The Black Hand by Stephan Talty

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The Black Hand by Stephan Talty

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Category: True Crime
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Sam Tyler
Reviewed by Sam Tyler
Summary: Travel back to the turn of the 20th Century New York in a city plagued by crime in this fascinating true crime book that uses secondary sources to back up its ideas.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: April 2017
Publisher: Ebury Press
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9781785037122

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History is a fascinating subject to study as there is so much of it, so why do we keep going back to the same places? I feel like I have walked the steps of Julius Caesar and married at least two of Henry VIII's wives, so often I have read about them. There are countless other tales out there to learn about that may be more obscure, but are just as exciting. I don't know much about New York around 1900, but after reading The Black Hand by Stephan Talty I now know it was a violent place to live, but an interesting one to learn about.

As the 19th Century turned into the 20th Century, America was a booming country and the heartbeat of this industry was New York. If the States planned to continue its expansion they needed labourers and many of these came from the poor South of Italy. With these Southern Italian labourers came their hard work ethic and the importance of family, but also a criminal element called The Black Hand. This gang would hold large swathes of American society in its grip for over a decade and no one seemed keen to do anything about them, except for one Detective; Joseph Petrosino.

True crime is not always the most celebrated of genres as it often delves into the dark elements of the human condition for entertainment. Too often an author decides to write about the inner workings of people and this gives the book a false fiction feel. The Black Hand doesn't do this and instead reads more like an enjoyable academic text. It's clear that Talty has researched old newspapers and other sources from the time as when he is in need of something to embellish the story he uses these, rather than placing his own words onto others. This does mean that the book is a little drier than some true crime, but it also feels far more authentic.

With a less compelling narrative to work with Black Hand would have been a dull book, but the acts of the violent gang and the lengths that Petrosino goes to defeat them is enough to keep the reader enrapt. By doggedly sticking to the facts Talty is showing a great respect for the history. Many innocent Italians were extorted, financially ruined and even killed. To write a salacious popcorn crime book about all these real people would have been crass. Talty's writing may be staid, but it is certainly classy with it.

Black Hand paints a truly fascinating picture of what New York was like in 1900, from the violence through to the ingenuity. Any reader who knows little about the era will gain an insight as Talty is an evocative writer and uses sources from the time to give a historic point of view. There is perhaps an overreliance on secondary sources that will leave some traditional true crime fans a little bored, but for those more inclined towards history, the structure only emboldens the impact the book has.

Another fascinating true crime book that looks back on American history is The Mad Sculptor by Harold Schechter.

Buy The Black Hand by Stephan Talty at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Black Hand by Stephan Talty at

Buy The Black Hand by Stephan Talty at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Black Hand by Stephan Talty at


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