The waning years of the nineteenth century were a heady time of new possibilities inherent in new, scientific ways of thinking and the technologies they birthed. The world for the first time seemed tamable, knowable, and possibly subject to human will as never before. And if human knowledge revealed disease as the work of bacteria not curses or evil spirits, certainly crime could be subjected to similar scientific scrutiny. Why was it that some people seemed to chose a life of crime while most lived normal, productive lives? "What was the seed of the criminal instinct?" More importantly, what could civilized society do to root it out and suppress it?
The late nineteenth century was a renaissance of scientific thinking, and the European continent was abuzz with conferences on the questions of crime — its causes and its detection — and European scholars were publishing books on forensics, crime investigation, and criminals. There was even money to be had in crime fighting by private enterprise. The first private detective was the French criminal-turned-agent-of-justice Eugene-Francois Vidocq. Along with his band of other ex-cons, he cleaned up Paris and inspired Alan Pinkerton to become the "Vidocq of the West." Crime was recognized for the first time as a scourge upon civilization and an obstacle to progress; moreover, many felt that this scourge could be addressed by scientific thinking and eradicated. Several prominent figures emerged among the students of crime and criminals.
The central figure of The Killer of Little Shepherds: A True Crime Story and the Birth of Forensic Science is the brilliant French thinker Alexandre Lacassagne, the real world version of Sherlock Homes, whose pioneering efforts have led to the birth of criminology and forensic medicine. Starr alternates the story of the birth of criminology and the professional life of Lacassagne with the bloody odyssey of the serial killer Joseph Vacher, a former soldier who roamed the French country side for three years, brutally killing more than Jack the Ripper ever did. The effect is a mesmerizing history of ideas and the men who matched their intellect and imagination against the criminal element, while the menacing true crime story of a madman stalking the French countryside adds tension and urgency to their quest. As Vacher preyed on shepherds of the French country side, men like Lacassagne, Bertillon and Lombroso were inventing ways of stopping crime and catching criminals.