Tuesday, 22 July 2014

The Killer of Little Shepherds and The Stranger Beside Me - two "true crime" classics

I’m about half-way through The Killer of Little Shepherds: The Case of the French Ripper and the Birth of Forensic Science by Douglas Starr, the account of how a former soldier-turned-vagabond, Joseph Vacher, terrified rural France at the end of the 19th Century during a murderous killing spree as he tramped across the countryside leaving a trail of butchered peasant girls, shepherd boys and farmer’s wives in his wake. It also tells the story of the rapid development of forensic science in France during the Belle Epoque, thanks largely to Dr. Alexandre Lacassange, who, if he hasn’t been name-checked in any of the episodes of CSI, certainly deserves to be – a brilliant scientist, a true benefactor of humanity, and a very great man.

As with many of the best true crime books, The Killer of Little Shepherds illuminates places, people and a way of life to an extent that few works of fiction do. The most rivetting aspect of the tale (so far) are the hundreds of thousands of itinerant farm labourers roaming the French countryside, thrown out of work by the mass mechanisation of agriculture, a worldwide drop in prices, and the phylloxera infestation of the vineyards. Cities were inundated with those who had lost their livelihoods, and some 1% of the population was roaming the countryside in search of sustenance, mostly begging for food and doing odd jobs, but often creating panic as the result of petty crime in areas previously unused to the phenomenon. The other thing which strikes one is the appalling hysteria and stupidity of some French peasant communities, who would decide, in the complete absence of any evidence, and in the face of exoneration by officialdom, that some utterly innocent local was the murderer, who they would then proceed to persecute  until the poor man and his family were forced to flee the area forever. (To be fair to French peasants, many of them were extremely kind to tramps – at least until the trickle of desperate humanity turned into a flood.)

I can go for several years without reading a "true crime" book, but, when I get the urge, nothing else will do, and I’ll get through three or four before I’m sated. For instance, I’ve just finished Ann Rule’s classicThe Stranger Beside Me, in which the Queen of True Crime tells the tale of Ted Bundy, one of America’s most prolific - and most terrifying - serial killers. The majority of fictional psychopathic killers these days are based on the template created by Bundy: far from being an ugly, unintelligent, mad little troll like Vacher, he was a good-looking, sociable, intelligent young psychology-turned-law-student who had no problem attracting women. All of his known victims were white females; most of them were aged 15-25; they were all pretty; most of them were college students; and all of them had long hair, parted in the middle.

Having twice escaped from custody in Colorado in 1977, Bundy mysteriously decided to head for Florida, which had a decidedly more medieval (i.e. correct) attitude to law and order than the daffy liberals of Aspen. He was eventually arrested in Pensacola after an inconceivably savage attack on students in a Tallahassee sorority house, in which two girls died and several others were severely injured, and the subsequent murder of 12-year old Kimberley Diane Leach of Lake City (yes, that’s right – twelve years old). These are the crimes Bundy was eventually tried for, and for which he was sentenced to death. (The Florida authorities refused requests from the useless pantywaists in Colorado to ship him back there for further trials, figuring that there was no guarantee that they wouldn’t let him escape a third time.) After the usual unseemly delays which seem to characterise the American legal system, Bundy – having finally admitted to thirty murders – was executed in January 1989. (It's thought there might have been as many as 100 victims.)

A particularly bizarre aspect of Seattle-based Ann Rule’s compellingly readable, but not particularly well-written, book is that, when she signed the contract to write it (it was her first book deal) nobody had a clue who was butchering pretty young co-eds in Washington State. It turned out that Rule, who was an ex-Seattle cop trying to earn a living a crime writer to support herself and her four children, had known the beast all along. They had worked together, sitting side by side, answering phones at a Samaritans-style suicide counselling centre in Seattle between 1971 and 1972. They became friends, and kept in touch afterwards. She was a volunteer, and he was being paid to do it as part of his psychology course. She reported that he was an extremely empathetic listener and that he’d saved lives during his time manning the phones.

Bundy was apparently gang-raped by other inmates while on Death Row (he denied it had ever happened, just as he denied everything). I don’t normally approve of this sort of thing, because I try to be a Christian (believe it or not) and I don’t read The Sun – but I’ll make an exception for the “man” who once described himself as the “coldest-hearted son of a bitch you’ll ever meet”.

Next up is Vincent Bugliosi's And the Sea Will Tell. I'm hoping that'll satisfy the urge for the next few years.


  1. Aviation Historian22 July 2014 at 21:26

    Very interesting post. Thank you.

    The English are no slouches when it comes to this kind of stuff. Try the 2013 book "Handsome Brute" by Sean O'Connor. It concerns the strange career of sadist and all-round psychopath Neville Heath who brutally killed two women, half murdered a third and once had South African actress Moira Lister lined up for special treatment. He was executed in 1946 [ Albert Pierrepoint, natch]. Just before the neck-tie party the Governor offered him a Scotch. " I say, old boy, would you mind making that a large one," he replied.

