The introspective, first-person approach allows Ruderman and Laker to present themselves as characters in their story, warts and all. We read about Laker caring for her mother in her long dying days, spoon-feeding her roast chicken while watching Law & Order reruns. Shortly after her mother’s death, “Barbara fell into a deep depression that she tried desperately and unsuccessfully to hide. It was the beginning of the end of her marriage.” Meanwhile, Ruderman reveals the tensions in her own marriage, as well as the challenges of raising her young kids: “At work, I wasn’t afraid to take on the law,” she writes. “At home, I was totally unable to lay down the law.”
That openness adds richness to the tale, though the reporters’ personalities are sometimes communicated awkwardly in the text, particularly when it comes to recreated dialogue. When the duo get their Christmas Eve breakthrough, for example, we read:
“Woo-hoo!” Barbara yelped.
“Yaaay!” I said.
The genuine excitement of journalistic discovery doesn’t quite come through on the page.
But where Ruderman and Laker excel as storytellers is in their sense of detail: The sharp eye for the observable world that makes them excellent newspaper reporters also makes for strong book writing. Busted stands on their prose and paraphrase, not their dialogue. When interviewing a drug dealer in the company of her protective son, for example, they note the teenage boy’s appearance:
Ricky was shirtless, with low-slung black pants. He had a goatee, combed his short hair forward, close to his scalp, and had a space between his two front teeth. His arms, chest, and back were adorned in tattoos. Stretched across the top of his back were the words ONLY GOD CAN JUDGE ME above an unfinished cross.
In four sentences, this character has become fascinating. He only becomes more so when he starts questioning Laker about her home, her marriage, and, finally, invites her to take a cruise with him. “You need to get out more and live your life,” he tells Laker. “You have your whole life ahead of you.”
And while the shift from serial to book strips the story of some urgency, it offers the reporters the perspective that comes from time and distance. The portrayal of Benny Martinez, the original informant, takes on an markedly different shade after the reporters come to see the ways he played them: He misled Laker and Ruderman about the extent of his drug use and his motives for sharing his story, and exploited the responsibility they felt for his wellbeing. “He was convincing,” they write. “He was good, real good.”
There is a letdown at the end of the Busted narrative, but one that was out of the reporters’ hands. At the crucial last act of the investigation—accountability—there is, unfortunately, little to report. The City of Philadelphia has paid $2 million to settle 33 lawsuits filed by bodega owners and two of the victimized women, but federal prosecutors recently announced—after the book went to press—that none of the police officers would face charges. None of the assaulted women were interviewed by the FBI. José Duran, one of the bodega owners raided by the police, had a video of five police officers cutting the surveillance camera wires at his shop. He has since lost his business and had to sell his home—a circumstance the reporters suggest is a particularly unfair when the cops he caught on video remain working with the police department. Duran now rents a smaller space and works in the meat department of Costco. It’s hard not to wonder, along with the reporters, whether events would have unfolded differently had the victims been from the suburbs.
While the police story is now closed, the future of the Daily News remains open-ended. Two years after a group of owners bought Philadelphia’s biggest papers, they are now battling each other for control while accusing one another of backhanded dealing. The question of whether or not to close the Daily News keeps coming up. One small sign of the dysfunction: Links to the “Tainted Justice” series on Philly.com, where Daily News and Philadelphia Inquirer stories are published online, are broken. (A side benefit of winning that Pulitzer is that 10 of the stories are collected and still available to readers on the prize site.)Like many papers with shrunken newsrooms, the Daily News has to pick and choose the stories it chases. Some reporters crank out three or four stories a day, so journalists like Laker and Ruderman can keep chasing big investigations. For now, they’re still digging up dirt in Philly. How long will they have a chance to do that? The Daily News can’t afford to make promises.