Q: What makes Liam Mulligan different from other (unofficial) PIs?
Real private investigators aren’t much like fictional ones. The real ones spend most of their time delivering summonses in civil cases, locating child-support delinquents, investigating pilfering from warehouses, checking the validity of insurance claims, and doing background checks on job applicants. They rarely investigate violent crimes. Most of the so-called “unofficial” fictional PIs are even more divorced from reality—so much so that they exceed my ability to suspend disbelief. I could never write, and will not read, books in which crimes are solved by hairdressers, dentists, or cats. My character, Liam Mulligan is an investigative reporter—one of the few occupations outside of law enforcement that really does investigate serious wrongdoing. Oddly, there are very few crime novels about investigative reporters. Gregory McDonald’s just-for-laughs Fletch novels come to mind, along with Bryan Gruley’s two recent books about a reporter in a rural Michigan town. So Mulligan’s profession alone make him unusual. Better still, he’s a throwback—an old-time street reporter hell-bent on discovering the truth at any cost. He’s a dinosaur in the age of sound bites and biased reporting. And finally, he works not for a TV network or web site but for a newspaper that, like most American newspapers, is dying. This adds an additional layer of tension to the story, the character never sure how long he’ll have a job and always in despair about the demise of newspapers. It also makes the novel a lyrical tribute to the vanishing business Mulligan and I both love.
Q: How did you come up with the character Liam Mulligan?
Mulligan is me—except that he’s 24 years younger, six inches taller, and quicker with a quip. He’s an investigative reporter; I used to be. He doesn’t do well with authority; I do worse. He’s got a smart mouth; I get a lot of complaints about the same thing. He and I both have a strong but shifting sense of justice that leads us to cut corners and work with bad people to bring worse people down.
Q: What’s next for you and Mulligan?
The second novel in the series, tentatively titled “Cliff Walk,” is nearly finished. All of the characters from the first book return—except for the ones who got bumped off. Like the first book, this one too is set in Rhode Island. The story involves the two extremes of America’s smallest state—Newport high society and the (until very recently) legal brothel business there. Meanwhile, I’m already planning the third and fourth books in the series.
Q: Can you tell us something about how your debut novel came to be?
It all started back in 1994, when I was working for a Connecticut newspaper. One day, I received a note from a reader praising “a nice little story” I’d written. “It could serve as the outline for a novel,” the note said. “Have you considered this?” I would have tossed the note in the trash except for one thing. It was from Evan Hunter, who wrote literary novels under his own name and the brilliant 87th Precinct police procedurals under the penname Ed McBain. I sealed the note in plastic, taped it to my home computer, and started writing. At the time, I lived 15 minutes from work, so I got up early every morning and wrote for two hours before going in. I was a mere 20,000 words into the novel when my life turned upside down. I took a very demanding new job; my new commute was 90 minute each way; I got divorced and then remarried to a woman with a young child. In this busy new life, I had no time to finish a novel. Years streaked by. Each time I bought a new computer, I taped that note from Hunter to it, hoping I would get back to the book someday. Meanwhile, I was reviewing novels on the side for The Associated Press and The New York Times book review section. That gave me entre to the Manhattan’s literary circle. A couple of years ago, I found myself dining with Otto Penzler, the dean of American’s crime fiction editors, and happened to mention that long-ago note from Hunter.
“Evan Hunter was a good friend of mine,” Penzler said. “In all the years I knew him, he never had a good thing to say about anything anyone else wrote. He REALLY sent you that note?”
“He really did,” I said. “I still have it.”
“Well then you’ve got to finish that novel,” Otto said, “and when you do, you have to let me read it.”
So I went home and started writing again. I wrote at night after work and all day every Saturday; and six months later, the book was finished.
Q: What are your thoughts on ebooks as a reader AND a writer?
I don’t own a digital book reader, but I plan on getting one when the price drops, as it always does with electronic gizmos. As a reader, I like the convenience, although I suspect I’ll always prefer the feel of a physical book in my hands. As a writer, I’m in favor of anything that encourages people to read.
Q: What’s your idea about the psychotic sidekick in PI novels like Hawk and Joe Pike?
I don’t regard either of them as psychotic. They, and other characters like them, have clearly defined codes of ethics and personal behavior. Those codes may be unconventional, but the characters adhere to them rigorously. Hawk, for example, believes in living life well and on his own terms, without regard for the rules of society. He believes in being self-sufficient, staying fit, and watching out for his few close friends. Like most such characters, he is fiercely loyal—something a psychotic could never be. I‘d love to be able to count on a friend like Hawk if I were ever in a pinch. That said, what the creators of Hawk and Joe Pike (Robert B. Parker and Robert Crais) are doing is playing around with a theme that has been repeated endlessly in American fiction—the relationship between the hero and one of society’s outcasts. This goes all the way back to Natty Bumppo and his Indian companion Chingachgook in James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking novels. I’m playing around with the theme myself, although my hero’s sidekick is a different sort of outcast. He’s not a drunk or an ex-con or a member of a racial minority group. He’s a privileged young man with a big trust fund—the sort of person those of us who grew up poor or middle class tend to resent or even despise.
Q: In the last century we’ve seen new waves of PI writers, first influenced by Hammett, then Chandler, Macdonald, Parker, later Lehane. Who do influenced you?
I discovered crime fiction by reading Raymond Chandler in my teens, and he remains a major influence. I reread “The Big Sleep,” “Farewell My Lovely,” and “The Long Goodbye,” every year or two. As for current crime novelists, I’m a great admirer of Daniel Woodrell and Thomas H. Cook, two brilliant writers who succeed at everything except making the best-seller lists. James Lee Burke, Kate Atkinson and Ken Bruen have written paragraphs that take my breath away. I love Ace Atkins’ remarkable historical crime novels and James Ellroy’s staccato, high-on-amphetamines prose. To name a few. But the fact is, I’m influenced by everything I read including the bad stuff that teaches me what NOT to do. That said, the opening passage of John Steinbeck’s “Cannery Row” is my favorite in all of English.
Q: Jay Faerber came up with the following question: First person or third person?
Both have their charms. The one you choose depends on which best serves the story you are telling. My first two novels are written in first person, the main character narrating the story. The next book in the series, which I hope to begin writing later this year, will probably be written in the third person limited, the story told from the points of view of three different characters.
Q: What question should we ask every PI writer we interview and what is
How important is sense of place in your novel, and in the books you most enjoy reading?
The most memorable crime stories transport you to interesting places and let you hear, see and smell them. It is difficult to imagine Ken Bruen’s best novels set anywhere but in his native Galway, Ireland, or Daniel Woodrell’s work set anywhere but in the Ozarks. Read James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux novels and you have been to New Iberia, LA, even if you’ve never left your house. As my friend Thomas H. Cook once said, “If you want to understand the importance of place, imagine ‘Heart of Darkness’ without the river.” One of the places I know best is Providence, RI. Unlike big, anonymous cities like New York, where many fine crime novels are set, Providence is so small that it’s claustrophobic. Almost everybody you see on the street knows your name, and it’s almost impossible to keep a secret. Yet it’s big enough to be both cosmopolitan and rife with urban problems. And its history of corruption, which goes all the way back to a colonial governor dining with Captain Kidd, makes it an ideal setting for crime fiction. I made Providence not just the setting but something akin to a major character, in “Rogue Island.”