A Cop, a Doctor, a Criminal and the 1960 Murder That Connected Them

Author: Yuvi May 24, 2023 A Cop, a Doctor, a Criminal and the 1960 Murder That Connected Them

GENEALOGY OF A MURDER: Four Generations, Three Families, One Fateful Night, by Lisa Belkin

Alvin Tarlov first met Joseph DeSalvo in the prison hospital at the Stateville Penitentiary in Illinois. Their reasons for being there couldn’t have been more different: Tarlov, a doctor just a few years out of medical school, was running a malaria drug trial, using the prisoners as subjects; DeSalvo, a convicted criminal with a mile-long rap sheet, was an inmate working as a medical technologist, handling insects, slides and the like for doctors like Tarlov. DeSalvo had impressed everyone around him with his work ethic and intelligence — he might have been the only one in the lab to recite poetry while he worked — and when the inmate asked Tarlov to write a recommendation letter to help line up a job contingent on his Parole, the doctor was more than willing to help.

“He had an unfortunate beginning in life,” Tarlov wrote. “I have a great deal of faith in Mr. DeSalvo and would like very much to see him usefully employed.”

That letter led to a job offer from a lab at a hospital in Norwalk, Conn. In June 1960, on the strength of that offer, DeSalvo was paroled. And just a few weeks later, behind a bar on Main Street in Stamford, Conn., DeSalvo shot and killed a police officer named David Troy, making a widow of Troy’s wife and leaving his children fatherless. Tarlov would spend the rest of his life thinking about his decision to help DeSalvo, wondering what he’d missed. Was he deliberately deceived? Should he have helped the former prisoner more, stayed in better touch once he’d started life outside?

Decades later, Tarlov became the stepfather of the journalist Lisa Belkin, whose work includes the nonfiction epic “Show Me a Hero.” He shared the story with her, and she could not let it go. With her new book, “Genealogy of a Murder,” Belkin has turned the stories of three men — Tarlov, DeSalvo and the murder victim, Troy — into a somewhat knotty yet exhilarating, intimate study of fate, chance and the wildly meaningful intersections of To install disparate lives.

There is a family tree toward the front of the book—four different family trees, actually, with dozens of different people listed among them. My advice is to put a sticky note on this page and keep a pen in hand as you read, all the better for marking up these pages with pertinent information: “Charles: motorcycle crash, brain injury”; “Max: train collision.” (Things have a way of crashing in this book: careers, marriages, dreams.) There may be no better way to fully appreciate Belkin’s strategy. While a lot of true-crime books focus on a single event where worlds collide, changing the lives of all involved, Belkin approaches this murder as the culmination of many inflection points — smaller ones that happened long ago.

It’s not that Belkin is so committed to fate or destiny, quite the opposite. She’s a connoisseur of chance, a dogged observer of the so-called butterfly effect, one random event leading to another, and then another and another. Belkin is curious about, as she puts it, “How things that seem to be in your control are out of your hands. How lives you know nothing about, even those lived generations before you were born, can completely change your own. How tiny moments, stacked and layered, become sweeping history. How sometimes what seems wrong can turn out to be unexpectedly right. And how trying to do the right thing—being careful to do the right thing—can go so inexplicably wrong.”

It takes more than 250 pages for Al Tarlov to meet Joe DeSalvo at that prison malaria lab. Belkin takes her time getting there, starting the story with everyone’s grandparents, all of whom were immigrants to the United States, with similar hopes and ambitions. She jumps story lines in dizzying, short spurts, reminding us at key moments how things would have been different if a particular incident had occurred a bit earlier or later. The risk of this structure is that it may prevent readers from becoming invested in individual people. It helps that Belkin writes insightfully and engagingly: “At Bridget’s core lay complaint, not compassion,” she says of one prickly mother-in-law. She has a keen eye for an anecdote and a sharp sense of humor: “The family celebrated the couple’s first anniversary by pretending it was their second,” she writes of a surprise pregnancy. “None of their children would ever know.”

By 1941, when the trio first appeared as children, the timelines began to coalesce. We witness David Troy’s meandering path toward law enforcement; Al Tarlov’s soul-searching decision to enter medicine; and Joe DeSalvo’s parade of poor choices and limited options.

Themes emerge, like the debates over rehabilitation and recidivism, and the ethics of medical experimentation on prisoners. At times, those themes lead Belkin down narrative rabbit holes. Many pages are devoted to the lives of the previous wardens of the prison where DeSalvo and Tarlov will one day meet. Even more space is devoted to the famous criminal Nathan Leopold, who, with his friend Richard Loeb, committed one of the 20th century’s most notorious murders. Leopold, while in prison, created some of the rehabilitation and education programs that DeSalvo made use of, while also participating in the malaria medical trials that brought Tarlov to work at the same prison. Never mind that Leopold never really interacted directly with either man. These coincidences are enough for Belkin; The connections matter because of where they lead, the world they come to share.

At its best, reading “Genealogy of a Murder” was, for me, like reading “Cloud Atlas,” David Mitchell’s novel that collapses hundreds of years of history and connects generations of people. Belkin’s message comes through that clearly: We are blind to the future. Our attachments are left to chance. We are left to craft narratives to make sense of it all. “There are the facts and the truth of our lives, and the distance between the two,” she writes. “We are built, in part, from the stories we are told, the memories we carry. Even when those are distortions or illusions, they can also be real.”

Robert Kolker is the author of “Hidden Valley Road.”

GENEALOGY OF A MURDER: Four Generations, Three Families, One Fateful Night | By Lisa Belkin | 416pp. , WW Norton & Company | $26.95

Author: Yuvi

My name is Yuvi, I work as Sub Editor at newscinema.in

24 May, 2023, 6:32 pm

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