The Hypocrisy Surrounding Sports Gambling

This article originally appeared as a guest blog on the Curling Up by the Fire website.

University of Massachusetts at Amherst

University of Massachusetts at Amherst

I was first introduced to illegal sports gambling by a scruffy guy who made the rounds of the University of Massachusetts dormitories every Thursday and Friday during the football season, handing out crudely-printed cards with the point-spreads for the week’s NFL games.

I’d circle my picks and return my card to him each Saturday, along with one dollar to cover each game I was betting on. You had to bet on at least three games, but if you wished, you could bet on them all. To collect, all of your picks had to be winners. The more games you picked, the greater the risk and the greater the potential reward.

I was cautious, usually betting on just three games and never more than six, but I seldom won anything. By the end of each season, my losses always totaled several times more than I’d won.

This was a long time ago, back when the New England Patriots were still the Boston Patriots—so long ago that the first Super Bowl, in which the Green Bay Packers trounced the Kansas City Chiefs, wasn’t held until my junior year of college. Back then, I didn’t give much thought to where the money I lost was going.

Raymond L.S. Patriarca

Raymond L.S. Patriarca

I know now that the scruffy dude was a runner who turned the betting cards and cash over to a Western Massachusetts bookie every week. From there, some of the money was passed on to the powerful Angiulo crime family in Boston; and quite likely, a share was paid in tribute to Raymond L.S. Patriarca, the ruthless New England crime boss who ran his regional empire from a little vending machine company office on Atwells Avenue in Providence, R.I.

A few years later, when I found myself writing about Patriarca for The Providence Journal, I didn’t feel all that good about the tiny contribution I’d made to his wealth and power. From then on, I limited my sports gambling to small, friendly wagers with friends.

But I always paid close attention to illegal sports gambling and the game-fixing and point-shaving scandals it occasionally generated.

4ca6f-a2bscourge2bof2bvipersSo when I decided to make this the subject of A Scourge of Vipers, the fourth book in my Edgar Award-winning series of crime novels, I thought I knew a lot about the subject.

A little research told me there was a lot I hadn’t known.

I’d understood that a lot of Americans gamble on sporting events, but I’d had no idea how many. According to surveys, I discovered, about eighty-five percent of us bet on sports at least occasionally, much of it on the annual March Madness basketball tournament.

I’d known that sports gambling was big business, but I’d had no idea how big. Experts estimate that Americans bet three hundred and eight billion dollars a year on sporting events. That’s six times greater than the annual budget of the sprawling U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

In other words, most of us are involved in it, and the stakes are astronomically high.

I got the idea for the new novel a few years ago when Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, already contemplating a run for the Republican nomination for president of the United States, proposed legalizing sports betting in his state so he could tax the profits. I saw immediately that his plan would face enormous obstacles.

For another thing, legalization had powerful enemies, and those enemies had deep pockets.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie

The NCAA, the governing body of inter-collegiate sports, was dead-set against it, threatening to ban New Jersey arenas from its annual basketball tournament unless the governor backed down. The four major professional sports leagues were adamantly opposed, too (although the NBA commissioner recently softened his position), claiming legalization would damage the integrity of their games.

Meanwhile, Las Vegas casinos were eager to hold on to their near-monopoly on legal sports gambling, and organized crime organizations were aghast at the prospect of seeing their bookmaking business wiped out.

But legalization also had powerful friends. Some public-employee unions saw it as a way to save their endangered pension plans. Some casino owners outside of Nevada salivated at the chance to dive into the lucrative sports-betting business.

Hard-pressed governors of other states, desperate for a way to balance their budgets without raising taxes, began following the unfolding New Jersey drama with great interest.

So I asked myself, “What if?”—the question that has launched every novel that I’ve written. What if Fiona McNerney, the fictional governor of Rhode Island whom I’d introduced in an earlier novel, proposed legalizing sports gambling in her state? McNerney, a former religious sister nicknamed Attila the Nun because of her take-no-prisoners style of politics, isn’t much like Christie, but they do have one thing in common. Both are combative personalities who aren’t given to backing down from a fight.

Rhode Island state capitol building

Rhode Island state capitol building

The novel’s action explodes when powerful forces with a lot to gain—or lose—if sports gambling became legal, flood Rhode Island with money to buy the votes of politicians. Much of the money is delivered in the form of legal campaign contributions, but some of the special interests aren’t above slipping cash-stuffed envelopes into politicians’ pockets. Just picture all of that money pouring into a tiny, economically-depressed state where the average campaign for the state legislature costs just ten thousand dollars.

Naturally, all hell breaks loose. Before long, a powerful state legislator turns up dead, a mobbed-up bag man gets shot down, and his cash-filled briefcase goes missing.
Liam Mulligan, an investigative reporter for a dying Providence, R.I., newspaper (and the protagonist of my three earlier novels) wants to dig into the story, but the bottom-feeding conglomerate that recently bought the once proud daily has no interest in serious public-interest reporting. So Mulligan, who’s never been inclined to follow orders, goes rogue, investigating on his own.

