Saturday, February 25, 2012

Satan's Circus: Review

Satan's Circus: Murder, Vice, Police Corruption, and New York's Trial of the Century by Mike Dash does exactly what you'd expect that long title to do....try to cover way too much material in one book. Er, wait, no. That's not what I expected the book to do, actually--although that's what I got. When I picked it up and read the book flap, I expected the book to tell the story of Charley Becker, a NY cop at the turn of the century (turn of last century, that is). Charley Becker was a handsome lieutenant who had been decorated as a hero, had led the department's vice-busting Special Squad, and who wound up on trial for his life--accused of arranging the murder of one of the members of Manhattan's underworld. Becker was also, at the time of the writing of this book, the only police officer in the United State to be executed for murder.

It does tell that story. But Dash doesn't just stick to that story. He's gives great detail on the history of the police department and the history of vice in the city--everything from prostitution to gambling to gang warfare. It tells us all about Tammany Hall and Teddy Roosevelt's efforts to clean it up. It, in fact, tells way too many stories in one book. By the time we get to the "Trial of the Century" we're pretty weary. We've slogged through so much information that working our way through the ins-and-outs of the evidence and the DA's all-out determination to send Becker to the chair, we're kind of over-whelmed.

Dash had a great central story. Was Becker a good cop gone bad? Was he just a normal guy--normal by the standards of the times he grew up in--who had taken advantage of the same opportunities for graft that his fellow policeman had taken and somehow become the fall guy for an overly ambitious DA? That is a story worth telling. If I stick to just that story--then this is a very interesting book. Having finished it, I can't tell you if Becker was guilty or not. He, like so many public officials at the time, was definitely on the take. So, he was no saint. But a murderer--or the man behind the murder? I just don't know. What I can say is, given the evidence and details that Dash recounts, Becker did not get a fair trial. It becomes obvious that the DA, who was a publicity-seeker looking for a way to rise in politics, was absolutely intent on getting a conviction and didn't much care how he got it. Witnesses were allowed free rein to collaborate on stories. The judge, who was very anti-police, put every obstruction possible in the way of the defense.

This could have been a great book. I wish that Dash had stayed more closely tied to his central story. And I wish that, rather than rattling off fact after fact--especially when it came to the trial--he had given us more human interest. By the end of the book, I felt like I should be feeling a lot more invested in some of these people. I should feel more when Helen Becker, Charley's wife, pleads for the Governor (who just happens to have been the prosecuting DA at the time of the trial) to issue a stay of execution for her husband. But I didn't. My first thought was "Hurray, I'm done!" Three stars for the story itself and detailed information. Better execution, please pardon the pun, would have put it in the four- or maybe even five-star range.

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