Monday, April 25, 2011

Book: The Savage City, by T. J. English (2011)

“It’s ten p.m. Do you know where your children are?”

For decades, New York’s WNEW led into their nightly newscast with that ominous pronouncement. It never failed to unnerve me, conjuring up visions of lost boys and girls huddled under streetlamps as darkness and the city itself closed in on them.

That level of dread was endemic in the Gotham of the 1960s and ‘70s, the era laid bare in the new non-fiction book by T. J. English. Its chronicle of “race, murder and a generation on the edge” begins with a gruesome coincidence: the slaying of two young white women in their Manhattan apartment on the same day as Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech. English weaves together the stories of three men who never met, but whose lives repeatedly intersect with the fallout of what became known as the Career Girls Murders.

There’s Dhoruba Bin Wahad, who became a key figure in the Black Panthers. This material, while fascinating, is the weakest of the book’s three legs as the Panthers get bogged down in paranoia and infighting. Bill Phillips, the bent cop who would end up a star witness for the Knapp Commission at which Frank Serpico testified, personifies the NYPD’s entrenched corruption. (ASIDE: Phillips’ book On the Pad, co-written by sportswriter Leonard Schecter, was an inspiration for Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder. The latest Scudder novel A Drop of the Hard Stuff will be out shortly. I reviewed it a few months back.)

The book’s primary focus is George Whitmore, Jr., a young black man in the wrong place at the wrong time who would be charged with the Career Girls Murders and spend a decade protesting his innocence. Whitmore would become more symbol than man as the issues played out only to become an afterthought amidst the turmoil of the times, but English never strays from telling his personal story. A perfect example of Whitmore’s funhouse-mirror fate: what started out as a movie about his wrongful imprisonment ended up becoming the world’s introduction to Telly Savalas’ Kojak. Whitmore couldn’t even be the star in a film about his own life.

English, whose The Westies is another true crime favorite, has written a biography of both a place and a time that seem almost alien now but are closer than we care to think. The Savage City is a hugely ambitious book, and one that largely succeeds.