Soon, he finds himself the target of shadowy forces that seek to derail him by threatening his reputation, his career, and even his life.

The result is at once a suspenseful murder mystery and a serious examination of one of the major issues of our times—the impact of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision and the corrupting influence of big money on politics.

The story also allowed me to explore the blatant hypocrisy that surrounds illegal sports gambling.

Should it be illegal when almost everyone takes part in it? Why does nearly every state have its own vice laws against it while, at the same time, their official lotteries rake in billions of dollars from chump scratch tickets and numbers games?

Why do the NCAA and the major sports leagues repeatedly claim that legalization will increase the temptation for criminals to fix games? Isn’t the three-hundred-and-eight billion dollars Americans gamble on sports every year, most of it bet illegally, incentive enough? Actually, legalization would probably reduce the risk, because the amount wagered would be public knowledge. An Arizona point-shaving scandal was exposed some years back only because a red flag went up when an obscene amount of money was bet legally in Las Vegas.

Gambling is one of the main reasons a lot of people follow sports. The NCAA and the professional sports leagues know this, and they profit handsomely from the filled arenas and the massive TV contracts all that interest generates. Isn’t that why they don’t protest when sports writers cite point spreads?

lotteryLike any vice, gambling is harmful to individuals who engage in it to excess, but is sports gambling any more immoral than state lotteries and Indian casinos? And illegal or not, most Americans bet on sports anyway. Keeping it illegal does little more than help mobbed-up bookies stay in business.

As I was finishing my novel, Governor Christie pressed forward with his plan, pushing his legalization bill through the state legislature in defiance of the federal law. He announced that the sports betting would begin first at the Monmouth Park racetrack and that it would soon spread to the Atlantic City casinos.

So, of course, the major professional sports leagues sued to stop him.

Last fall, a federal judge blocked Christie’s plan. Now the issue is headed to the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia—and quite likely, eventually to the U.S. Supreme Court.

A Scourge of Vipers, the fourth in my Edgar Award-winning series featuring Liam Mulligan, has received rave reviews from The New York Times, Suspense Magazine, and Publishers Weekly, to name just a few. It’s available in hardcover, e-book, and audio editions. To order it, you can find links to chain and independent online booksellers here.

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My “Authors On the Air” Interview

My novels on sale at the Poisoned Pen bookstore in Scottsdale, AZ

My novels on sale at the Poisoned Pen bookstore in Scottsdale, AZ

Pam Stack interviewed me yesterday for the Authors on the Air radio show, asking about my hard-boiled Mulligan crime novels in general and the latest one, A Scourge of Vipers, in particular.

We talked about the how I developed the main character, the inspiration behind some of the plots, the book reviewing I do for the Associated Press, the reviews of my own novels, my writing process, the state of American journalism, and several other topics.

The interview can be heard in its entirety here.

A Scourge of Vipers, the fourth in my Edgar Award-winning series featuring Liam Mulligan, has received rave reviews from The New York Times, Suspense Magazine, and Publishers Weekly, to name just a few. It’s available in hardcover, e-book, and audio editions. To order it, you can find links to chain and independent online booksellers here.

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Why I Use Popular Music to Teach Writing

The following originally appeared on the Hardboiled Wonderland website.

The languages of writing and music have many terms in common: tone, mood, pacing, style, movement, rhythm, voice . . .  It is only natural, then, that music is central in my series of hard-boiled crime novels featuring Liam Mulligan, an investigative reporter at a dying newspaper in Providence, Rhode Island. Blues artists including Buddy Guy, Koko Taylor, and Son Seals provide the soundtrack of his life.

So it shouldn’t surprise anyone that when I teach prose writing in college and professional workshops, music is one of my most important tools.

Take voice, for example. Readers think they read with their eyes, but they really read with their ears. They hear the writer speaking to them from the page. The appeal of that voice has everything to do with whether they will finish a book or ever want to read anything else by that writer.

The late Robert B. Parker, one of the best-selling crime novelists of all time, once told me that readers enjoyed his books for the same reason they love certain songs. They like the way they sound. The same story can sound very different, depending on who is telling it. I like to make this point to writers by having them listen to the same song performed by different artists.

Consider Hound Dog, for example. Elvis Presley’s recording, the version people are most familiar with, tells the story of a guy who’s annoying him by sniffing around his girlfriend; but in his hands the tune is so goofy that it’s almost a novelty song. Big Mama Thornton’s earlier version, however, is deadline serious. She angry at some jerk who won’t leave her alone. Pots and pans-throwing angry. Now give a listen to what Koko Taylor does with it. She’s so furious that she’s ready to cut somebody.

Or consider Respect, a song most people associate with Aretha Franklin. In her version, she demands respect from her husband when he comes home from work, but he’s so thick-headed that she has to spell it for him: R-E-S-P-E-C-T. To a guy, the chorus provided by a platoon of background singers sounds like all the women in the world yelling at him.

