Book Review: “Genealogy of Murder” by Lisa Belkin

The Family Tree of Murder: Four Generations, Three Families, One Fateful Night, by Lisa Belkin

Alvin Tarlov first met Joseph DeSalvo in the prison hospital at Stateville Penitentiary, Illinois. They’re here for very different reasons: Tarlov, a doctor just a few years out of medical school, is running a trial of a malaria drug with prisoners; DeSalvo is a convicted criminal with a long criminal record. By a mile, a prisoner works as a medical technologist, disposing of insects, slides, etc. for doctors like Tarlov. DeSalvo’s work ethic and intelligence impressed everyone around him—he was probably the only one in the lab who recited poetry as he worked—and when fellow inmates asked Tarlov to write a letter of recommendation to His situation arranged for a job while parole, and the doctor was more than willing to help.

“His life had an unfortunate beginning,” Tarlov wrote. “I have great confidence in Mr. DeSalvo and would very much like to see him get a useful job.”

The letter led to a job offer at a hospital laboratory in Norwalk, Connecticut. In June 1960, DeSalvo was paroled on the job offer. Just weeks later, behind a bar on Norwalk’s Main Street, DeSalvo shot and killed a police officer named David Troy, widowed by his wife and fatherless to his children . Tarlov would spend the rest of his life thinking about his decision to help DeSalvo, wondering what he missed. Was he being tricked on purpose? Once he starts living outside, should he help ex-cons more, keep better connections?

Decades later, Tarloff became the stepfather of journalist Lisa Belkin, whose work includes the non-fiction epic “give me a heroHe shared the story with her, and she couldn’t let it go. In her new book, “Genealogy of Murder,” Belkin turns the story of three men—Tarloff, DeSalvo, and murder victim Troy—into A somewhat tricky but exhilarating in-depth look at the intersections of fate, chance, and significance. Different lives.

There is a family tree at the front of the book—actually four different family trees with dozens of different people listed in the middle. My suggestion is to stick a post-it on this page and keep a pen in hand as you read, preferably marking the relevant information on these pages: “Charles: motorcycle accident, brain damage”; “Max: train related Crash.” (Things in this book are always subject to collapse: careers, marriages, dreams.) There may be no better way to fully understand Belkin’s strategy. While many true crime books focus on an event in which worlds collide and change the lives of everyone involved, Belkin sees this murder as the culmination of many turning points — smaller ones that happened long ago. turning point.

It’s not that Belkin is so obsessed with fate or destiny, quite the opposite. She is a connoisseur of chance, a stubborn observer of the so-called butterfly effect, where one random event leads to another, and then another. Belkin wonders, as she puts it, “how things that seem to be within your control can be outside of your control. A life you know nothing about, even the generations before you were born, can change completely Your own life. How tiny moments, layer upon layer, become sweeping history. Sometimes things that seem wrong can be unexpectedly right. And how to try to do the right thing – do the right thing carefully — would become so inexplicably wrong.”

It took Al Tarlov more than 250 pages to meet Joe DeSalvo at the prison malaria lab. Belkin gets there at his leisure, starting the story with everyone’s grandparents, who immigrated to America with similar hopes and aspirations. With dizzying short jumps, she reminds us at pivotal moments of how things could have been different had a particular event happened earlier or later. The risk with this structure is that it may discourage readers from investing personally. It helps that Belkin’s writing is insightful and engaging: “Bridget’s core is about complaining, not compassion,” she says of an irritable mother-in-law. She has a sharp eye for anecdotes and a sharp sense of humor: “The family pretended it was their second birthday to celebrate the couple’s one-year anniversary,” she wrote of the unexpected pregnancy. “Their kids will never know.”

By 1941, when the three first emerged as children, the timelines began to merge. We’ve seen David Troy’s winding road to law enforcement; Al Tarlov’s deliberate decision to enter medicine; and Joe DeSalvo’s litany of bad choices and limited options.

Themes emerged, such as debates over reformation and recidivism, and the ethics of medical experimentation on prisoners. At times, these themes lead Belkin down a narrative rabbit hole. Numerous pages are devoted to the life of the prison’s former warden, whom DeSalvo and Tarlov meet one day. Additional pages are devoted to famous criminal Nathan Leopold, who along with his friend Richard Loeb committed one of the most notorious murders of the 20th century. Leopold created some of the rehabilitation and education programs in prison that DeSalvo used, while also participating in the malaria medical trials that had Tarlov working in the same prison. Never mind that Leopold never actually interacted directly with either of them. These coincidences are enough for Belkin; connections matter because of where they lead, the world they share.

At its best, reading “A Family Tree of Murder” is like reading “The Family Tree of Murder” for mecloud map, the novel by David Mitchell, crumbles centuries of history and connects generations. Belkin’s message came across clearly: we are blind to the future. Our attachments are accidental. We can only make up stories to make sense of it all. “There are facts and truths of our lives, and the distance between the two,” she wrote. “In a way, we’re built from the stories we’re told and the memories we carry. Even if those are distortions or hallucinations, they can be real.”

Robert Kolker is the author of Hidden Valley Road.

The Family Tree of Murder: Four Generations, Three Families, One Fateful Night | By Lisa Belkin | 416 Pages | WW Norton & Company | $26.95

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