This essay first appeared on a great blog called The Outfit, a collective of Chicago crime writers. When Sean Chercover, author of “Trigger City,” invited me to write something as a guest, I decided to explain why I chose Providence instead of Chicago, a city I love, as the setting for my first crime novel.
The most memorable crime novels transport you to interesting places and let you hear, see, smell, and taste them.
Raymond Chandler, Walter Mosley, James Ellroy, and Michael Connelly have shown you Los Angeles through the decades. Read James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux novels and you have been to New Iberia, LA, even if you’ve never left your house. It is difficult to imagine Ken Bruen’s best novels set anywhere but in his native Galway.
As my friend, the crime novelist Thomas H. Cook, once said, “If you want to understand the importance of place, imagine Heart of Darkness without the river.”
The writers who regularly grace this blog provide a guided tour through the great city of Chicago—a city I have come to love. Through the years, I’ve gotten to know it from Wrigley Field to Comiskey Park and from Pilsen to the Loop. My wife, the poet Patricia Smith, grew up a West Side girl.
So when I wrote my first crime novel, Rogue Island, I decided to set the story in . . . Providence, Rhode Island.
Please allow me to defend myself.
This summer, Newsweek crowned New Jersey the most corrupt state in America. (Nice try, Illinois.) But the magazine declared that Rhode Island was the most corrupt per capita. There is nothing new in this. You can trace the smallest state’s culture of crime and political corruption all the way back to one of the first colonial governors dining with Captain Kidd.
For more than a hundred years, pirates slipped from Narragansett Bay’s hidden coves to prey on merchant shipping. In the late 1700s and early 1800s, Rhode Island shipmasters dominated the American slave trade. During the French and Indian War and again during the Revolution, privateers skulked out of Providence and Newport to seize prizes with little regard for the flags they flew. After the Civil War, Boss Anthony kept his Republican machine in power by buying votes at the going rate of two bucks apiece. At the turn of the century, Rhode Island’s own Sen. Nelson Aldrich helped the robber barons plunder the country. In the 1950s and 1960s, a Providence mobster named Raymond L.S. Patriarca was the most powerful man in New England, deciding everything from who lived and died to what songs got played on the radio. And more recently, Providence Mayor Vincent A. “Buddy” Cianci Jr. did federal time for conspiring to operate a criminal enterprise, a.k.a. the city of Providence.
One of the many quirks of Rhode Island history is that no one knows how the state got its name, although historians have come up with several half-baked theories. According to one of them, the name derives from the fact that the state resembles the Isle of Rhodes. The only problem with that one is: It doesn’t.
My favorite theory is that “Rhode Island” is a bastardization of “Rogue Island,” a name the God-fearing farmers of colonial Massachusetts bestowed upon the nest of pirates, heretics, and smugglers who first settled the shores of Narragansett Bay. Hence, the title of my novel, Rogue Island. I decided not to go with the Cotton Mather’s pet name for Providence: “The sewer of New England.”
However, Rhode Island and its capital also share a culture of decency and integrity that began with its gentle founder, Roger Williams. The competing strands of good and evil wind all the way thorough the state’s history, and the tension between them makes for great storytelling.
But that’s not the only reason I set my tale in Providence.
Most crime novels unfold in big, anonymous cities like New York, Los Angeles, Miami, and, of course, Chicago. There are also many fine mysteries set in rural areas. But Providence is something different.
The city is large enough to have the usual array of urban problems, and it’s surprisingly cosmopolitan; yet it’s so small that it’s claustrophobic. In fact, the whole state is so tiny that you can almost throw a baseball across it. Nearly everybody you meet on the street knows your name, and it’s almost impossible to keep a secret.
In Rogue Island, my main character, an investigative reporter named Mulligan, needs to have a face-to-face meeting with a cop. The two don’t want to be seen together, so they have a hard time figuring out where to go. Finally they pick a sleazy strip club in a bad part of town. No one there is likely to know them, they think; but as soon as they walk in, someone shouts: “Hey, Mulligan! How ya doin’?”
Mulligan is paid to root out corruption. But he was born in Providence. He is not just from but of this place. So while he digs to uncover the truth, he’s not above placing a bet with a mobbed-up bookie or paying a small bribe to get his decrepit Bronco through the annual state inspection. As Mulligan sees it, graft comes in two varieties, good and bad, just like cholesterol. The bad kind enriches greedy politicians and their rich friends at taxpayers’ expense. The good kind supplements the wages of underpaid state workers, putting braces on their kids’ teeth. Without the lubrication of good graft, Mulligan says, not much would get done in Rhode Island, and nothing at all would happen on time.
I strove to make the city of Providence and the state of Rhode Island not just the setting but something more akin to characters in Rogue Island. According to one reviewer, my portrayal of the place is “jaundiced but affectionate”—and that puts it exactly right.
I just finished the sequel, tentatively titled Cliff Walk, and it, too, is set in Rhode Island. But once the third book in the series is written, I’m going to co-write a crime novel with my wife. It’s going to be set in Chicago—on the West Side.
To check out The Outfit, click on it in my list of links.