Frank Leonard was a former New York City Welfare Department worker turned author who was nominated for an Edgar Award in 1972 for his debut crime novel, “Box 100.” It’s not clear to me what happened to the guy, but I found some mass-market non-fiction books from the same era about male sexuality and psychiatric wards that might be the same writer. Nevertheless, the important thing to know is that “Box 100” is an interesting time capsule that captures the dysfunction of 1970s New York City in a mystery surrounding the welfare system and its inhabitants.
The narrator is Ross Franklin, a new investigator with a second-tier agency called the New York City Department of Investigation that functions as a local Inspector General’s office addressing waste, fraud, and abuse in city government. This being 1972, anonymous complaints regarding government services can be mailed to P.O. Box 100 in NYC, and it’s Ross’ job to open the mail and assess the legitimacy of the incoming complaints for their investigative value.
The cynicism of civil service workers is thick at the Box 100 department. Investigators spend their days mocking constituents and writing up fake investigative reports to create the illusion of productivity. It’s hilarious to read while also tragic to consider that such government agencies may have existed then and now.
Because Ross is the new guy at work, he decides to take his job seriously, and his first Box 100 investigation involves a simple complaint about a Brooklyn resident receiving and negotiating duplicate welfare checks in one month. Ross takes a deep dive into the NYC 1970s welfare system and the black ghettos it subsidized with the insider knowledge that only a former welfare department worker could muster. You can almost imagine the author sitting at his metal desk working his soul-crushing job thinking, “This is crazy. I should write a book about this.” You’ve probably thought that about your job too. The difference is that this guy actually wrote the book.
Ross pulls on the thread of what is essentially a check fraud case and unravels a conspiracy of corruption and double-dealing inside city government and beyond. Leonard was a good writer, but none of this really amounted to all that compelling of a story. It’s likely that the author hoped “Box 100” would launch a mystery series, but it never came to pass. The paperback just wasn’t interesting enough to generate much demand. If you find this at a thrift store for a quarter, it might be worth your time, but don’t sell your spare kidney to score a rare copy.
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