An Italian detective fights the Mafia and police corruption in turn-of-the-century New York City, in this genre thriller based on true events.
Joe Petrosino is the first Italian-American detective on the New York City police force. His ethnicity, combined with his Republican leanings (he’s a friend of former Police Commissioner Teddy Roosevelt), makes him an outsider in a department where Irish cops and Tammany Hall still hold many of the reins of power. But when a mutilated body turns up in a barrel on the Lower East Side, Joe’s background becomes a valuable asset. All signs point to a Mafia killing, though few cops have ever heard of this shadowy Sicilian gang. As Petrosino and his partner, Max Schmittberger, investigate the crime, it becomes clear that this is far more than a gangland revenge killing and that some of the most powerful political players in New York City may be implicated both in murder and in a far deeper scandal. Zarocostas (Plummet, 2012) ably depicts the teeming landscape of early 20th-century New York in his well-researched, fast-paced and occasionally gruesome book. Zingy dialogue brings the story to life, while evocative details transport readers to the city’s noisy, pungent, crowded and often dangerous immigrant neighborhoods. History buffs will get a kick out of the reproductions of newspaper clippings and photographs related to the actual case that are sprinkled throughout. Several well-known historical figures also make appearances: Petrosino crosses paths with muckrakers Ida Tarbell and Lincoln Steffens, and a sticky-fingered ragamuffin named Irving Berlin plays a small role. Those details help establish the historical time period, transforming the novel into more than a simple police procedural. This is both a murder mystery and a story about the many forces shaping a dynamic American city at a critical point in its development. But Petrosino’s efforts to uncover the truth about the barrel murder are equally fascinating. A few too many threads occasionally overcomplicate the story (Adelina, Petrosino’s love interest, adds little, and a twist involving one character’s sexuality is gratuitous), but overall, this is a well-crafted page-turner.
A fine mystery likely to appeal equally to crime enthusiasts and fans of historical fiction.