NONFICTION: Tracing the events that culminated in a 60-year-old murder.
“Genealogy of a Murder: Four Generations, Three Families, One Fateful Night” by Lisa Belkin; W.W. Norton (402 pages, $29.95)
A doctor, a convict and a cop. Even though a bar will play a role, and two of those men will walk into it, this is no setup for a joke. Instead, the three mark the convergence of very different lives, a convergence that contributed to the end of one in a hail of bullets.
Lisa Belkin’s “Genealogy of a Murder” isn’t a typical entry in the true crime genre. It’s personal, for one. The doctor, Alvin Tarlov, is the journalist’s nearly 90-year-old stepfather. And, for another, she is much more interested in what came before the fateful July 1960 night when police officer David Troy was gunned down by fleeing robber Joe DeSalvo than in the night itself.
“Take me back to the beginning,” Belkin routinely asks in interviews, and that’s exactly what she does in “Genealogy,” finding where events start to take shape, likening it to unrolling a ball of yarn, “a colorful tangle, all knotted and entwined.” What fascinates her the most is “how did one become the cop, one become his killer and one become my stepfather, the doctor who inadvertently set this shooting into motion” by befriending the convict while he was serving time in an Illinois prison.
Tarlov, Troy and DeSalvo share similarities. They were all the same age, they were born during the early years of the Great Depression to large families and they each had parents or grandparents who immigrated to the U.S. — where Belkin begins, practically as their feet touched American soil around the turn of the past century. The Tarlovs arrived by way of Russia; the Troys, Ireland, and the DeSalvos were from Italy.
All three knew tragedy, but it’s the families’ responses to catastrophic events that lead to diverging paths. A Tarlov patriarch was killed in a train crash, which set in motion a trajectory that would affect Alvin Tarlov. A motorcycle racer’s trauma, from injuries suffered back when “safety” was really about luck, would be handed down in the DeSalvo family. And an intractable attitude toward other immigrants and a father’s sudden death would shape lives in the Troy household.
Was it necessary for Belkin to take such a huge leap backward? Maybe not, but who cares as she expertly unravels the yarn — three yarns, really — inch by twisted inch, pulling the reader in as she reveals unexpected, fly-on-the-wall details. (Deep dives into records and talks with living relatives helped fill in gaps.) Then, just as expertly, she knits all that unraveled yarn back together, propelling the reader to that July night.
As if that weren’t enough, Belkin takes a look at the history of parole and how the infamous murderers Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb play into the story of a doctor, a convict and a cop. It’s still no joke — just a truly great read.