Rich Zahradnik Reflects on Lights Out Summer

Note: Rich Zahradnik has been a journalist for more than thirty years, working as a reporter and editor in all major news media, including online, newspaper, broadcast, magazine, and wire services. He lives with his wife and son in Pelham, New York, where he teaches elementary school kids how to publish online and print newspapers. In the following piece, he reflects on his thriller series featuring Coleridge Taylor. 

The Coleridge Taylor series began with one book and a simple premise: What if a top-notch police reporter makes a terrible mistake that gets him demoted to the obituaries desk. He spends his days writing formulaic stories on the dead but can’t investigate what really happened. At this point, I didn’t have a time period in mind for the book. I knew I didn’t want the instant DNA typing, facial matching in seven seconds, cell phones coming to the rescue all the time (except when they don’t) and all the other tropes that crime fiction, particularly stories told on TV and in movies, have introduced to viewers, even if much of the tech doesn’t really exist. I wanted a shoe-leather investigation. Pay phones. Typewriters.

Rich Zahradnik reflection author mystery thriller lights out summerI trolled back in time to 1975, the year the Vietnam War ended, which resonated for me because, when I started writing in 2004, we were involved in two wars that were also not universally popular. For that reason, I set Last Words in New York during the weeks before Saigon fell.

The next book, Drop Dead Punk, occurs in the fall of the same year, when New York City came perilously close to going bankrupt. The famous Daily News headline about President Ford refusing to bail out the city—“Ford to City: Drop Dead”—contributes to the meaning of the book’s title. Again, there were parallels between the past and the present; in this case, the behavior of politicians, banks and financiers that brought on the Great Recession in 2008 mirrored that of the same types of organizations and people that sent the city hurtling toward the financial precipice. None of this is overtly stated; you see it or you don’t. The book is a murder mystery about punk rockers, police corruption and the porn industry.

I set the first two novels in a single year because I really wanted to write about NYC’s financial crisis. After that, I decided each book would move a year later into the seventies. I jumped to July 4th, 1976 and the days before and after for A Black Sail because I love sailing ships (though I’m not a sailor). The Bicentennial celebrations with the hundreds of ships of sail in New York Harbor serve as the back drop after a dead housewife is pulled from the river and Taylor chases heroin dealers and mobsters.

Lights Out Summer and 1977 presented two major storytelling opportunities. And two major challenges. That was the year the serial killer Son of Sam took over the front pages of the city’s tabloids. That was also the year of the great summer blackout, which led to the destruction of thousands of businesses through looting, fires and vandalism.

Weaving in the historical material on Son of Sam was my biggest worry. I couldn’t ignore the case because Taylor, a police reporter, would have to cover it and would, by nature, regularly reflect on what other news outlets were doing. At the same time, Taylor could not solve the Son of Sam case. It couldn’t be the central mystery in the book. It’s a matter of record who got the final break and who arrested David Berkowitz: NYPD detectives out of Brooklyn working with the Yonkers police. Luckily, I could play to one of Taylor’s strongest character traits. He believes in—is obsessed with—telling the stories of victims everyone else is ignoring. Seeing the press pack chase news on the serial killer, he pursues the case of a young Black woman murdered in her apartment building the same night Son of Sam struck elsewhere in Queens. Yet, he is still forced by the demands of his job to cover the big newsbreaks on the serial killer—frustrating him in his own efforts and weaving developments from the real case into the novel.

A side benefit of choosing not to ignore 1977’s biggest crime story is I bring readers inside the tabloid war between the Daily News and the New York Post—a war kicked off that year with the purchase of the Post by Rupert Murdoch. The often appalling actions of the papers may remind readers that the bad media behavior we think of as a product of the cable news and internet eras was going on long before.

The blackout was easier to handle because it wasn’t a specific criminal case. There were more than 3,000 arrests as a result of crimes committed when the lights were out. I very much wanted to use the outage as the set piece at the end of the book’s second act. Newspaper and filmed coverage gave me a real feel for what it was like to be out on New York’s streets for the 25 hours of the blackout. I put Taylor and his girlfriend, P.I. Samantha Callahan, on those streets, observing the wanton theft and destruction, helping where they could, and, as always in Taylor’s case, reporting the story. They could easily do all this without my having to alter the historical record.

All the Coleridge Taylor books are about deeply troubled, dystopian New York in the seventies, a near failed city. In the new book, I hoped also to show how important stories get missed when the press runs as a pact after a single sensational one. Nothing’s changed there.