Book Reviews

Kitty Genovese: A True Account of a Public Murder and its Private Consequences

“This case sparked national outrage when the New York Times revealed that dozens of witnesses had seen or heard the attacks on Kitty Genovese and her struggle to reach safety but had failed to come to her aid–or even call police until after the killer had fled.”

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The desperate cries of a fatally injured young woman ring out into the night. She knows she can be heard but realises as her life ebbs away, that no one is coming to her aid.  This is not a murder mystery novel, a story created to draw readers in.  This is true life and a brutal murder which took place in Queens, New York on March 13th 1964.

Kitty Genovese was an intelligent and independent woman of 28 years old.  Attractive, funny and petite she harmed no one and posed no threat.  In 1964 she became the victim of a predator who stalked her from the shadows as she walked home late in the evening.

A predator who pounced on a residential street, illuminated by street lights and in full view of the apartments overlooking the scene.  He knew he would not be interrupted.  He knew that people ‘just didn’t want to get involved’. This is a phrase that will forever be associated with the murder of Kitty Genovese.  A phrase that has prompted outcry, academic curiosity and in more recent years, outright denial.

Police reports show that 38 people saw or heard the brutal attack on Kitty Genovese that night. Residents who peered out of their windows at 3am after hearing her screams. Witnesses who saw a woman being attacked and still only one called the police.

Kitty Genovese: A True Account of a Public Murder and its Private Consequences grips you right from the start with an introduction which sets the scene and increases your curiosity.  Catherine Pelonero has recreated the events of that March evening in 1964.  Using official documentation, her own interviews with those involved, witness statements and police reports, she has been able to write true crime like a fast paced novel that keeps you turning pages.  Her vivid descriptions and impressive language provide a hard-hitting glimpse of the ordeal this young woman endured.

Kitty Genovese

Catherine Pelonero is an author and playwright who has spent six years researching this case. Six years combing through the full police reports, each witness statement and every interview transcript to ensure she got the facts right. Her patience and attention to detail shines through in a book which presents the truths of this murder, using intelligent narrative and an engaging and refreshing writing style. She describes each witness and what they saw that night.  How they saw Kitty Genovese fall to the ground and heard her cries.  “He’s got me! He’s got me!”

They watched as her attacker fled into the night. She describes how they continued to watch as Kitty struggled to her feet and staggered down the road.  “God please help me, I’m stabbed!”

Many remained watching as her attacker returned, checking doorways and alcoves one after the other, searching for his victim.  As Kitty’s pleas pierced the stillness of that night, witnesses sighed to themselves, put their curtains back in place, turned off their lights and went back to bed.  “I’m dying.  Oh God, please, somebody help me….”

The aftermath of the Kitty Genovese murder has become an international story. When New York Times reporter Martin Gansberg reported the case in his now infamous article “37 Who Saw Murder Didn’t Call the Police”, attention focused on 38 witness reports, 38 bystanders to a horrific attack on a young women and how 37 of them did nothing to help her.

“The first scream was fifteen minutes ago.  Thirty people must have called by now” – A resident witness

In Kitty Genovese, Catherine Pelonero goes behind these headlines. She refocuses attention back onto Kitty Genovese herself, who she was and encapsulates her utter terror and helplessness at being attacked not once, but twice by the same man.

For after this dark stranger searched empty doorways, he found his victim inside the stairwell of her friends apartment block.  As she clawed and screamed trying desperately to summon help, he launched his final attack ensuring she would not survive.  In her narrative of events Catherine Pelonero details the opening and closing of residents doors upstairs as Kitty shouted for help. The hesitation of her friend, Karl Ross, in case it was some form of trick.  “It’s me, it’s Kitty, I’m hurt…”.  Still, no one came.

Related: Lionel Dahmer: A Father’s Story [Book Review]

While this aspect of the Kitty Genovese story has gained the most attention, and it is understandable why, what has almost faded into the background is the man responsible for her suffering.  Winston Moseley was married with children, a respectable family man who was harmless, or so everyone thought.

In the months leading to Kitty’s death he had begun to unravel.  While his wife was on night shift he would leave his children in the care of his five dogs and prowl the streets.  Arrested for a burglary after the Kitty Genovese murder he told police in his calm and unemotional manner of the attacks and murders he was responsible for.

“His demeanour seemed all wrong.  He had just described a horrific assault in the same calm casual way he had spoken of the burglaries”. – Interviewing Police Officer

Once his confessions started they continued, confessing to not only killing Kitty Genovese but to the murder of two other women.  One who another man was about to stand trial for.  Winston Moseley was a dangerous man with an attitude towards women where he wished to do them harm, knowing that in the dead of night, society would let him do it.

“Oh, I knew they wouldn’t do anything.  People never do.  That late at night, they just go back to sleep.” – Winston Moseley

Catherine Pelonero has expertly documented a criminal case with widespread consequences. She provides an intimate account of a brutal murder which took place under public watch, the immediate aftermath of that crime, working through the police interviews and the witness statements.

She follows the case through the arrest of Winston Moseley, his interviews and explanation of the crime and onto his trial.  This is a book which lays bare the investigation and the psychology of those involved.  While in places it could be said to be repetitive, particularly with witness statements being repeated during the trial, in order to present this case in its entirety, repetition is inevitable.

What Catherine Pelonero has also achieved in her book is to capture the impact this particular murder had.  One murder in a New York suburb out of thousands which highlighted just what society had become. A society who wanted to keep to themselves and a society that didn’t want to get involved.  The ‘bystander effect‘ was born from this crime.  Labelled by academics who wanted to know how individuals behave in an emergency.  Specifically, researchers who wanted to know the differences in that behaviour when we witness a crime scene alone, compared to when we witness a crime as a collective.

The results have informed us of a group mentality, a fear of stepping forward and a reliance on the thought that someone else will take the lead and take action.  A mentality and a response that cost Kitty Genovese her life.

Related: Cold Serial: The Jack the Strangler Murders [Book Review]

In the new paperback version of Kitty Genovese, Catherine Pelonero provides an afterword giving insight into her reasons for writing this book and her personal thoughts on the case.  What we also learn is the changes in attitudes she has encountered through her research.

A disbelief among some that 37 people could witness a crime of this brutally and do nothing.  More surprising are those who believe this crime never took place at all.  Rather than face reality and accept the truth in what happened on those dark streets in 1964, it appears some comfort themselves with the idea that it was somehow fabricated and exaggerated.

“Historical revisionism of the Kitty Genovese story was underway, and the beautiful twilight of falsehood did indeed enhance it into something far less binding than the burning glare of the truth.” – Catherine Pelonero

Kitty Genovese: A True Account of a Public Murder and its Private Consequences is not a true crime novel that has been pulled together from newspaper clippings.  Nor is it one which the author has written quickly in order to get it on the market for sale.  It is a book that has been thought out and carefully written.

It is a hard-hitting, realistic and powerful account of a brutal and devastating murder, its immediate impact and its lasting consequences.  If you only read one true crime book this year, I highly recommend it’s this one.

You can purchase a copy of Kitty Genovese: A True Account of a Public Murder and its Private Consequences at Amazon.

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