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The Sirens of Suspense




Leslie Budewitz is the author of BOOKS, CROOKS AND COUNSELORS: How to Write Accurately About Criminal Law and Courtroom Procedure (Quill Driver Books, October 2011). She is a practicing lawyer and mystery writer living in northwest Montana. Read an excerpt and more articles for writers at her website. Her cozy series, The Food Lovers’ Village Mysteries, will debut from Berkley Prime Crime in 2013.

Truth is Creepier than Fiction item1

At Bouchercon in St Louis, I moderated a panel on forensics in fiction, and loved reading my panelists’ books. The novels—by Jan Burke, Marcia Clark, Stefanie Pintoff, and Jonathan Hayes—were stunning, some of my favorites of the year. But the book I can’t stop thinking—or talking—about is THE KILLER OF LITTLE SHEPHERDS: A True Crime Story and the Birth of Forensic Science, by Douglas Starr. item9

And I don’t read true crime. My bias goes back to high school, when I worked at the Waldenbooks in Rimrock Mall in Billings, Montana. Perfect job for a nerdy sixteen-year-old. My reading tastes were eclectic—they still are—and I loved reading my way around the store.

But true crime in those days seemed so. . . salacious. The books were mass market paperbacks, and the covers tended to be lurid red and black affairs. Occasionally, one bore a shiny embossed knife or a pool of blood. Think AMITYVILLE HORROR and HELTER SKELTER. The crimes were recent and widely publicized, even in those noncomputerized times. A sensitive kid, I left the room when the stories came on the TV news. No way would I have actually read one.

And then I became a lawyer. While most of my practice is civil litigation, I’ve also worked my share of criminal cases, gory personal injury suits, and child abuse cases. Real life can be nightmarish. No need to scare myself for fun.

But THE KILLER OF LITTLE SHEPHERDS fascinated me. An Edgar nominee and a Dagger winner, it layers the stories of three men: French serial killer, Joseph Vacher, active near Lyons in the 1890s. Alexandre Lacassagne, medical doctor turned criminologist, who combined precision and methodology in autopsies with psychology and other forensic tools just emerging. And prosecutor Emile Fourquet, who in building a case against Vacher for the murder of a young shepherd boy in a rural area near Lyon, communicated with police in towns throughout France and helped uncover the full extent of Vacher’s crimes.

These new methods merged brilliantly in one investigation and prosecution. Without any one of them—Lacassagne’s rigorous standards for autopsies, Fourquet’s handwritten letters, or his first-ever charts and spreadsheets—the case never would have been made. Vacher might have been declared insane and held not criminally responsible–as he had been before–and freed to kill again.

The story’s unfamiliar to most of us. Doug Starr theorizes that although Vacher was one of the worst serial killers documented and was well-known in France by the time of his execution, he’s forgotten now largely because he was caught, convicted, and executed. His story lacks the mystery or mystique of, say, Jack the Ripper. Starr admits he resisted writing about Vacher—the man was simply appalling and his crimes horrific, although Starr does leave out some of the gorier details. But he realized that to accurately portray the emergence of forensic science, he couldn’t focus only on Lacassagne. As every novelist knows, the protagonist is only as strong as his adversary, and that’s true of nonfiction as well.

And then of course, there’s France. Starr spent months researching on site, even attending an autopsy and tracking down locals who remembered stories their elders told and showed him the hillside pastures and groves of trees where some of the killings occurred.




SO FESS UP. DO YOU READ TRUE CRIME? Why is it we can read all kinds of gore when we know it’s made up, but feel creeped out—and maybe a little like Peeping Toms—when it’s real? Tell us, leave a comment, or ask Leslie a question by commenting below or visit us and share your thoughts on our Facebook page and be entered to win BOOKS, CROOKS AND COUNSELORS!

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