Over the weekend, I finally got around to reading Busted: A Tale of Corruption and Betrayal in the City of Brotherly Love, the March book by the Daily News Pulitzer-winning team of Wendy Ruderman and Barbara Laker. What a great book.
It’s an easy, breezy read — Philly Mag’s review called it a “captivating story” — but that’s not to say it’s insubstantial. Indeed, the narrative of how the two reported their “Tainted Justice” series of articles on police corruption for the paper deserves to take its place among the great works that have come to define Philadelphia in the popular mind — everything from Rocky to A Prayer for the City.
Three reasons you should read this book if you love Philadelphia:
• It’s gritty: In pursuit of their story, Laker and Ruderman chat up pimps, stroll brazenly into drug houses, and basically make themselves at home in some of the hardest-hit, dirtiest parts of the city, spending time among criminals, immigrants and the rest of the city’s dispossessed in order to get at the truth of a rogue drug unit. It’s a great example of the hard work and rewards that can go into shoe-leather journalism during an era in which many reporters can be hard-pressed to do much more than make a phone call from their desks. (Or home office.)
• It’s got sketches of some great Philly characters, high and low: Laker and Ruderman do a marvelous job of telling the story of “Benny” the drug informant whose story sets the tale in motion. Along the way, though we get quick takes on some of the more important people at this moment in the city’s history, including attorney George Bochetto (who was breathing down their necks on behalf of Officer Jeffrey Cujdik during the series), Inky editor Bill Marimow and then owner-publisher Brian Tierney.
And Tierney should be particularly grateful. If he’s best remembered for being at the helm of the city’s biggest newspapers when they went into bankruptcy, he’s painted in Busted as a man who, despite his own history in PR, loves news, celebrates reporters, and backs his journalists to the hilt when needed. We haven’t seen this side of Tierney too often, but Ruderman and Laker’s version of him would certainly seem to deserve some redemption.
• It’s an elegy for the city’s newspapers. Even if the Inquirer and Daily News should somehow survive beyond the next few years, it seems certain they’ll do so as diminished versions of themselves. Ruderman and Laker write often of being aware that the Daily News, in particular, might close before they were dune with the “Tainted Justice” series. You hold your breath, even though you know that the papers did survive bankruptcy. And you feel the pain of knowing you’re witnessing the final days of a way of life.
There’s apparently been some talk about turning the book into a movie, and here’s hoping it happens. The book has a classic, not-of-its time feel already, reflecting the vibe of late-’70s/early-’80s classics like Silkwood and Cagney & Lacey meets All The President’s Men. (Given all the old-school resources Ruderman and Laker used to track their story — sifting through boxes of search warrant applications, you’d hardly believe Google had been invented.) And it features two women as the heroes of the piece!
Busted deserves your attention not because you need to know more about cop corruption in Philadelphia — the details of which were amply reported in the original newspaper series — but because it’s such a great Philadelphia story. It deserves iconic status.
Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.