But the song was written, and originally recorded, by Otis Redding. In his version, the word is not spelled out. Instead, it tells the story of a black man who doesn’t get much respect when he’s out there in the world trying to make a living. So when he comes home, by God he better get respect from his woman.

When Redding first heard Aretha’s version, he is said to have muttered, “The little girl cut me.”

This is what we want from musicians—individual interpretations only each of them can give us. It’s also what we want from writers.

I also use songs to illustrate how writers can develop characters and build story arcs—something the best song writers manage to achieve with very few words.

Not every song tells a story, of course. “Nah Nah Nah Nah, Nah Nah Nah Nah, Hey Hey, Goodbye”—not a story. But a lot of songs have perfect story arcs.

The one I use most often when I teach characterization and storytelling is Love at the Five & Dime. It was written by Nanci Griffith, although Kathy Mattea’s version probably sold more copies.

It begins when a guitar-player named Eddie meets a sixteen-year-old girl named Rita at the Five & Dime. When we are told that she “makes the Woolworth counter shine,” we know that means she does more than just polish it with a rag. And Eddie? He’s “a sweet romancer and a darned good dancer.”
That’s characterization.

But what’s the story? Rita’s parents don’t approve of Eddie, setting up an immediate conflict. So what do these two kids do? They run off and get married.

We’re rooting for them now, but in the second verse, there’s more trouble. 
They lose a baby, a tragedy that can put immense pressure on any marriage. Then, in the third verse, things get still worse. When one of the guys in Eddie’s band flirts with Rita, Eddie gets jealous and “runs off with the baseman’s wife.

But before long, he comes crawling back to Rita.

In the final verse, they’ve both grown old. Eddie’s arthritis “took his hands,” so he can’t play his steel guitar anymore. He sells insurance now. And Rita? She spends her days keeping house and reading dime-store novels.

But through it all, Eddie and Rita have remained together; and every evening, they dance, because “love’s for sale tonight at this Five & Dime.

That’s a perfect story arc about two characters the song writer made us care about, all of it told in just four lyrical verses.

This song always leaves me wanting more—just as any good song should.

You could tell the same story in a 400-page dime-store novel about Eddie and Rita. Who knows? Perhaps one day, some novelists will.

Bruce DeSilva’s crime fiction has won the Edgar and Macavity Awards; has been listed as a finalist for the Shamus, Anthony, and Barry Awards; and has been published in ten foreign languages. His short stories have appeared in Akashic Press’s award-winning noir anthologies. He has reviewed books for The New York Times Sunday Book Review, Publishers Weekly, and The Associated Press. Previously, he was a journalist for forty years, most recently as writing coach world-wide for the AP, editing stories that won every major journalism award including the Pulitzer. His fourth novel, A Scourge of Vipers, has just been published by Forge in hardcover and e-book editions.
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The Providence Journal Raves Raves About “Providence Noir”

provHere’s what The Providence Journal says about Providence Noir, the latest in a series of award-winning anthologies from Akashic Press.  Each book in the series is filled with dark stories about different cities around the world.

“Providence, of course, has a history of crime, the mob, corruption and other goodies. In this collection of 15 stories, edited by Ann Hood for the Akashic Noir Series — “Brooklyn Noir,” “Mexico City Noir,” “Rome Noir,” etc. — we are given a darkly hued tour of the city in all its nooks and crannies by such excellent writers as Hood herself, John Searles, Bruce DeSilva, Peter Farrelly, Elizabeth Strout, Hester Kaplan and others, each with their own style, tone and sly approach that will keep you reading, waiting for the sudden murder, the end of troubled relationships, the discovery of bones.”

You can read the full text of the review here

The book will be officially published in both hardcover and paperback editions on June 2, but it can be ordered in advance from amazon.com and other online booksellers. Better yet, order one from your local independent bookstore.

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The French Edition Cover For “Cliff Walk”

French Cover of Cliff WalkMy French publisher, Actes Sud, designed this cover for Cliff Walk, the second book in my Edgar Award-winning series of crime novels. It’s sexier than the American edition published by Forge–but that’s the French for you.

They also changed the title to Jusqu’ à L’os, which

FINAL Cliff Walk Covertranslates as Down to the Bone. The French edition will go on sale later this year.

The Mulligan novels have been translated into ten foreign languages.

 

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“A Scourge of Vipers” the Pick of the Month at Poisoned Pen Bookstore

My novels on display at Poisoned Pen

My novels on display at Poisoned Pen

Barbara Peters, proprietor of the wonderful Poisoned Pen bookstore in Scottsdale, AZ, has made my new crime novel, A Scourge of Vipers, the April pick for her “Surprise Me” book club. She describes the monthly pick as “a book with unexpected delights, whether in subject or in style.” Thanks, Barbara!

The new book, the fourth in my Edgar Award-winning hardboiled series featuring Liam Mulligan, has received rave reviews from The New York Times, The Associated Press, Suspense Magazine, and Publishers Weekly, to name just a few. It’s available in hardcover, e-book, and audio editions. To order it, you can find links to chain and independent online booksellers here.

