By J. H. Bográn
LAST WORDS opens with New York City on the brink of bankruptcy, rumbles in the Bronx, and newsman Coleridge Taylor roaming police precincts and ERs in search of a story that will rescue his career. A break comes at Bellevue, where Taylor views the body of a homeless teen picked up in the Meatpacking District. Taylor smells a rat: the dead boy looks too clean, and he’s wearing a distinctive Army field jacket. Time is not on Taylor’s side. If he doesn’t wrap this story up soon, he’ll be back on the obits pages—as a headline, not a byline.
Rich Zahradnik offers an interesting setup for a promising series set in a decade usually overlooked, probably due to its disco connection. Still, Zahradnik dives right into the middle of seventies and never looks back. THE BIG THRILL had the opportunity to question him about LAST WORDS.
What can you tell us about Coleridge Taylor?
Taylor was a top police reporter at the New York Messenger-Telegram until he was accused of inventing a story about a nine-year-old heroin addict. In fact, he was set up. He was demoted to the obituaries desk, an assignment where he deals with the dead all day but can’t pursue the real stories behind their deaths. He’s using all his spare time to find a crime story so good that his editors will give him his old job back. He’s also trying to track down the little addict he interviewed to prove the story was real.
Taylor, who’s thirty-four, joined the paper as a seventeen-year-old copy boy after growing up in Queens and moving up to reporter four years later, a traditional career path in newspapers still available in the late fifties. Now it’s 1975, and newspapers are hiring college grads from places like Columbia. These younger, better-educated reporters make Taylor insecure. Taylor isn’t sophisticated about the job. He doesn’t believe in the New Journalism or interpretive reporting. He believes in facts. If he can get all the facts, he’ll get the story. He quotes John Adams on this, “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” He lost his brother in Vietnam and his mother to cancer. His father is an alcoholic English professor at CUNY he’s not very close with.
What can you tell us on the antagonist without giving away the surprise?
That’s a tough one. I wanted an antagonist who people would hear from early in the story but who would still be a surprise when revealed at the end. And this revelation had to be believable. As this thriller has the structure of a whodunit, I’m not sure there’s much more I can say without spoiling the story.
Considering the book is set in the mid-seventies, was there any special challenge in the research stage?
The biggest challenge was going into the project not expecting a big challenge. I’d lived through the period, so figured I knew it. Then I’d realize I wasn’t sure of details, like when the cost of a subway ride or a pay phone call had gone up. I really had to dive in and research details little and large. This was not a bad thing. I discovered events and facts I’d forgotten. They added to the story, in fact, took it in new directions.
And then again, what lured you to set it in the seventies?
I wanted to write a mystery that required good old-fashioned legwork and serious brain work, rather than science fiction–like instant DNA typing and surveillance video available from any and every angle. Television, in particular, has taught today’s audiences you can type DNA in minutes and do fingerprint matches and facial recognition in seconds. It’s not true, but it’s the audience’s present expectation. I wanted a story where Taylor had to work hard to track down interviews, deal with unreliable witnesses and couldn’t default to magic video footage. Taylor has to find a pay phone when he needs to call someone. There’s something satisfying in that for me. With that goal, I went looking for a good year and settled on 1975 because that time in New York had very striking parallels to America of the past decade. Then as now, an unpopular war was finally coming to its sad end. A major institution, the city itself, tumbled toward bankruptcy, threatening a financial cataclysm. This as banks and ratings agencies ignored the warning signs or willfully misled the public.
Since LAST WORDS is the first, the obligated question is: when is the next installment in the Coleridge Taylor series going to be released?
The next book, Drop Dead Punk, will be released next October. It’s set in October–November of 1975, when New York City’s financial crisis came to its head. The city went right to the brink. Some may remember the famous Daily News headline: “Ford to City: Drop Dead.” That kicks off the story. The novel also delves deeper into the new punk rock scene in downtown New York.
What kind of promotion are you doing for LAST WORDS?
I’m doing a review blog tour, participating in book giveaways on Goodreads and THE BIG THRILL and all the usual social media posting, while keeping up with the blog on my website. My launch party is next Wednesday at The Mysterious Bookshop in New York. Next month, I’m joining two of the ITW’s Thriller Roundtables, am being interviewed by Suspense Magazine‘s podcast and will appear at my local library. I may do some targeted advertising in the first quarter.
What are you currently working on?
Aside from Drop Dead Punk, I have a middle-grade time-travel fantasy in third draft. It’s called Timers. I have to do one more polish on it before turning it over to my agent. At that point, it will probably be time to start work on the third Taylor novel, A Black Sail, set during the Operation Sail celebration for the U.S. Bicentennial in 1976. For those who are too young, Op Sail involved twenty-one tall ships parading through New York harbor as part of the bicentennial activities. There’s going to be a crime on one of them (or maybe more than one).
A thought you’d like to share with your readers
Like many, it’s been a long journey to realize the dream of having my stories play out in the imaginations of others. I’m excited it’s finally happening and to participate in the activities of the International Thriller Writers.
Rich Zahradnik is the author of the Coleridge Taylor Mystery series published by Camel Press. LAST WORDS is the first novel in the series. He was a journalist for thirty-plus years, working as a reporter and editor in all major news media, including online, newspaper, broadcast, magazine, and wire services. He held editorial positions at CNN, Bloomberg News, Fox Business Network, and The Hollywood Reporter. In January 2012, he was one of twenty writers selected for the inaugural class of the Crime Fiction Academy, a first-of-its-kind program run by New York’s Center for Fiction.
To learn more about Rich, please visit his website.