24 May 2012

Review: Island of Vice by Richard Zacks

Before he was a Rough Rider and before he was president, Theodore Roosevelt was a New York City police commissioner whose principal agenda was to force his brand of morality on the city. In 1895, Tammany Hall may have been defeated, but police were still on the take, 30,000 prostitutes plied their trade, and tavern owners never locked up. Despite TR's stubbornness, city bookies would have been right to have given the commissioner pretty low odds for success.

In Island of Vice, Richard Zacks introduces us to the gritty side of turn-of-the-century Manhattan. In the 1890s, drinking, gambling, and sex were available 24/7 and most New Yorkers either indulged or turned a blind eye. Policemen were more often seen drinking on the beat then they were patrolling the streets, and their main concern was collecting payoffs to share with their superior officers.

Theodore Roosevelt stepped into this chaos with a morality agenda. To get a feel for what he was up against, TR and photojournalist Jacob Riis took midnight strolls through the city, visiting bars, spying on policemen, and taking note of brothels. Roosevelt believed his late-night research would help him crack down on bars trying to get around the Sunday closure laws and allow him to set up stings to catch prostitutes and corrupt cops.

Roosevelt, however, never fully understood the everyday New Yorker or the power of the payoff. Thanks to tavern owners who found ways around the excise laws, courtroom antics, yellow journalism, and police disciplinary boards that could be bribed, TR's plans for ending vice barely got off the starting line.

Island of Vice is a readable and accessible examination of Roosevelt's tenure with the NYPD. Relying on letters, newspaper stories, and court reports, among other sources, Zack takes a multi-pronged approach. He describes the sociocultural climate of the city, discusses the factors that may have led TR to take a morality stance, and fleshes out the personalities and events that finally drove Roosevelt out of New York and back to Washington.

Bonus comment: Richard Zacks's Island of Vice is particularly interesting to read after Lyndsay Faye's The Gods of Gotham, a novel set fifty years earlier when the NYPD was just being formed. Although one must be careful when comparing a fictional description with a historical account, the two books together provide a fascinating look at the city's police force in the nineteenth century.

I listened to the unabridged audio edition (Random House Audio, 15 hr,28 min) read by Joe Ochman. My positive review of the audiobook was written for AudioFile magazine. The print edition contains a center insert with period photographs, a decent index, end notes, and a bibliography.

Buy Island of Vice at Powell's, at an Indie, at Book Depository, or at a bookstore near you. These links lead to affiliate programs.
Published by Random House / Doubleday, 2012
ISBN-13: 9780385519724
Source: Review (print & audio) (see review policy)
Rating: B+
Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy)


bermudaonion 5/24/12, 7:41 AM  

I'm reading The Gods of Gotham right now and thought about the connection between the books as I read your review. This sounds fascinating. I don't know if I ever knew Teddie Roosevelt had been a police commissioner.

Daryl Edelstein 5/24/12, 8:47 AM  

Interesting time for NYC and Mr Roosevelt .. I loved The Alienist and Angel of Darkness both set in the same time period.

Barbara 5/24/12, 8:58 AM  

I'm always interested in anything about the history of NYC and/or TR. This sounds like a must-read for me.

Peppermint Ph.D. 5/24/12, 11:17 AM  

Like BermudaOnion I'm reading Gods of Gothem right now...actually almost finished. I really had never thought about the NYC as a lawless place or that the NYPD had to start somewhere. I'll have to pick this one up as well! Thanks!

Literary Feline 5/24/12, 11:56 AM  

How interesting! This sounds like one of those books I would have liked to give my dad for his birthday or Father's Day. I will have to look for this one.

SuziQoregon 5/24/12, 12:28 PM  

I remember reading this part of Teddy Roosevelt's life in Edmund Morris' The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt (the best of his books about TR IMHO). It was because of that I added Gods of Gotham to my TBR list. This sounds very good. TR is fascinating to me. He did so much before he ever became President at a fairly young age.

Julie P. 5/24/12, 1:09 PM  

I didn't read this one but, as you already know, my dad did. He's not a big fan of T. Roosevelt books, but he did like this one!

Anita 5/24/12, 1:44 PM  

I keep looking at this one at work and contemplating. Alas my new goal is to purchase,request no more books. My backlog is tremendous.
Wonderful review.

caite 5/24/12, 1:51 PM  

NYC has always been an interesting place, hasn't it? Gosh, I think I actually have Gods of Gothem around here..must look. Because personally, I often prefer the fictional account...

Zibilee 5/24/12, 3:36 PM  

I love the sound of a book that portrays Roosevelt as a rough and tumble dude willing to take down the bad guys, and had no idea that he ever did this! It's amazing the things that they never even think to teach you in school! Great review today.

Secret Mom Thoughts 5/24/12, 8:23 PM  

Sounds like an interesting time and book.

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