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How the Writing Partnership with My Wife, the Poet Patricia Smith, Really Works

Our girl Mikaila

Our girl Mikaila

 

 The following originally appeared on the Buried Under Books blog:

It’s been nearly two years since Mikaila, our adventurous teenager, moved out of our house in Howell, NJ, to study at a little liberal arts college that lies between the snow-capped Sierra Nevada Mountains and the cobalt-blue waters of Lake Tahoe. Howell is a pleasant Leave It to Beaver suburb, but the college is located in paradise. Although our girl has come home a few times to visit, she’s made it clear that she’s fallen in love with the California-Nevada border country and is never going to move back in with us.

I admire her independence and can’t argue with where she has chosen to live, but part of me has been hoping that she’d change her mind. I long to play catch with her in the yard again, watch her cavort with our two big dogs, and listen to her singing off-key to the music playing in her headphones. I miss her like crazy.

But a few months ago, I finally faced reality, packed up the little-girl things she’d left behind, stored them away in the basement, and transformed her old room into a book-shelf-lined office for the other writer in our family – my brilliant wife Patricia Smith.

Patricia's new home office

Patricia’s new home office

For years, our dining room had served as Patricia’s office, but often she’d wander upstairs and plant herself next to me at the huge desk in my upstairs office so we could write side by side. Mostly we worked in silence, but every now and then she’d read something to me, or I’d read something to her, and ask: “What do you think of that?” I worried that once she settled into her the comfort of her new digs, that would change. I’m grateful it hasn’t.

I’m a former investigative reporter, newspaper writing coach, and news service editor turned crime novelist. Patricia is one of those rare writers who is comfortable in any genre. She’s written articles for major magazines, essays for literary journals, the companion book to the PBS series, Africans in America, and even an award-winning children’s book. But she’s best known as a poet—one of the finest working in the English language.

Our rare writing partnership makes my work, and hers, better.

What makes our working relationship rare is how well it works for both of us. Friends who are also married to other writers tell us they can’t work together. When they try, it usually ends in a fight. Patricia and I understand exactly what they mean.

I used to be married to a writer for People Magazine, and whenever we shared our work with one another, it ended in disaster—every well-meaning suggestion taken as unwelcome criticism. Patricia was once married to another poet, and whenever they talked with each other about their work, it ended in a fight.

The two of us

The two of us

Ever since Patricia and I set up housekeeping together seventeen years ago, I’ve edited every line of her poetry, and she’s edited every line of my crime novels. And we never fight. Part of what makes the partnership work is that we understand and respect each other’s passions.

And, paradoxically, the other thing that makes it work is that our writing styles couldn’t be less alike. Patricia’s writing is rich and sensual. She loves words and tends to use lots of them. My writing is tight and spare, sometimes to the point of sensory deprivation. I help her make her poems tighter and crisper. She helps me make my crime fiction more descriptive and lyrical.

When we first began to work together, Patricia tended to back into her poems—something I called “throat-clearing.” Back then, I often crossed out the first stanza or two to show her where the real poem began. She always understood, and my suggestions have changed the way she writes. It’s been years now since I’ve had to X out a stanza.

Today, my editing consists of little more than circling an occasional word or phrase. Each circle, she knows, means, “I don’t know what you should say here, but I think you can do better than this.” I never presume to rewrite her, and I rarely suggest a word, leaving it to her to find the right ones.

Patricia edits me very differently. When she sees a passage that she thinks is too spare, she sits at her computer and writes, often transforming a paragraph or two into three or four pages of lyrical, descriptive prose.

When she hands it to me, I always think it goes on way too long. And, of course, her narrative voice sounds nothing at all like mine. So I boil down what she’s written into two or three paragraphs that inevitably make my work much, much better.

But perhaps the most important thing she does is help me write credible love scenes (both on and off the page.) Liam Mulligan, the investigative-reporter protagonist in my series of hard-boiled crime novels, didn’t have much luck with women in the first two books. But in the third, Providence Rag, he fell hard for a brilliant, beautiful attorney. When it came to writing the scenes between them, I was lost. What would she be wearing? How would he respond to it? What would he say to her? How would she answer? What would she feel when he reached out and touched her arm? What would she do?

“Bruce,” Patricia would say, “you HAVE made love before, right?” And then she would sit down and bat out a long love scene that I could fiddle with and make my own. Once, when Mulligan did something to offend his girlfriend and needed to apologize, I thought he should buy her something. But what? I didn’t have a clue. Patricia’s response? “Get her something she can wear against her skin.”

Patricia is highly competitive, however. Our marathon Scrabble games, which she wins more than two-thirds of the time, are always intense. So she sees our writing careers as a competition between us.

When her poetry collection, Blood Dazzler, was named a National Book Award finalist in 2008, I praised her to the skies. Her response: “Yeah, but you WON the Edgar Award.”

