Friday, March 27, 2015

Contemporary Fiction: Last Words by Rich Zahradnik

I was sent Rich Zahradnik's Last Words: A Coleridge Taylor Mystery in exchange for a book review on this blog. What interested me about this particular mystery was not only the setting of New York City in 1975, but also the nature of the crime the protagonist must investigate. Like any other mystery or thriller, there are the usual twists, turns, and red herrings, but this story overall was slightly different from most mysteries than I am used to reading.

The Situation: It is March 1975 in New York City, and Coleridge Samuel Taylor (yes, you read that correctly) has been relegated to writing obituaries for the New York Messenger-Telegram after the sources for his story on a nine year-old heroin addict disappeared on him. Now a disgraced journalist, Taylor's reputation is non-existent, and his superiors at the paper are itching to be rid of him. And even though Taylor is not supposed to be out seeking out stories to investigate and write, he cannot help but keep up with some of his old sources, and visit some of his most reliable locations for information, such as emergency rooms and morgues, in hopes of delivering himself from writing about dead people for the rest of his career. After coming across the dead body of a homeless teenager, Taylor believes he may have found the deliverance he was looking for. Aside from his clothes, this supposedly homeless boy is too clean and too put together to be one of the many homeless people in New York City that freeze to death in the winter. And that is just enough for Taylor to begin a search for the truth.

The Problem: Once Taylor receives confirmation that the clothes the boy was dressed in didn't belong to him, he knows this is a story worth pursuing, one that could restore is reputation. Not only was the boy from a wealthy and influential family, but the clothes he was wearing belonged to a hobo. Taylor's connections in the homeless community verify that the jacket belongs to a well-known hobo named Voichek. And as Taylor begins to earnestly seek answers, he gains the attention of those who want to keep everything quiet, putting himself in danger, along with anyone else he gets to help him. Soon, Taylor finds himself questioning privileged teenagers, depending on the homeless, hiding from hired hit men, and angering both his coworkers and the police. Time is also not on his side, so Taylor must do everything he can to quickly get to the young boys murderer.  

Genre, Themes, History: Last Words is the first in what will be a series of mystery novels involving the journalist character of Coleridge Taylor. Set in 1975 New York City, the story begins on Tuesday, March 11th, and ends seven days later on Monday, March 18th. In just a week, Taylor will go through all of the adventures of a classic mystery in an attempt to solve this case and save his reputation as a journalist. And since 1975 was not the most prosperous year for New York City, there is much discussion about lack of jobs, rise in crime, and the closing of several newspapers as the industry begins to decline. Another aspect of the story is Taylor's eventual dependence on help from the homeless community. Near the middle of the book, Taylor even receives a lesson in the dying language of the hobo community from someone who has been living that life for decades. Zahradnik himself has been a journalist for 30 plus years and would know the value of reliable sources, as well as the trouble that comes when those sources disappear on you when you need them most.

My Verdict: I am always wary of any mystery that has a male protagonist get involved with a younger woman, only because it is something we have seen and sometimes get tired of seeing. But other elements of Last Words are original and fresh enough that the romance between Taylor and Laura isn't all that bothersome. Overall, the story itself is incredibly intriguing and complex, but not so complex that the reader gets lost. And there are very clear elements of the story that set it up to turn into a series, such as the nine year-old heroin addict and her mother, whom Taylor is able to track down, but he still doesn't know why he was set up, or by whom. And there is also the mysterious Pickwick who has given Taylor some of his best leads, but only over the phone and with a fake name. This story will easily make the first in a fruitful series, and the mysteries will only get better and more interesting.

Favorite Moment: When Voichek lets Taylor in on the language used by all hobos, a language that he feels is dying out, along with his way of life.

Favorite Character: Taylor's homeless friend Jansen serves as sort of the director or organization for a group of homeless people in New York City. He is dependable and organized, words that often aren't used to describe the homeless.

Recommended Reading: I recommend The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith, a.k.a. J.K. Rowling. It is a different sort of mystery, but also features a sort of down-on-his-luck protagonist trying to get back on his feet.

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