Feature

Kitty Genovese: The Murder, the Bystanders, the Crime That Changed America by Kevin Cook

Journalist Kevin Cook manages to create suspense as he reveals each detail of Kitty Genovese’s murder.

(Norton, $26)

The tale of Kitty Genovese’s murder persists in public memory as “a gruesome parable of urban life,” said Michael Washburn in The Boston Globe. Even people who don’t remember her name know the story often told about the crime: that in March 1964, a knife-wielding killer repeatedly attacked the 28-year-old bar manager on a street in Queens, N.Y., and that 38 of her neighbors watched from their homes but did nothing. Journalist Kevin Cook isn’t the first writer to sift through the facts and conclude that the popular account is largely untrue, said Edward Kosner in The Wall Street Journal. But Cook’s version is so “industriously comprehensive,” it changes what this dark story tells us about life in an American city.

Cook manages to create suspense as he reveals each detail, said Jordan Michael Smith in CSMonitor.com. The idea that there were 38 silent observers came from a clerical error that conflated the number of preliminary police interviews with the number of witnesses. Only a handful of people apparently saw or heard anything, including one eyewitness who does seem to have callously turned away. But one chased the attacker away by shouting, another fled to the home of a friend who called the police, and a third cradled the dying Genovese in her arms as an ambulance arrived. Winston Moseley, a 29-year-old punch-card operator, confessed to the murder days later.

There was another key player in the story: A.M. Rosenthal of The New York Times, said Nicholas Lemann in The New Yorker. Rosenthal, then the paper’s metro editor, picked up the 38-witness angle from the city’s police commissioner, then splashed it on the front page, turning the crime into a sensation that inspired countless psychological studies and the advent of 911 call systems. Rosenthal had hit a nerve with a nation deeply uneasy about urban life. But because he did so by getting the facts wrong, the real lesson of the Kitty Genovese story turns out to be less about apathy than “our susceptibility to narratives that echo our preconceptions.”

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