Zoë Sharp interviewed me about Providence Rag, my new Mulligan crime novel, for the blog Murder is Everywhere. Here’s how the conversation went:
I’m delighted to have the opportunity this week to do a Q&A with the charming and talented Bruce DeSilva, author of the Liam Mulligan series set in Providence, Rhode Island, and to chat with him about the reasons behind the location for his multi-award winning novels.
Zoë Sharp: PROVIDENCE RAG, the third crime novel in your series featuring investigative reporter Mulligan, is yet another beautifully observed book. And once again, the story is set in “RowDYElin.” I know you now live in New Jersey, but how much time did you spend in Rhode Island in order to write this?
Bruce DeSilva: I made several road trips to do research and to catch up with family and friends who live in the area. But I grew up in a little Massachusetts town twenty miles from the Rhode Island border, started my working life as a reporter for The Providence Journal, and lived in the state for years. I know the place well.
ZS: How important do you feel your Rhode Island setting is to the stories you write about Mulligan? Would they work just as well if he was based in Manhattan and working for The New York Times, for example?
BDS: I’m sure they wouldn’t. Mulligan doesn’t just cover Rhode Island. He grew up there. The place shaped his behavior and his beliefs. He’d be a very different guy if he were from somewhere else. Providence, the state’s capital, isn’t much like Los Angeles, Miami, or the other big cities where so many crime novels are set. It’s big enough to have the usual array of urban problems, but it’s so small that it can make you claustrophobic. Most of the people you see on the street know your name, which makes it a hard place to keep secrets. It also makes it a place where a lot of things get done through personal connections.
Need a plumber’s license, for example? Chances are you’ve got a friend or a relative on the board. And if you don’t, you have the option of offering a small gratuity. Mulligan says that without the lubrication of personal connections and bribery, not much would get done in Rhode Island—and nothing at all would happen done on time. As he sees it, graft comes in two kinds, good and bad, just like cholesterol. The good kind pads the incomes of underpaid state employees, puts braces on their kids’ teeth. The bad kind enriches politicians and their wealthy friends and taxpayers’ expense. Rhode Island has always had plenty of both kinds. The state’s culture of organized crime and political corruption dates all the way back to a colonial governor dining with a famous pirate named Captain Kidd. Mulligan’s job as an investigative reporter is to root out the bad graft; but he sees nothing wrong with, or even inconsistent about, placing a bet with his bookie or paying a small bribe to get a safety inspection sticker for his decrepit Ford Bronco. I don’t think he’d think this way if he were from, say, Iowa or Vermont.
ZS: Like your main protagonist, Mulligan, you were a journalist yourself for forty-one years, including a stint on The Providence Journal. How close is that to your fictional Providence Dispatch? And where you decided to deviate from the truth, why was that?
BDS: The fictional Dispatch is certainly based on The Journal. Both were once great small-city metros with well-earned reputations for fine writing and aggressive investigative reporting. And like most newspapers these days, both have fallen on hard times, hemorrhaging readers and advertising. But I am not privy to The Journal’s proprietary business information or to what goes on day to day in its newsroom. So all of the granular details about The Dispatch, including specifics about its financial health and the actions of the characters who populate the news staff, are made up. Of course, that hasn’t stopped a couple of my former colleagues from thinking that Mulligan is based on them. He’s not. Mulligan is me—except that he’s twenty-three years younger and a lot taller.
ZS: Hmm, funny how our fictional creations are so rarely shorter and older than we are, isn’t it? They say the most interesting crime stories are not about cops working on cases, but about cases working on cops. In your new novel, you show the moral dilemmas facing not just Mulligan, his fellow journalists, and the cops they interact with, but the effect it has on the relatives of the guilty and the innocent, and indeed the whole town. What was your plan when you set out to write this book?
BDS: It was. In PROVIDENCE RAG, my protagonist, his fellow reporters, his editors, and pretty much the entire state become ensnared in an ethical conundrum that has no right answer. No matter which side of the issue any of them make their stand on, they are condoning something that is reprehensible. I wrote the novel because I wanted to explore the implications of that.
ZS: I got the impression that Mulligan is more of an observer than in the previous books. Although it’s partly down to him that the teenage killer is caught in the first place, it’s Edward ‘Thanks-Dad’ Mason, son of the newspaper publisher, and photographer Gloria Costa, survivor of a vicious assault that robbed her of the sight in one eye, who seem to have been pushed into more prominent roles. How much do you view this as ‘a Liam Mulligan novel’ and how much as an ensemble piece?
BDS: To some degree, all of my novels have had ensemble casts. In the first novel, ROGUE ISLAND, Mulligan’s bookie, a female fire chief, and Thanks-Dad all play major roles. I work hard on my secondary characters, giving them distinctive voices and significant parts to play. But Mulligan is always the protagonist who drives the main action of the story. He’s like Seinfeld was to Elaine, Kramer and George—except that in ‘Seinfeld’, nobody got shot.