Patricia reading at The Library of Congress

Patricia reading at The Library of Congress

Since then, the “competition” has had a clear winner. I speak at Mystery Writers of America? She reads her work at Carnegie Hall and the Library of Congress. I’m named a finalist for the Macavity, Barry, and Anthony awards? She wins two Pushcart Prizes, the Lenore Marshall Prize, the Phillis Wheatley award, the National Poetry Series award, the Bobbitt Prize, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. She even intruded on my turf, penning a noir crime story—the first short story she ever wrote—and winning the Robert L. Fish Award for it.

Now, as my forth Mulligan novel, A Scourge of Vipers, arrives in the bookstores and I struggle to meet the deadline for the fifth, Patricia is completing two volumes of poetry, writing more poems to accompany a book of photographs about the Chicago blues scene, and working on a non-fiction book.

But when all that is done, we plan to take our writing partnership to the next level. We’re going to write a crime novel together. It will be set in her native Chicago in 1968, when the Westside neighborhood where she lived as a child was destroyed in the riots that followed the Martin Luther King assassination.

Once, a journalist interviewing me about my latest book asked: “What’s it like to be the second-best writer in your family?”

“It’s a daily humiliation,” I joked. But the truth is, I know how fortunate I am to be married to this amazing woman and have her as my writing partner.

Now if only Mikaila would come home for another visit . . .

Check out other cool articles about books at the Buried Under Books website.

A Scourge of Vipers has received rave reviews from The New York Times, The Associated Press, Suspense Magazine, and Publishers Weekly, to name just a few. It’s available in hardcover, e-book, and audio editions. To order it, you can find links to chain and independent online booksellers here.

 

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How I Would Cast The Film Version Of “A Scourge Of Vipers”

4ca6f-a2bscourge2bof2bvipersMarshal Zeringue, who runs The Campaign for the American Reader website asked me how I would cast the film version of A Scourge of Vipers, the latest in my Edgar Award-winning series of hardboiled crime novels. This was my reply:

Liam Mulligan is a 44-year-old journalist who has difficulty with authority and is prone to ill-timed wisecracks. He has a strong but shifting sense of justice, willing to break rules, and even the law, to bring bad guys to justice in Providence, R.I., a city with a long history of organized crime and political corruption. The music of blues musicians such as Buddy Guy and Koko Taylor form the soundtrack of his life. Howard Frank Mosher, author of Waiting for Teddy Williams and one of my favorite writers, sent me an email proclaiming that Mulligan is “the most human, unpredictable, and anti-authoritarian fictional character I’ve met since Ranger Gus McCrae of Lonesome Dove.” I’d like to think he’s right.

In A Scourge of Vipers, the governor proposes legalizing sports betting as a way to ease the state’s budget crisis, and organizations who have a lot to lose if it passes flood the state with millions of dollars to buy the votes of politicians. Soon, a powerful state senator turns up dead, a mobbed-up bagman gets shot down, and his suitcase full of cash goes missing. As Mulligan digs into the story, shadowy forces try to derail his investigation by destroying his reputation, his career, and even his life.

The novel has a colorful cast of characters, many of whom appeared in the three previous novels in the series.

I’d love to see this book turned into a movie, of course, but I think the Mulligan novels may be better suited to a quality television crime drama. Most crime movies are full of gunfights, car chases and explosions but there’s not much of that in my novels. They are more character driven, much like TV shows such as The Sopranos, Justified, and True Detective.

Here’s my dream cast:

LearyDenis Leary (Rescue Me) as Mulligan. He’s a bit old for the part but can play younger, and he embodies the smart mouth and bad attitude toward authority that is Mulligan.
BegheJason Beghe (Chicago PD) as Jay Wargart, one of the homicide twins, a pair of Providence, R.I., detectives who have a grudge against Mulligan.

kyraKyra Sedgwick (The Closer) as Sandra Freitas, Wargart’s partner. They both know how to give somebody a hard time.

kevin-bacon-nico-tortorella-the-following-premiere-02Kevin Bacon (The Following) as RI State Police Captain Stephen Parisi. He does the steely-eyed thing really well.

sofiaSofia Coppola (Lost in Translation) as Fiona McNerney, aka Attila the Nun, a former religious sister serving as Rhode Island’s take-no-prisoners governor.
John-Francis-Daley-image-3John Francis Daley (Bones) as Mulligan’s young newspaper sidekick, Edward Anthony Mason III, AKA Thanks-Dad. Like Thanks-Dad, he conveys a misleading naivety that makes him easy to underestimate.
????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????Frankie Valli (The Sopranos) as Domenic “Whoosh” Zerilli, Mulligan’s bookie and close friend. He provides the same sly menace I associate with Whoosh.
6th Annual Food Bank For New York -Steve Schirripa (The Sopranos) as Joseph DeLucca, the often unemployed, smarter-than-he-looks friend of Mulligan’s. He’s got the right look and the right working-class manner of speaking.
JadaJada Pinkett Smith (Gotham) as Yolanda Mosley-Jones, Mulligan’s on again, off again love interest. She embodies Yolanda’s elegance and intelligence.
DeSilva 1Bruce DeSilva as Ed Lomax, managing editor of The Providence Dispatch and Mulligan’s former boss. Lomax is a man of few words, so I should be able to remember my lines.

