Monday, March 21, 2011

The Killer of LIttle Shepherds

Rhys here on True Crime Tuesday and today I am thrilled to have a true "star" of true crime writing. In fact it's Douglas Starr, the writer of The Killer of Little Shepherds.

Professor Douglas Starr is co-director of the graduate Program in Science and Medical Journalism at Boston University. The Killer of Little Shepherds is his second book. His previous book, BLOOD: An Epic History of Medicine and Commerce, tells the four-century saga of how human blood became a commodity – from the first experimental transfusions in the 17th century, through the collection and mobilization of blood in modern wars, to a tragic denouement during the AIDS epidemic. It was published in seven languages, won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize (science and technology category) and was named to the "Best Books of the Year" lists of Publishers Weekly, Booklist and Library Journal. A PBS series based on the book, Red Gold, aired on more than 300 PBS stations in the U.S. and internationally. Starr's writings about science, medicine, public health and the environment have appeared in a variety of venues, including The New Republic, Science, Smithsonian, Public Television, National Public Radio. He has appeared as a commentator on ABC's Nightline, the BBC, CNN and NPR.

The Killer of Little Shepherds details a particular case in nineteenth century France, the first case that made use of modern forensics. It has already garnered Douglas world-wide accolades including an Edgar nomination. Doug and I were recently speakers at the same fundraiser and had a chance to chat at the dinner, so of course I snapped him up for my true crime day.

RHYS:Doug, it's a pleasure to welcome you to Jungle Red Writers and to congratulate you on the accolades this book has been garnering.
Your background is in journalism. Have you always been fascinated with true crime?

DOUG: Surprisingly, no. I’ve always been a science-guy. I’ve always written about the environment, medicine, public health and related subjects. I especially love the history of science, and the larger questions that the scientific method poses – and answers – for humanity. With those interests, I guess it was inevitable that I’d become interested in the theme of science and justice. And that, inevitably led to the story of this case.

RHYS: In what ways is a true crime book harder to write than mystery fiction?

DOUG: I’ve never written fiction, so can only imagine what it’s like based on having fiction writers as friends. You guys have it easy! (At least as I imagine it.) You do your research, and then once you establish your setting and basic facts you can lean back and invent! In non-fiction I never get to invent. Every detail must be factual. If I say it was a rainy day on March 2, 1898 it’s because I verified the weather for that day. If a character says something in one of my books it’s because I found that quote in testimony or news reports.

I’d compare non-fiction writing to creating a pointillist painting. Instead of using thousands of tiny dots of paint to create a portrait we non-fiction writers use thousands of data-bits. The challenge lies in standing back from those data bits to see the larger stories and themes.

RHYS: What drew you to this particular crime?

DOUG: I knew I wanted to write about the 1890s, when modern forensic science was developed. So I started rummaging about in the history of medicine journals in the Harvard Medical School Library, near my home. I tripped over an academic paper about this case, and started researching it. Then I found a book about the case by the man who solved it -- Dr. Alexandre Lacassagne, the greatest forensic scientist of his day. Over the months, as the evidence accumulated, I realized that this would be the perfect case to represent the birth of a new science. I was also struck by the larger-than-life nature of the protagonists: one of the most brilliant scientists of his day pursuing one of history’s worst serial killers. Finally, I wanted to resurrect the memory of Dr. Lacassagne. Most people never heard of him, but his name should be every bit as prominent as Darwin, Pasteur and others of his contemporaries

RHYS: Tell us briefly about the case that sparked the book.

DOUG: It was quite ghastly. Joseph Vacher was a vagabond in France who killed more than twice as many people as Jack the Ripper. I guess we’d call him a psychopath today. He would wander the countryside taking agricultural jobs, and when the impulse came upon him, stalk, kill and eviscerate young people. Then he’d hide the body, clean himself up and walk upwards of 20 miles to the next district, where no one had ever heard of him. Whole villages would be traumatized in the wake of his killings. The newspapers called him “The French Ripper,” or “the Killer of Shepherds,” because he liked to stalk shepherds, who tended to be young people in remote locations without witnesses.

