THE BARREL MURDER – a Detective Joe Petrosino case by Michael Zarocostas
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This book involved a lot of research because it is based on real events and real New York City detectives at the turn of the century.
A swarthy man who could be Italian or Middle Eastern is found murdered, his body bent double and stuffed into a wooden barrel on a New York street. These are the days when the NYC police force is dominated by Irish immigrants and there is considerable and open prejudice in the ranks against Italians and Jews, among others. Detective Joe Petrosino has been lucky; he was smiled upon by Teddy Roosevelt, who appointed him the first Italian American detective in the Central Bureau. Teddy was intent on removing graft and stamping out Tammany Hall and Joe is an honest cop. But Teddy has moved on to Washington, and Joe Petrosino can see the Tammany ways are back. He and other cops who stood for Reform are on the outs. This is not a good time to be fighting with the Irish cops over the murder of an unknown man in a barrel. But Joe just can’t help himself. And from there, things can only get worse.
Was it a crime of passion by a mentally disturbed doctor or was it really a message from a gang of drug dealers and counterfeiters who moved over from Sicily? And are they working on their own or with others? And might those others be people Joe knows and works for? Adding to his problems are a couple of muckraking journalists and an uncertainty about whether his big Jewish partner, Inspector Max Schmittberger, is really reformed from taking graft.
Michael Zarocostas does a good job of telling the facts and giving the reader just enough flavor of the times to stay engaged without getting bogged down. He is also faithful to the thinking of the times in that he does not pull any punches when it comes to the kind of talk people in Joe’s position may have both heard and engaged in, including racial slurs that are made more shocking by the offhand way in which they are uttered. Zarocostas’s prose itself is a little on the terse side. The connections between sentences and paragraphs is not always a smooth one, which makes the read a little bumpy.
The book is sprinkled with pictures of many of the main participants as well as photos of newspaper articles printed about them and the case as it unfolded which add to the sense of witnessing the events.
The only true disappointment in this book lies in the ending. It’s obviously the first book in a series, but it should have been able to stand alone. By the last chapter, Schmittberger has taken a leave and Joe has promised to talk to his lady friend’s father about marriage. But these relationships are not addressed. Further, Joe’s decision to take a risky action related to his career is only asserted, not depicted. We don’t know whether it succeeded, partially succeeded, or failed. No doubt readers will discover the answer in the second book, but it would have been nice to have some things made a little clearer.