“Island of Vice” by Richard Zacks
“Island of Vice” by Richard Zacks is as timely a book as you’re going to find. In it, a pre-Presidential Teddy Roosevelt becomes Police Commissioner of New York City and sets out on a righteous (and hard-headed) quest to clean up the city’s numerous sins – from corrupt and lazy cops to brothels to Saloons open on Sundays. Of course, as he does this – which is exactly what he was hired to do – New York City gets downright mad at him.
Poor guy can’t win for losing.
Along the way, he even “invents” bicycle cops – and people are still mad at him!
“Island of Vice” fits in nicely with other recent pieces of historical non-fiction such as “The Devil in the White City” and “Sin in the Second City.” Incredibly detailed and obviously thoroughly well-researched, the book rolls along at a fiesty pace, and introduces a whole cast of characters who’d be right at home on an HBO series. (“Boardwalk Empire” came to mind more than once.) As Roosevelt charges forward with his quest like a puritanical Don Quixote, all around him are voices of opposition – from the media to the cops to the poorer citizens of the Big Apple, none of whom expected ALL the laws to be strictly enforced. The shutting of saloons on Sunday, in particular, rubs people the wrong way — especially since it really only affects the poor. (The rich can afford refridgeration and private clubs, which make drinking in their homes or among their fellow elite on Sunday legal and easy, while the poor suddenly find themsleves on their one day off without their favorite libations. History shows that keeping people from their booze never turns out well.)
Zacks, the author of several non-fiction works, clearly knows how to keep things from getting dull – there’s always a new character to introduce in this recalled real-life drama. (Among the heavy-hitters he pulls out are bajillionaire J.P Morgan and author Stephen Crane. No joke.)
Like the last sentence of the book says, “Like in ancient Rome, the vitality of New York City sometimes seems to come more from the crooks than the do-gooders.” People doing things deemed “sinful” are always more interesting than perfect people who obey each law and always act in accordance with high moral standards. Where’s the drama in being perfect and saintly all the time, right?
“Island of Vice” hits stores in March. Fans of history, check it out. I liked it a lot.