What drew me to the story wasn’t the killings, but the brilliant ways in which investigators approached it. The Vacher case included so many elements we know as modern forensics – crime scene analysis, scientific autopsies, criminal profiling, modern interrogation, and psychological analysis, to name just a few. It really was a “poster child” for modern criminal investigation.

RHYS: How did you handle the gory aspects of this case? I'm impressed that you sat in on autopsies--what was that like?

DOUG: It wasn’t easy. During my research trips to Lyon, France, I got to know Dr. Daniel Malicier, who currently heads the Institute of Legal Medicine that Dr. Lacassagne created. Dr. Malicier invited me to sit in on a couple of criminal autopsies. Frankly, the experience gave me a nightmare – these were not pretty corpses at all, and one had been found after sitting for several weeks in an abandoned warehouse. It was worth it, though. In one of his most famous cases Dr. Lacassagne had to perform an autopsy on a body in an advanced state of decay. Because of my experience I was able to accurately re-create the details of that scene.

RHYS:Do you have another book in the works?

DOUG:Not yet. I’m looking, though. Every non-fiction book is an adventure, and I’m eagerly looking forward to the next.

RHYS: What a fascinating subject. Thank you so much, Douglas Starr.

If you'd like to know more, there are a couple of short videos about the book.


  1. Welcome Doug,
    From my alma mater! I'm pretty much only reading non-fiction and true crime these days, and am actively looking for new books - this one sounds terrific.

    I've been working on true crime instead of fiction and I love your analogy. I always say that in fiction, a little fact goes a long, long, way. But in non-fiction, you need way more facts than you actually use just to get the perspective right and to make sure you are not making any false assumptions.

    Actually, I can't wait to read BOTH your books!

  2. Dear Rhys: I'm writing to say how much I enjoyed your post on The Killer of Little Shepherds. I plan on reading the Professor's book, it sounds so interesting.

    PS: look forward to seeing you at your Library appearance in NS in May. I've been a fan of your writing for awhile.

  3. Thanks, Doug, for talking to us. I'm fascinated by your subjects. My undergraduate degree is in biology, so I've always loved science AND writing--and a good story!

    The Killer of Little Shepherds is going to the top of my list.

  4. Holy wow! This must be Kismet. One of my current WIPs is set in 1894 in London. My protagonist is a female doctor working as a police surgeon (ie. doing autopsies for Scotland Yard) and in researching the forensics of the time, I came across mention of Dr. Alexandre Lacassagne and his role in developing crime scene analysis and forensics. I dug deeper and came across your book, Professor Starr. I have it on reserve from the library but all their copies are out. I can't wait to read it!

    Thanks so much for visiting today. My background is in crime scene investigation and analysis and I'm really looking forward to your insights.

  5. Although I tend to stick to amateur sleuth writing, I have been fascinated by forensics for a long time. Like any good mystery, there are pieces of the puzzle that have to be found in order to solve the crime. The last book I read on the subject was The Poisoners Handbook by Deborah Blum. The history of how modern forensic techniques came about grabs my interest every time, so your book jumps to the top of my "buy" list. Whether we write fact or fiction, the truth of the detail is what can make or break a story. Thanks for sharing.

  6. Hi Doug, thanks for stopping by JRW! If you have time, could you give us an example of the kind of early forensic techniques used in this case?

  7. Thanks all, for your comments. What a great website! Rhys may have mentioned that she & I shared an author's event, and I must tell you - she's a wonderful speaker. We had a lot of fun.

    Roberta has asked about some early forensic techniques. I go into that in detail in my book, but for an overview you can to the home page of my website and click on the words, "CSI Then & Now." It's stunning how many of today's techniques we've inherited from those early pioneers.