You can check out the other cool stuff on The Campaign for the American Reader website here. 

A Scourge of Vipers has received rave reviews from The New York Times, The Associated Press, Suspense Magazine, and Publishers Weekly, to name just a few. It’s available in hardcover, e-book, and audio editions. To order it, you can find links to chain and independent online booksellers here.

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“The New York Times” and “Suspense Magazine” Both Rave About “A Scourge of Vipers”

4ca6f-a2bscourge2bof2bvipersThe New York Times book review section says this about A Scourge of Vipers, the latest book in my Edgar Award-winning series of hard-boiled crime novels:  The protagonist, Liam Mulligan, is barely holding onto his job at a dying Providence, RI., newspaper, “but until someone actually pulls the plug on this once-scrappy daily, Bruce DeSilva gives his smart and funny investigative sleuth something to live and fight for.”

And Suspense Magazine says: “The character of Liam (Mulligan) is going into his fourth book in this series, but this is most definitely a stand-alone novel that can be read by suspense lovers who may have somehow missed the first brilliant books by this author. A quick and compelling story of murder, ethics, and very tough decisions for local law and government to make, this is a powerful crime story with fantastic plotting. . . . Every word is more than entertaining.”

The new novel previously received rave reviews from The Associated Press and The Providence Journal, and coveted starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Library Journal. It’s available in hardcover, e-book, and audio editions. To order it, you can find a list of chain and independent online booksellers here.

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Author Tim Hallinan Interviews Me About The Writing Process and My Crime Novel, “A Scourge of Vipers”

My thanks to Tim Hallinan, one of my favorite crime writers, for asking such good questions in this interview with me published today in the literary magazine, Literary Orphans.

1. Unlike many of us who turn to writing when the demon seizes us, or when we’ve failed at everything else, you’ve been writing your entire adult life. In what ways did your experience as a newspaper reporter and editor prepare you for fiction?

Me on my last day at The Associated Press

Me on my last day at The Associated Press

Daily journalism is the antithesis of nearly everything a fiction writer tries to do. Journalists write “reports” or “articles” that are typically organized into hideous, archaic forms such as the inverted pyramid. They rarely write anything with a story arc and seem opposed to suspense on general principle. Journalism serves up name, age, and job title as a substitute for characterization. Street addresses often pass for setting. And entire newspapers are written in the voice of the guy who drones on for an hour at the Cub Scout banquet while everyone fidgets and prays that he will stop. Journalists persist in calling their creations “stories,” but the irony is lost on many of them. I spent forty years rebelling against the traditions of the profession, striving to instill the qualities of so-called “literary nonfiction” into the daily news stories, explanatory journalism, and investigative pieces I wrote and edited. I had my share of successes, but the daily battle was exhausting. Journalism did provide me with a wealth of experiences to draw on—characters, places, and anecdotes that throb with story possibilities. But anyone who has lived a life and remained relatively conscious should be able to say the same. The most important lesson I took with me as I moved from journalism to fiction is that writing is a job, something you do every day whether you are in the mood or not. You do not wait for inspiration. You do not search for your muse. You are not allowed to have writer’s block. You plant your butt in the chair and write.

2. What are the rewards of doing journalism, and what are the rewards of writing fiction? I mean personal rewards, not prizes or money.

4ca6f-a2bscourge2bof2bvipersBecause the public’s impression of journalists is formed largely by watching the likes of Rachel Maddow, Anderson Cooper, and Megyn Kelly, many people think it’s an exciting, even somewhat glamorous, profession. For the vast majority of journalists, it is anything but. Most news reporters spend their professional lives jotting notes at soul-sucking public meetings, shouting questions at a press conferences, interviewing the weirdo who amassed the country’s third-largest ball of string, being lied to by public officials, having doors slammed in their faces, and standing in the rain watching something burn. This is not what most of them signed up for. They enter the profession consumed by the desire to make a difference—to expose corruption, speak truth to power, and tell the public how our world really works. Few get the chance. I was one of the lucky ones. I spent the first twenty-six years of my journalism career writing and editing investigative and in-depth explanatory pieces for The Providence Journal and The Hartford Courant back when they were among the finest small-city dailies in America. I spent another fourteen years at the Associated Press editing a group of elite national writers and foreign correspondents who excelled at doing the same thing. The last story I edited there exposed the plight of children, some as young as five years old, laboring in the gold mines of West Africa. The story traced the gold as it passed through a series of middlemen into the coffers of Swiss banks and then on to some of the world’s leading producers of luxury goods. I took great satisfaction in seeing such stories in print, but the erosion of the news business’s economics have sharply reduced the opportunities to do such work. I didn’t leave journalism; it left me. Crime novels give me another way to reach mass audiences with stories that matter. My novels work as suspenseful entertainments, but each also addresses a subject of social concern. For example, my latest novel, A Scourge of Vipers, is both a hard-boiled crime story and an examination of the corrupting influence of big money on politics and the hypocrisy surrounding illegal sports gambling.

