During the forty years I worked as a journalist, I was troubled by brilliant writers such as Truman Capote and Norman Mailer, who delighted in blurring the lines between faction and fiction. How is a reader supposed to know how much of In Cold Blood or The Executioner’s Song is literally true and how much was tweaked for the sake of the narrative?
Now that I have abandoned journalism to write fiction, I find myself troubled by something else. Although the characters and plots of my first two crime novels sprang entirely from my imagination, this has not prevented some readers that suspecting each was a Roman à clef.
No, I tell them, the mayor in my Edgar Award-winning first novel, Rogue Island, is not a thinly-veiled depiction of former Providence Mayor Vincent A. Cianci. No, the attorney general in my second novel, Cliff Walk, is not my take on former Rhode Island Attorney General Arlene Violet. Aside from their titles, my characters and the real politicians are not at all alike.
Despite my protests, some readers continue to scrutinize my novels for hints about who I’m really writing about. In fact, two of my old journalism colleagues have convinced themselves that the protagonist in my novels, Liam Mulligan, an investigative reporter at a dying newspaper, is based on them. (The truth is, Mulligan, a guy with a smart mouth and a bad attitude toward authority, is more like me – except that he’s eight inches taller and 23 years younger.)
This experience made me resist the strong tug I felt to fictionalize a real case I once covered as a journalist—the story of Craig Price, the Warwick Slasher.
Price was 13 years old when he started killing young mothers and their female children in his suburban Rhode Island neighborhood–and just 15 when he was caught. He is one of the youngest serial killers in U.S. history, but that’s not the interesting part. When Price was arrested in the 1980s, Rhode Island’s juvenile justice statutes had not been updated in decades. When they were written, no one had ever envisioned a child like him, so the law required that all minors, regardless of their crimes, be released at age 21 and given a fresh start. Nevertheless, he remains behind bars to this day, convicted of committing a series of offenses behind bars.
I have long suspected that some of these charges were fabricated, but in the very least, Price has been absurdly over-sentenced for them. For example, he was given an astounding 30 years for contempt for declining to submit to a court-ordered psychiatric examination. Have the authorities abused their power to prevent his release? I think so. And if they can get away with doing it to Price, they could do it to any of us. But should this killer be released and given the opportunity to prey on the innocent again? I don’t think so.
This ethical dilemma fascinates me. No matter which side of it you come down on, you are condoning something that is indefensible.
Finally, I surrendered to the pull of the story and wrote Providence Rag, the third novel in my Mulligan crime series. Although the book was inspired by a true story, I fear that some readers will view it as slyly disguised contemporary history instead of fiction. It most assuredly is not.
In the novel, I invent an early childhood for the killer. I explore the roots of his obsession with murder, give him a love of reading, allow him to display a clever but chilling sense of humor, and provide him with a prison jargon-laced style of speaking. But I have never met Craig Price. I know nothing of his childhood. I don’t know how he talks. I don’t know what drove him to murder.
A few years ago, journalist Mark Arsenault (who now also writes crime novels) scored a series of jail-house interviews with Price for The Providence Journal. In them, the now middle-age black man said that he killed out of race rage, unable to contain his fury at insults from his white neighbors. I was disturbed by his attempt to cast aspersions on his victims. I never swallowed the explanation. I have my own theory of what drove him to murder, but I have no way of knowing for sure.
So the character in my novel is most emphatically not Craig Price. None of the other characters in the book – the police who investigated the case, the lawyers who prosecuted and represented him, the jailers who guarded him, and the journalists who covered the story–represent real people either.
As I wrote the novel, I could not resist using some details from the real case. For example, after his second attack, Price vomited in his victim’s backyard before making his escape. Robert Ressler, the retired FBI profiler credited with coining the term “serial killer,” told me Price did this not because he was sickened by the gore but because the attack left him as exhausted and dehydrated as a runner at the end of a marathon.
Of course, every novelist draws material from life and fashions it into something new. Still, I can’t help but worry that readers might mistake fiction for fact. That made Providence Rag a difficult book to write.
I think it is my best novel to date, but I doubt I will base a book on a real case again. Making stuff up is easier–and a lot less nerve-wracking.
Providence Rag goes on sale in hardcover and e-book editions on March 11 and will be available later as a downloadable audio book. It can already be ordered in advance here.
You can learn more about me and my work on my website.
A version of this article first appeared on my friend Michael Prager’s excellent blog, which you can find here.