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A True Crime Story and the Birth of Forensic Science

by Douglas Starr

Pub Date: Oct. 7th, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-307-26619-4
Publisher: Knopf

Important developments in 19th-century forensics and criminal justice are interwoven with the killing spree of French serial killer Joseph Vasher. 

Starr (Journalism/Boston Univ.; Blood: An Epic History of Medicine and Commerce, 1998) ushers readers into a French society in which criminals were not only becoming more violent but also more sophisticated. Meanwhile, the criminal-justice system was hampered by outmoded methods of investigation, dated autopsy procedures and often inappropriate dispensation of justice. The author situates his studies where forensic science and criminal-justice theory began to catch up with increasingly frequent and complicated 20th-century crimes. Then entering the picture are forensic scientists Alexandre Lacassagne and Cesare Lombroso. Lacassagne believed that criminals were shaped by sociological factors, while Lombroso insisted that crime was caused primarily by biological factors—criminals were “born,” not made. Intertwined with the intermittently compelling story of these scientists’ achievements is the more gripping account of “Killer of Little Shepherds” Vasher’s murderous rampage outside Lyon, France. Vasher was an honorably discharged sergeant who also happened to be a homicidal maniac. After a short stay in two different asylums, he was released, and the “cured” Vasher embarked on a series of gruesome murders that surpassed even Jack the Rippers’ in quantity and brutality. Although Starr’s heavy immersion into forensics and investigative procedure makes interesting reading for CSI fans, his focus too often meanders—from autopsies to “root” causes of crime to, finally, an inconclusive look at the sticky business of separating “insane” murderers from “sane” ones. Ironically, the evidence leading to Vasher’s capture and murder conviction had little to do with the forensic advances of either Lombroso or Lacassagne. Through a particularly cagey mode of psychological trickery, private investigator Emile Fourquet finally elicited a murder confession from the long-elusive killer.

An uneven but well-documented mix of forensic science, narrative nonfiction and criminal psychology.