developing the forensic science we know today. He refined the use of blood spatter evidence, the autopsy, and did research in psychology.
In the end, it is prosecutor Emile Fourquet who connects the crimes to Vacher. He completes a profile of the murderer, eventually matching it to Vachar. By employing the new technique called psychology, Fourquet elicits a confession from Vacher. When Vacher's defense includes insanity, Fourquet brings in Lacassagne.
Starr uses journals, police and court records to write a book that flows quickly and reads well. It is a fascinating true crime story revolving around the birth of forensic science.
As with any true crime record, there are some gruesome scenes, so be prepared.
Alfred A. Knopf, 249 pages.