Political Thriller or True Crime Whodunit? You Decide

I have yet to read Michael Wolraich’s new book, The Bishop and Butterfly: Murder, Politics, and the End of the Jazz Age, to be published tomorrow. But The New York Times has already posted a review online: Entrapment, Corruption, Murder and Justice in Old Gotham, which describes the text as “brick-dense yet propulsive.”

I’m not sure what “brick-dense” means. Perhaps it means lots of solid detail. I do understand “propulsive” — and I also appreciate this: “Unlike the sensationalist reporters of the era, Wolraich manages to handle even the seediest of underworlds with reportorial spareness and elegance, treating his material more as a nonfiction political thriller than a true-crime whodunit.”

Read the opening of the first chapter: A MOTH THAT LOVES THE FLAME. The prose itself is an attraction.

Wolraich will talk about his work and sign copies of The Bishop and the Butterfly at the Jefferson Market Library, in Greenwich Village (425 Sixth Ave.) on Wednesday, February 7 at 6:30 p.m. He has written to his friends (me among them):

I love this location because it plays a central role in my book. The red brick building in Greenwich Village was once a courthouse that housed Manhattan’s notorious Women’s Court, where crooked vice cops and defense attorneys conspired to frame innocent women as prostitutes in the 1920s. My book focuses on a woman named Vivian Gordon. Her sensational murder in 1931 precipitated a series of shocking events that ultimately forced Mayor Jimmy Walker to resign in disgrace and broke the power of Tammany Hall, the corrupt political machine that had ruled New York City for a century.”

The publisher is apparently unconcerned that its description makes the book sound like a true-crime whodunnit — and frankly, I like the way it sounds:

Vivian Gordon went out before midnight in a velvet dress and mink coat. Her body turned up the next morning in a desolate Bronx park, a dirty clothesline wrapped around her neck. At her stylish Manhattan apartment, detectives discovered notebooks full of names—businessmen, socialites, gangsters. And something else: a letter from an anti-corruption commission established by Governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt. … Had Vivian Gordon been executed to bury her secrets?

I’d bet that’s why, wouldn’t you?

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