Corrupt Splendor

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Here’s my review of Rich Zahradnik’s terrific mystery, A Black Sail.

When you pick up one of Rich Zahradnik’s Coleridge Taylor mysteries, get ready for a taut and gritty tale wrapped in the perfect time capsule — New York City in the 1970s and all it’s violent, bankrupt, crumbling and corrupt splendor.

It’s a bygone era before Google, smartphones and the 24-hour news cycle. It’s a time when cops and reporters had to use shoe leather and a telephone to do their sleuthing. And it’s a city on the verge of fiscal collapse and the hysteria of the Son of Sam killings.

The New York of this era is the magnificently rotten motherland for Taylor, a hard-nosed and marvelously obsessive police reporter who gets jicky when he hasn’t had a scoop in a couple of days. Zahradnik masterfully distills this throwback New York essence without turning his third Taylor mystery, A Black Sail, into a sepia-toned period piece.

The book’s title is partly a nod to the big event that serves as a backdrop — the parade of tall sailing ships in New York harbor to mark America’s bicentennial. But a black sail is also the lethal street trademark of potent Chinese heroin that sends Taylor on dark and difficult voyage, doggedly chasing a scoop that stays just out of reach and might just get him killed.

Taylor is an ink-stained hard news guy who hates the fluff story he’s been assigned to do on the tall ships and worries about his future working at a dinky city news service that gave him a job when his paper folded. Hard news comes knocking when the police boat he’s on fishes the body of a housewife out of the water with bricks of heroin wrapped around her waist.

The victim isn’t just any housewife — she’s the daughter of an Irish mobster and the wife of an Italian wiseguy’s son. The heroin is the stepped-on stuff of French Connection infamy, the brown junk the wiseguys sell. This is a murder meant to send a message and Taylor is convinced he has stumbled upon the opening shot of a war between the wiseguys and the Chinese tongs that want to muscle in on the city’s lucrative drug trade with China white branded with the stamp of a black sail.

Like a bloodhound tracking a strong scent, Taylor charges ahead, ignoring the rough terrain and frequently placing himself in harm’s way. Just as frequently, he’s bailed out by his tough, gun-toting girlfriend, an ex-cop named Samantha Callahan.

Taylor is a different kind of tough — as in, he’s a guy who can take a punch. Good thing, because he gets smacked around a lot by tong foot soldiers and wiseguys. He’s also menaced by crooked cops and a power-mad FBI honcho.

In the end, he learns the twisted truth about the housewife’s murder but can only write about bits and pieces of it. He survives, just barely, ready to chase his next scoop.

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