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Book Club: Douglas Starr’s “The Killer of Little Shepherds”

Posted on : Aug-11-2011 | By : John | In : Book Club, Event

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Our book club meeting this month is again at the usual place and time, 3 PM Saturday August 13 on the lawn just north of Harvard Yard, between Memorial Hall (the big ugly pseudo gothic building) and the Science Center (the big ugly modern building that looks like a flight of giant stairs to nowhere.) It’s supposed to be warm and sunny, but if it rains, we’ll move indoors to the cafeteria of the Northwest building up Oxford Street just past the museum.

The book is about the birth of forensic science (CSI: Lyon, as in Lyon, France, circa 1894.) I’m about 1/2 way through, the prime suspect is about to go to trial, and is attempting an insanity defense. It’s a pretty compelling story, all the more so because it’s true. The author alternates chapters between the story of the criminal, Joesph Vacher, and the history of forensics, mostly focusing on Professor Lacassagne of the Lyon Medical School, who was the leading forensic scientist of the time.

Not only was the 1890’s the birth of medical forensics and modern autopsy and other investigative techniques, and also of psychiatry (alienists, as the psychiatrists were then called), but also of yellow journalism, so there is loads source material. Some of it, like much of news today, is thoroughly bogus, invented to sell papers (and to deliver eyeballs to advertisers), made up out of sheer speculation or completely repetitive and derivative, but there were some journalists who seemed to do a really good job, interviewing witnesses and people who had crossed paths with Vacher, and discovering which ones told consistent stories that meshed with others, and which seemed only to be trying to get their 15 minutes. Starr seems to have done a good job, 115 years later, of separating the sheep from the goats, to use a herding metaphor. Of course, I haven’t actually followed up on any of his copious source notes, but they are there for any rare individual who might be skeptical. :-)

My biggest problem so far has been keeping track of all the people, victims, witnesses, scientists, doctors, police investigators, prosecutors, and journalists. There are lots of them! But it is fascinating so far. One interesting tidbit is the use of brand-new X-rays to determine if Vacher still had bullet fragments (the result of a failed murder/suicide attempt) lodged in his brain that might have affected his behavior. (This time period was also the birth of neurology.)

I hope to finish it before the meeting, but it will be fun to discuss even if I haven’t. If you are a fan of scientific history, murder mysteries, police procedurals, Law and Order, CSI, Silent Witness, Cold Case, Bones, Waking the Dead or a zillion others, even if you haven’t read or only started reading the book, please come. We always have great discussions! And remember to bring a snack to share; Dirt Cakes would be particularly appropriate as we discuss autopsies.
An illustration of the book's discussion of autopsy technique.

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