ZS: I wondered why I never watched ‘Seinfeld’! This book is inspired by a true story?
BDS: Yes, by the Craig Price case, which I covered as a journalist years ago. Price was the youngest serial killer in U.S. history, slaughtering four of his female neighbors before he was old enough to drive. When he was caught in 1989, Rhode Island’s criminal justice statues hadn’t been updated in years. They were written by legislators who never envisioned a child like him. So the law required that Price be released at age 21 and given a fresh start. Nevertheless, he has remained behind bars, convicted of a series of offenses he supposedly committed on the inside. I suspect that some of those charges were fabricated, but in the very least it’s clear that Price has been wildly over-sentenced. For example, he was given thirty years for refusing to submit to a court-ordered psychiatric examination. Price is surely too dangerous to be released, but if authorities are playing games to keep him locked up, they are abusing their power. And if they can do this to him, what’s to stop them from doing it to somebody else? In real life, Rhode Islanders aren’t asking this question. In the novel, my fictional teenage serial killer is caught and imprisoned in the first seventy-five pages. The rest of the book is devoted to a high-stakes struggle over where justice lies when the only way to keep a psychopath behind bars is to pervert the criminal justice system.
ZS: You must have come across many fascinating true stories during your time not only as a journalist, but also as world-wide writing coach for The Associated Press, where you edited many award-winning stories (including the Pulitzer). Does this mean you have a stock of good material for your future novels?
BDS: Oh, sure—but I think anyone who has lived an interesting life and remained relatively conscious has accumulated enough experiences to fill several shelves with novels. When young people who aspire to be novelists ask me how to get started, I tell them to do something else first. Tend bar, drive a taxi, enlist in the army, teach school … Until you’ve lived a little, you don’t have anything to write about that a sane grownup wants to read.
ZS: I agree totally. So, what’s next for Mulligan and crew? And will we see more of Larry Bird?
BDS: The fourth Mulligan novel, tentatively titled A SCOURGE OF VIPERS, is completed and will be published in March of 2015. The story finds Mulligan exploring the world of legal and illegal sports gambling. And I’ve made a small start on the next one. As for that potty-mouth, Larry Bird, (the reference will make sense once you read the book,) I don’t believe he will darken Mulligan’s door again.
ZS: Shame—I rather liked him. Do you see yourself stepping away from your present Rhode Island setting? And why?
BDS: I don’t see Mulligan venturing far from his home base. However, I’m collaborating on a new novel with my wife Patricia Smith, one of our greatest living poets. The book will be set in her native Chicago and will have dueling narrators, a Chicago cop who speaks in my voice and a black hairdresser who speaks in Patricia’s.
ZS: Sounds an intriguing project. What have you found hardest about swapping from non-fiction to fiction?
BDS: For me, the transition has been smooth. Fiction and non-fiction require pretty much the same skill set, including an eye for meaningful details, an ear for dialogue, and an understanding of story structure. If anything, I find fiction is easier because I can take the story anywhere I please. After decades of fretting daily about accuracy and fairness, it’s liberating to be able to make stuff up.
ZS: But there must have been some unexpected challenges.
BDS: Well … I do find that I am often bullied by my own creations. The other day, for instance, Mulligan insisted that I turn the TV off in the middle of the CBS tribute to The Beatles and write the opening chapter of a new book about him. Come on, buddy, I said. “Don’t you want to hear John Legend and Alicia Keys sing ‘Let it Be’? Mulligan is not the kind to let anything be. He smirked and stared dictating the first paragraph. There’s no arguing with him when he gets like this. I set the show to record and sat down at the keyboard. This wouldn’t be so annoying if Mulligan was the only one, but he’s not. Last fall, when I was writing the fourth novel about him, a young stranger knocked on my skull. Said his name was Dante. Grew up in a mob family. Studied criminal justice at John Jay College. Figured it would come in handy no matter which side of the law he decided to live on. Sorry, I told him. There’s no role for you in this Mulligan novel. But Dante wanted a book all his own. He kept nagging. Finally I had to stop what I was doing and write an opening chapter about him. Only then could get him to leave me alone. And now he’s back. I live with my characters. When I walk my dogs or drive my car, they are with me, working on my subconscious. And sometimes they speak to me in waking dreams.
ZS: Sounds strangely familiar—and long may it continue. When our imaginary friends stop talking to us, then we know we’re really in trouble. I usually like to include a Word of the Week at the end of my blogs—an obscure or interesting word that I’ve stumbled across during one of my forays into the dictionary. Would you care to supply one?
BDS: Allow me to offer the German noun serienmorder. It means exactly what it sounds like. The word was coined by a German detective named Ernst Gennat in 1930. Robert Ressler, one of the first FBI profilers, is generally credited with coining the English equivalent, serial killer, in 1974.
ZS: Bruce, it’s been a pleasure and an honour, as always. Thank you for joining us here at Murder Is Everywhere. Over to you, folks—if you have questions for the talented Mr DeSilva, now’s your chance to ask ’em.