About the Book by Lisa Belkin Titled “Genealogy of a Murder: Four Generations, Three Families, One Fateful Night”

From a Wall Street Journal book review by Tom Nolan headlined “‘Genealogy of a Murder’ Review: A Tragic Triangle”:

In her 1999 book “Show Me a Hero,” the journalist Lisa Belkin chronicled a volatile public-housing battle that embroiled Yonkers, N.Y., in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Her latest investigation, “Genealogy of a Murder,” centers on a fatal shooting that took place in Connecticut on July 7, 1960.

She outlines her story in an introduction: “A young army doctor is stationed at a research lab at a maximum-security prison and becomes friendly with a prisoner, one who himself is a subject of the doctor’s research. The prisoner asks for the doctor’s help, the doctor gives it, things go terribly wrong, [and] a police officer is murdered.”

Ms. Belkin stages the drama with the pace and tension of a Greek tragedy. “These three men—the prisoner, the officer, the doctor—had begun at the same starting line,” she writes. “They were all the same age, born in the early years of the Great Depression. . . . How did they come to be who they were and where they were on that July night? How did one become the cop, one become his killer, and one become my stepfather, the doctor who inadvertently set this shooting into motion?”

The author, except for two cameo appearances, is not herself a character in this gripping account, but her personal connection surely adds to the book’s urgency.

Alvin Tarlov was a bright and optimistic lad from Norwalk, Conn., who followed a beloved uncle into the medical profession and pondered such questions as “Were you born who you are, or did you choose it?” David Troy was a religious young man who grew up near Alvin in Stamford, Conn., and later joined the local police force. Joseph DeSalvo was a book-loving boy from Chicago with a genius-level IQ but also a misanthropic father who belittled his ambitions, leading Joe to begin stealing as a teenager.

These three came of age in an era of notorious crooks and killers, when debates about crime and punishment possessed great urgency. What made a person break the law? Was it poverty? Was the point of prison simply to punish felons, or to rehabilitate them for a useful return to civilian life? How best to determine which inmates deserve parole?

The prison-reform movement made inroads at many penal institutions in the Depression years, including at Stateville Penitentiary near Chicago, where the paths of Dr. Tarlov and DeSalvo crossed. The facility’s most infamous residents were Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, highly intelligent college students convicted in 1924 of the “thrill killing” of a 14-year-old Chicago boy. Sentenced to life in prison, the two convicts established the country’s first prison-correspondence school, which Leopold continued to supervise after Loeb was stabbed to death in 1936 by another inmate. Leopold performed other meritorious acts before he was paroled in 1958. He died in Puerto Rico in 1971 without having committed any further crimes.

A judge sentenced DeSalvo to 10-to-70 years at Stateville for armed robbery in 1951. Dr. Tarlov, who earned a medical degree from the University of Chicago and was drafted into the military as an Army physician, arrived in 1959 to oversee a program that Leopold had participated in at Stateville to test a potential cure for malaria. DeSalvo was in charge of the lab’s day-to-day work; soft-spoken and well-read, he impressed Dr. Tarlov as a dedicated and conscientious worker.

Was DeSalvo a good candidate for parole? He was intelligent, expressed remorse for his crimes, had participated in the prison’s antimalarial experiments, and had demonstrably bettered himself by becoming a lab technician certified by American Medical Technologists. He acquired skills and contacts that would help him to support himself within society’s guidelines, and he promised if released to do exactly that. On the other hand, as DeSalvo knew from prior experience, in prison “it was easy to make resolutions; out there you had to keep them.”

Ms. Belkin craftily sustains suspense, even though readers already know her tale’s stark conclusion. Dr. Tarlov took it upon himself to secure a post-prison job for DeSalvo as a lab technician at Norwalk Hospital, writing its director: “I believe . . . Mr. DeSalvo has matured emotionally and intellectually, and that he is ready to assume his place as a useful citizen in society.” DeSalvo was granted parole and left prison in the spring of 1960 to relocate to Connecticut. He liked his new job but said he felt restless and confined by circumstances to his modest living quarters.

On the morning of July 4, Dr. Tarlov, in Norwalk for the holiday, phoned DeSalvo, who surprised him by requesting that they instead speak face-to-face. The doctor, caught up in preparing for a brief family trip, declined, but promised to see him when he returned to Norwalk the following week. A disquieted DeSalvo phoned Dr. Tarlov that evening to repeat his request; again the doctor refused. On July 5, during his lunch hour from the lab, DeSalvo went to a thrift shop and bought a used Luger pistol—the weapon with which he would kill responding officer David Troy after holding up a bar in Stamford two nights later. He was apprehended shortly after and, while on trial in December, died by suicide in a county jail.

Dr. Tarlov racked his brain over the tragic consequences of his good turn. What went wrong? Was DeSalvo simply unmoored without the structure of prison? Ms. Belkin doesn’t have easy answers. The most powerful revelation in her sad and thought-provoking chronicle comes near the end, when Troy’s uncle Dante is asked to compare his fate to that of his nephew’s killer.

Like Joe, Dante “came from a dysfunctional home with a drunken absent father and no model of how to aim toward a future. . . . [He] had been a thief and a truant who told lies . . . and thought rules did not apply to him.” Yet Dante had eventually earned a Ph.D. and became a philosopher and a teacher. Why did he turn out differently than Joe? He answered with something he’d learned at university: “One person who believes in you as a child. That makes all the difference.”

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