This captivating book recounts a series of murders that took place in late nineteenth century France; this in light of the development of the forensic science that helped capture the killer - a mass murderer. Roughly the first half of the book is composed of chapters that alternate between two main themes: i) the life and crimes of the mass-murderer in question, and ii) the evolution of forensic techniques (including the individuals who were instrumental in developing and using them). These two themes merge in second half of the book which focuses on activities surrounding the ultimate capture of the murderer, his incarceration, his trial, his conviction and the aftermath. In this second half, much space is devoted to the determination of whether the accused was mentally stable or insane. Intriguing arguments in support of each side are presented. Modern views on the mental disposition of today's criminals are also discussed.
The writing style is quite lively, authoritative, very accessible and incredibly gripping - a true page-turner. Technical terms are very clearly explained as they occur. This book should be of great interest to all true crime and forensic science buffs; but it can also be enjoyed by general readers who love being riveted to their chairs with suspense.
Welcome to the modern world of forensic science and the catching of serial killers. Starr has produced an amazing study of the early scientific techniques used to bring dangerous criminals to justice in the late 19th century and accompanied it with a real-life story covering its many applications. There are two men in this account that will immediately catch the reader's attention: Dr. Lacassange, the scientist and leading authority on criminal investigations and Vacher, the psychopathic killer terrorizing the French countryside for over a year. What makes Lacassange's work so intriguing is that it represented a new direction for solving complex cases. With his penchant for collecting and correlating evidence, everything would come down to being able to identify Vacher and placing him at the various crime scenes through chemical testing, microscopic analysis, and anatomical profiling. Paralleling Lacassange's incredible forensic efforts is the detailed account of Vacher's life on the run as he unleashed his homicidal fury with seeming impunity over hundreds of miles of southern France. It was Lacassange's dedication to collecting and comparing detail that finally gave authorities the clues that they were dealing with one perpetrator rather than many and that this individual had a distinct style of killing his victims. The part of the book that really intrigued me was the follow-up efforts made to determine Vacher's sanity. While he definitely exhibited serious `mad-dog' tendencies, such as uncontrollable rages, which were well-known to authorities from his time in a mental asylum, the state opted to try him as a person fully in control of his faculties. I would recommend this book to anyone who likes to follow the twists and turns of a well-organized hunt for elusively dangerous criminals.
on October 4, 2013
This well-written and gripping book tells two stories: the story of the serial killer Joseph Vacher, and the story of the emergence of a modern approach to criminal investigation and justice. The author finishes by summarizing the evolution of our view of crime from one of sin to one of psychological and sociological phenomenon (a transformation which is not entirely complete) but his final conclusion is disappointing. He asserts that the roots of the evil of people like Vacher remains unknown and unknowable, a topic best left for philosophers and clergy. This is a terrible way to end a book whose very theme is the triumph of knowledge over superstition.