Genealogy of a Murder by Lisa Belkin

Genealogy of a Murder: Four Generations, Three Families, One Fateful NightGenealogy of a Murder: Four Generations, Three Families, One Fateful Night by Lisa Belkin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Joe DeSalvo killed officer David Troy one summer night in Connecticut. DeSalvo was a lifelong criminal who had been paroled based largely on a recommendation by Al Tarlov, a doctor he’d come to know when he served as Tarlov’s lab assistant in prison. One was Italian, one Irish, one Jewish and of similar ages. This true crime is the subject of the book, but the author has approached it from a different direction. She has researched the literal genealogy of these three men in an attempt to discern why three grandsons of penniless immigrants ended up on the paths they did. Nature or nurture?

The stories are at times fascinating, at times boring. Too much time and space is devoted to the early ancestors and their poverty-stricken lives with families of a dozen plus children. I say too much because the author never answered her own question: how much did the genes or the family traditions and moral examples play a role? We don’t know. The fact is, the siblings of all of the characters went on to do very different things despite having the same parents and similar upbringings. The author also makes an odd choice to spend much of the book on Nathan Leopold, of the once famous Leopold and Loeb murders, even though he appears to have had no connection to the crime, and a similar amount to DeSalvo’s brother-in-law Dante Cosentino, who also had nothing to do with the murder or the life paths of any of the three. She apparently had access to their stories and found them intriguing, but I found them a mostly irritating distraction, although of some interest. Still, they remind me of the man looking for his keys under the streetlight because that’s where the light is best, even though that’s not where he dropped them. On the whole the book stands on the excellent quality of the writing and the inherently interesting facts of the case.

In the end, the oppressive conditions under which people lived as recently as the 1930s and 40s is eye-opening, and the author’s deep research is impressive. Joe DeSalvo had a genius IQ, taught himself piano, read good literature and wrote like it, and had many chances to have a good job and normal life. Why he made the choices he did is not answered in this book and probably never could have been, even by himself. I think this is true for many criminals I have encountered over the years in the FBI. How much is genetic and how much “nurture” can be debated, but for many, they are hard-wired that way by the time they hit their teens or even before and can never be rewired. Incarceration to keep them from harming others is really the only proper course. In my view, the tug-of-war between rehabilitation and punishment is irrelevant.

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