3. Taken together, your novels present an extended and melancholy elegy for the death of the great American newspaper. Is this a story you intended to tell from the beginning? What have we lost, and why does it matter so much? What, if anything, has arisen to take the newspapers’ place?

Although I’m critical of the way newspapers are written, there is no question that they have been the backbone of the American democracy since the founding of the republic. For more than two centuries, newspapers provided essential information about public affairs from the smallest prairie towns to the corridors of power in Washington, D.C. Now, newspapers are circling the drain. I cannot overstate what a catastrophe this is for all of us. There is nothing on the horizon to replace them as honest brokers of information. The old broadcast TV networks, undercut by competition from cable, have cut way back on their reporting staffs—and they were never all that good to begin with. Cable TV news has deteriorated into a platform for partisan propaganda, shouting talking heads, and celebrity trivia. And the few online news sites that try to do an honest job lack the resources to do much original reporting, drawing much of their news from shriveling newspapers. A handful of large papers, including The New York Times and The Washington Post, continue to do a solid job of covering national and international affairs, although they aren’t nearly as comprehensive as they were two decades ago. But as newspapers continue to decline, who will cover our town halls and state legislatures? When I worked at The Providence Journal in the 1970s and 1980s, that paper reported on every one of the state’s 39 cities and towns. Today, most of them go entirely uncovered. Good reporting is expensive. Investigative reporting is even more expensive. And so far, no one outside of the declining newspaper industry has demonstrated either the

Lee Child, author of the best-selling Jack Reacher novels

Lee Child, author of the best-selling Jack Reacher novels

willingness or the resources to pay for it. In my first novel, Rogue Island, my protagonist, Liam Mulligan, investigates a series of arsons that are destroying the working-class Providence, R.I. neighborhood where he grew up. I made him an investigative reporter, instead of a private eye or a cop, because I wanted to explore the sorry state of American journalism. In each of the succeeding novels, the dying newspaper Mulligan works for has continued to decline, making it increasingly difficult for him to do the serious reporting he lives for. It is my hope that as readers see the skill and dedication with which Mulligan works, they will gain a greater appreciation for what is being lost as the business Mulligan and I love fades into history.

4. Given the sheer number of American novelists who came out of a newspaper background, what effect do you think the decline of print journalism will have on American fiction?

Print journalism has long been a breeding ground for crime novelists. Michael Connelly, who made his bones at The Lost Angeles Times, and Laura Lippman, who once wrote for The Baltimore Sun, spring immediately to mind. Today, a startling number of newspaper reporters and editors are looking to crime fiction as their golden parachute. Nearly every week, I hear from one or two of them looking for advice on how to make the transition. I wish all of them well, but sadly, some of them don’t write well enough to make a go of it.

5. How much information about a book do you need to begin to write, and how much comes to you on the fly? How would you describe your novel-writing creative process? Can you give us some examples from one of your books?

U.S. Senator Cory Booker reading "Cliff Walk."

U.S. Senator Cory Booker reading “Cliff Walk.”

I start only with a general idea of what a book will be about. For example, I began Cliff Walk, the second book in the series, with the notion of juxtaposing the two extremes of Rhode Island society—the Newport mansions and the state’s legal (until recently) prostitution business. I just threw those two worlds together and set my characters in motion to see what would happen. Writing this way allows the characters to take over the story, as if they have wills of their own. In my first book, Rogue Island, my protagonist’s ex-wife started out as a minor irritant and turned into a vengeful bitch. A big dangerous hit man shrank to five-foot five and developed a bad case of psoriasis. A fire chief who began as a minor character decided to become a major one. And then he decided he was a she. I enjoy discovering the story as I write; and I figure that if I don’t know what’s going to happen next, my readers probably won’t either. I never outline, partly because my mind doesn’t work that way but also because discovering what is going to happen next is what sits me down at my desk every day. If I knew in advance how the story would turn out, my need to write it would evaporate.

6. Given the components of a novel – story, characters, voice, setting, tone, etc. – which are most important in your novels? Which come most easily to you, and which are more difficult to get your arms around? Which is the most fun?

Tim Hallinan reading "Providence Rg"

Tim Hallinan reading “Providence Rg”

It’s become fashionable to insist that characters matter most, but I think each element is equally important. The quality of the work depends on all of them working together in harmony. I can’t begin, however, until I get the voice right. For me, everything flows from that. When I started Providence Rag, the third book in the series, the first sentence I typed was this: “Larry Bird had been living in Mulligan’s kitchen for less than a week, and already he’d become a big pain in the ass.” And with that, I was off and running. The sentence—about a parrot named after one of New England’s greatest sports heroes—ended up in chapter 12, but without it, I might still be staring at a blank screen. The book I’m writing now, tentatively titled Dreadline, was launched with this sentence: “He was a serial killer, but I didn’t hold that against him.” Thanks to that start, the book is now two-thirds finished. The late great Robert B. Parker, author of the Spenser and Jesse Stone novels, once told me that people read his books for the same reason they listen to certain songs—that they like the way they sound. That’s why I read every sentence I write out loud. The easiest and most enjoyable part of the writing for me is dialogue. I usually write it fast, letting it spin off in unpredictable directions, just as conversations do in life. Once I finish drafting such a passage, much of it has to be discarded. But there are always a few gems I would never have written if I’d planned it in advance.