    What should be of interest to you was that he was a career airforce pilot who spent a brief period flying B-25 Mitchells with 180 Squadron out of Melsbroek in Belgium and he took part on the raid against the bridges at Venlo on 29th October 1944. His bomber was shot down by nightfighters and before he bailed out he saved the life of his navigator at great risk to himself. Your father also participated in this raid so they were comrades-in-arms. Heath was also brought up in Wimbledon. The book is excellent.

    1. Thank you, SDG - "Handsome Brute" is now definitely on my list.

  2. I was born in Tallahassee...I remember that time vividly. I remember the attacks when they were unsolved...remember my Momma keeping a chair against the door during the day. Lake City is not far from where my Daddy grew up and where he lives now...my aunts been there most of her life.

    There was a third victim that night in the sorority house...a girl that had come to FSU to dance. She survived but that s*** stain ruined her balance. The father of one of my friends had dealings with him while he was held in Tallahassee...said he was just as pleasant as he could be.
    I read the book when I was a teenager and it is enthralling. Isn't there a passage when he asks a friend, while there's still some doubt about his guilt, where they still execute people...the friend replies Florida. He had a meeting with "Old Sparky"...who has since been retired.
    To think about that poor little girl. I am very familiar with the isolated dirt roads along the Swanee River...just a disgusting ending for a child.

    We are not Christ...it is obvious why his intersession is needed when you think about someone like Ted Bundy...it is beyond human capacity to take a Christian stance in such an instance.

    1. Fascinating, Mr. B. I've read a lot of books about serial killers, but I've never felt such a sense of relief as when Pensacola cop Dave Lee put the cuffs on Bundy after a fierce struggle near the Alabama state line - but not as relieved as the good people of Florida, I suspect.

      The psychopath poses some real problems for Christians, I think. If you're born without a conscience (or, to take another view, your upbringing never allows you a chance to develop one) there's evidently no hope whatsoever of redemption. How can you atone for a sin when you have absolutely no empathy whatsoever for the human beings you've destroyed? You know perfectly well that your acts are wrong in everyone else's eyes - you just can't feel the wrongness. I know the church teaches that everyone can be saved, but I just don't see how that applies to sociopaths. As you say, definitely above our pay grade.

    2. I think the serial killers and the truly deranged get too much of a pass in this department. I doubt my pet sins are less compelling to me than those of the psychopath.

      What's interesting to me in these instances....is our reaction. There is a sense, an earthly sense, in which vengeance and hatred is perfectly justified...it's in these moments that our helplessness with Sin is revealed. Only God could make the case that a person like Bundy shouldn't be hated and tortured...and only God could maintain such a stance.

  3. You should also read or re-read "Killing for Company" by Brian Masters. Dennis Nilsen interestingly had a Norwegian father [in the armed services] and a Scottish mother and was convicted in 1983 to 25-years minimum for 12 murders. He was known as "the British Jeffrey Dahmer".

    1. A brilliant book. Nilsen was a keen public sector union activist, a point Auberon Waugh raised in arguing that if Nilsen hadn't been such a numbingly boring, humourless left-wing pillock he might have been able to form some genuine friendships and might not have killed his victims in a pathetic attempt to stop them leaving him.

      I get your message about Nilsen's parentage - but, as I am not left-wing, gay or boring, I am not a danger to society. How about you?

  4. That's one Christmas present solved. I was under the impression that Management had every True Crime book ever written but a quick check reveals that Starr's isn't in her disturbingly extensive library.

    If you haven't ever tried 'geography by homicide' I wish I could recommend it. We used to drive around with a running commentary on the local nastiness.

    "Eastbourne? Ah, that's the Eastbourne bungalow murder. That was was an interesting case where..." "Oh. Luton?! That's the Luton sack murder..."

    I-Spy would have my choice. I suspect a fascination with murder is a cog I wasn't issued with.

  5. I guarantee the lady will be enthralled.

    There's a delightful North Cornwall village called Chapel Amble. We sometimes have dinner at the local pub, the splendid Maltster's Arms. In 2002 a wealthy local farmer, Les Bate, who'd been flashing his cash around in the pub earlier in the evening, was battered to death at his farmhouse in the early hours. Must have been a local, but no one has ever been charged. First violent crime associated with the village since 1373. You can casually drop this bit of information next time you're in Cornwall - your partner will be impressed!

    You want football banned and you're not interested in murderers? What the hell is wrong with you?

  6. I don't think 'Body Parts Murder' would be on your list Mr.Gronmark as the book about a scumbag, name of Scripps, who escaped what passed as punishment in the limp-wristed UK-and still does-by absconding from an open prison and travel to S.E.Asia to dismember fellow tourists,was a trifle thin.Nevertheless it was a forensic triumph for the boys in blue in Singapore.Scripps was hanged in the Garden City in 1996.

    1. Which of course means that the chances of him absconding again are severely curtailed. Result! Well done, Singapore.