Rich Zahradnik, Drop Dead Punk

A book review for Mystery Thriller Week

In late 1975, the city of New York nearly went bankrupt. As the opening of Rich Zahradnik’s book, Drop Dead Punk, reminds us, President Gerald Ford, in the awkward position of an incumbent president who the following year would be attempting to win his first election in the middle of the worst recession in decades, ruled out any bail-out for the city, which seemed destined to default on its debts within weeks at the outside.

Earlier in the decade, Frank Serpico had testified before the Knapp Commission, blowing the whistle on widespread corruption in the New York Police Department. At the time of Zaharadnik’s novel, in the words of one of the characters, “the dirt’s getting back in” to the Department. There’s a widespread awareness of police corruption, combined with a hope that it has been contained and an uncertainty about whether it can be.

The central character, Coleridge Taylor, is a crime reporter on the New York Messenger-Telegram (known with varying degrees of affection and contempt as “The Empty”). Following a tip-off to the fatal shooting of a police officer who had been pursuing a mugging suspect, Taylor finds a scene which poses many more questions than it answers: the officer has been shot in the face, suggesting that he must have shot first; the mugger’s gun is not found at the scene, everybody agrees that the alleged killer, who had been living in a squat and hanging around a punk-rock club frequented by Taylor himself, was the kind-hearted type who had never been known to resort to violence. He had been in the habit of looking after stray dogs and trying to find new homes for them. Perhaps most curiously of all, New York City bonds with a nominal value of $250,000 were found hidden among his supplies of dog-food. Whether the bonds have any actual value is anyone’s guess.

Taylor can see the broad outlines of the story but not yet the details and connections which would make it possible to publish. In the meantime, the future of the paper which pays his salary is itself uncertain. In the last 20 years, we have become used to the idea that the news media (and particularly newspapers) are in the middle of a terminal crisis. It’s instructive to be reminded that the crisis didn’t arrive out of nowhere with the rise of the internet. Taylor works on an IBM Selectric typewriter — not affected yet by computerization — but it’s already clear that New York at least is oversupplied with news — at least the kind of news that people are willing to pay for.

The dead officer’s partner is being ostracized, partly because she’s been set up to make it look as if she failed to back up her partner and partly out of ordinary, everyday misogyny. She and Taylor, in mutual suspicion, begin a wary cooperation with the dual aim of clearing her name and getting Taylor a story that just might save his career. It’s obvious that some of the cops can’t be trusted, but which ones?

The characters are credible and well drawn and the plotting is compelling. I hope to read more of the adventures of Coleridge Taylor.

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