7. At the end of your new book, A Scourge of Vipers, you credit poet Patricia Smith (to whom you are fortunate enough to be married) for editing “every line, adding musical notes to my sometimes toneless prose.” Most writers knows what it feels like to be edited structurally, sometimes well and sometimes not so well, but this is the kind of help that’s sadly unavailable to those of us who aren’t you. Can you show us how it works, maybe even citing a passage or two?

My wife is one of our greatest living poets. I speak at Mystery Writers of America. She speaks at Carnegie Hall and the Library of Congress. I win the Edgar Award. She wins two Pushcart prizes, the Rattle Poetry Prize, the National Poetry Series award, the Bobbitt Prize, the Lenore Marshall Prize, and a Guggenheim fellowship. I become a finalist for the Shamus Award. She becomes a finalist for the National Book Award. If she’d won that one, too, I might have had to kill her—or maybe myself. (In case you are

Patricia

Patricia

reading this, baby, that was a joke.) The fact that I am married to this amazing woman astonishes me daily. We’re a great team. I edit her poetry; she edits my fiction. Our writing styles are nothing alike, and that’s what makes the partnership work. Her writing is rich to the point of being sensual. Mine can be spare to the point of sensual deprivation. I help her make her work tighter and crisper. She helps me make mine more descriptive and lyrical. But her biggest contribution is helping me create credible love scenes (both on and off the page.) Writing about romance always leaves me flummoxed. What would Mulligan say to his girlfriend? How would she react? Darned if I know. But Patricia does. Once, when Mulligan needed to apologize to his girl, I decided he should buy her something. But what? Patricia’s answer: “Get her something she can wear against her skin.”

8. We’ve all seen talented writers who are lucky enough to write lengthy series slip in quality, sometimes through waning enthusiasm or even becoming dependent on repetitive tropes or story elements. You’re writing a successful series right now. How do you stay fresh, engaged, and growing?

Literature professors insist that a novel cannot succeed unless the protagonist is transformed in some meaningful way. Yet some of the most popular characters in crime fiction, such as Lee Child’s Jack Reacher, remain unchanged in book after book. I don’t write like Child. I don’t even know how. The ordeals I put Mulligan through in each novel can’t help but change him. In Cliff Walk, for example, he initially views prostitution as a victimless crime. He thinks that what men do with their money and what women do with their bodies is nobody’s business but their own. But as he investigates the public corruption that allows prostitution to flourish, he is forced to wade through the ugly underbelly of the sex trade; and what he finds there challenges everything he believes about both sexual morality and religion. The evolution of Mulligan’s character keeps each new story fresh for me. That said, I may take a break from Mulligan once I finish the novel I’m working on now. A new character named Dante, a young guy who grew up in a family of criminals and is trying to decide which side of the law to live on, is nagging me to write a book about him.

9. Name two novels you wish you’d written, and tell us what it is about them that you admire so strongly.

Daniel Woodrell

Daniel Woodrell

Only two? I guess Elmore Leonard’s entire oeuvre is out, then. So let’s see . . . As a grandfather of seven, I have to go with Mo Willems’ Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! and Dr. Seuss’s Sneeches. But as a lover of crime fiction, I’ll say Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River, James Lee Burke’s In Electric Mist with Confederate Dead, Thomas H. Cook’s Red Leaves, Kate Atkinson’s When Will There Be Good News, George Pelecanos’s Night Gardener, Richard Price’s Clockers, and For the Dead by some dude named Hallinan. . . . Wait. Was that more than two already? . . . Okay, okay. I’ll play along. For a limited time only, I’ll settle on The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George V. Higgins and Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell. Higgins’s first book set a standard for lowlife dialogue that has never been equaled. When Leonard was asked to rank the ten best crime novels of all time, he named that one ten times. With Winter’s Bone, Woodrell created one of the most unforgettable female protagonists in all of fiction, and the writing is so musical that you could break it into lines of verse and read the entire book as a lyric poem. That said, the opening paragraph of John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row is my favorite passage in the English language.

Timothy Hallinan

Timothy Hallinan

Timothy Hallinan was nominated for most of the awards Bruce DeSilva won, including the Edgar and the Macavity. He is the author of two current series, the Junior Bender Mysteries, about a Los Angeles thief who moonlights (usually at gunpoint) as a private eye for crooks, and the Poke Rafferty Bangkok thrillers, about an American travel writer and his cross-cultural family trying to preserve their relationship in the instant gratification capital of the world. He divides his time between Santa Monica and Bangkok and is fortunate enough to be married to Munyin Choy.

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