My thanks to the great folks at Suspense Magazine for putting me on the cover this month and for including a fine three-page interview with me about Providence Rag, the third novel in my Edgar Award-winning series featuring Liam Mulligan, an investigative reporter for a dying Providence, R.I., newspaper.
The magazine is a print and online publication available by subscription, and if you like suspense, you ought to consider signing up here.
Meanwhile, here is the text of the interview:
“Providence Rag” is your latest book and inspired by a true story. What was it about the story that inspired you to write the book?
Six years ago, when I retired from journalism to write crime novels, I vowed I would never write one about a serial killer. For one thing, it seemed to me that we already had enough of them. Ever since Thomas Harris created Hannibal Lecter, novelists and screen writers have fallen all over each other trying to make the next monster more twisted than the last; and I didn’t want any part of that.
Besides, after I researched and wrote a long non-fiction article about Craig Price, the butcher of Warwick, I never wanted to get that close to pure evil again. But for decades, the true story haunted my dreams. Price was only thirteen years old when he began butchering his neighbors in a Providence, R.I. suburb. He was the youngest serial killer in U.S. history—and that wasn’t the interesting part. When he was caught in the 1980s, Rhode Island’s juvenile justice statutes were antiquated. When they were written, no one had ever imagined a child like Price. So the law required that all juveniles, no matter their crimes, be released at age 21 and given a fresh start. Today, Price remains behind bars, held on a series of offenses allegedly committed on the inside. I have long suspected that at least some of those charges were fabricated, and he obviously has been wildly over-sentence for them. For example, he was given 30 years for contempt of court because he refused to take a court-ordered psychiatric exam. I wrote the novel to explore the legal and ethical dilemma the case poses. The result is an unusual crime novel in that the murders are committed and the killer is caught in the first 75 pages. The rest of the book is devoted to exploring this question: What are decent people supposed to do if the only way to keep a psychopath from killing again is to fabricate charges against him? No matter which side of the question you come down on, you find yourself condoning something that is reprehensible.
Your main character Liam Mulligan is caught in the middle of a very emotional situation; how difficult was it for you to explore those emotions?
As a journalist, I often confronted difficult ethical choices. For example, what should I do when I learn that conditions in a state institution are so medieval that residents are dying of diseases rarely seen outside of third world countries—and the only way to expose it is to gain access to the place by violating a sacred journalism rule against misrepresenting myself? (I chose to get the story by any means necessary.) But the dilemma posed by the Price case was the most troubling I ever encountered as an investigative reporter. Exposing the truth could force the state to set a monster lose to kill again. But allowing officials to fabricate charges is incredibly dangerous, because if they can do it to him, they could do it to anyone. My protagonist, Liam Mulligan, is also an investigative reporter for a Providence newspaper. As such, his first instinct is to report the truth. Forcing him to confront the consequences of doing that in this case tortured both of us. Sometimes, there is no right answer when matters of truth, justice, and public safety collide. Recently, a working journalist who read the novel asked me if he should dig into the truth behind the Price case. I told him I’d decided not to long ago, but that he should be guided by his own conscience.
Creative writing teachers always insist that novels fail unless the main character changes in some fundamental way during the course of the narrative. They’re wrong. The late Robert B. Parker wrote 40 Spenser novels, and his private-detective hero was exactly the same guy from the first book to the last. The protagonist of Lee Child’s wildly successful Jack Reacher novels never changes, either. He’s always the Lone Ranger, the mysterious stranger who drifts into town, kicks butt, and moves on to the next town. But the things I’ve put Mulligan through have changed him. At the beginning of “Cliff Walk,” my novel about the wide-open Rhode Island sex trade, Mulligan believed that prostitution is a victimless crime—that if women want to sell their bodies and men want to buy them, it’s nobody else’s business. But as his investigation dragged him through the underbelly of sex clubs and online pornography, the things he found made him doubt everything he’d believed about both sexual morality and religion. With each novel, Mulligan grows older, sometimes wiser, and always less cock-sure about the wavering lines between right and wrong.
Is there one sentence or one scene in the book that you feel captures the essence of your writing?
In “Providence Rag,” I invented an early childhood for the killer, showing how he gradually evolved into the monster he was to become. On the first page, a little boy is torturing a grasshopper with a magnifying glass. I like the contrast between the violence of the act and the poetic beauty of the language.
Your first book “Rogue Island” won the Edgar Award. Do you feel pressure with each new book to match that success?
Pressure was having the city editor stand over me screaming for copy on the brink of city-edition deadline. Pressure was bolting upright from a sound sleep in the middle of the night, terrified that I’d spelled someone’s name wrong. Pressure was having a thug warn that things would “go badly” for me if I persisted in investigating his boss. I find, now, that being free to make stuff up is liberating and pressure-free. Besides, a novelist learns something new with each book, and I’m convinced my third is both better written and more textured than the one that won the Edgar and Macavity awards.
Is there a character in “Providence Rag” who ended up having a bigger voice than you originally thought he or she would?
My first two novels were written in the first person with the protagonist narrating his own story. But as I waded into “Providence Rag,” it became clear that its moral complexities required multiple points of view. As a result, significant portions of the story are written from the points of view of two of Mulligan’s colleagues, a one-eyed news photographer named Gloria Costa, and Edward Mason, the young son of the publisher who is learning the trade as a cub reporter. This made “Providence Rag” more of an ensemble-cast novel than I had originally envisioned.
In your opinion, do you feel that a suspense/thriller fiction book should have an underlying moral?
“Should” is too strong a word. Elmore Leonard, for example, is one of the best crime novelists of all time, but he rarely tried to do more than entertain. That said, as a reader I prefer books that use the popular form of the crime novel as a platform to address serious social issues and still have readers. I’m thinking of the work of George Pelecanos, Laura Lippman, and James Lee Burke, to name a few favorites. As a writer, I strive to be more like them. Each of my novels has a dominant theme. “Cliff Walk,” for example, explores the consequences of living in an era of ubiquitous pornography and sex-for-hire internet sites. And because Mulligan is a reporter for a dying newspaper, each novel chronicles the sad decline of the business he and I love.
What scares Bruce DeSilva?
I can’t begin to describe the damage the decline of newspapers is doing to the American democracy. Network television news, never all that good to begin with, is being eroded by the same economic forces that are destroying newspapers. Cable TV news has morphed into a sewer of irrelevant celebrity news, shrieking talking heads, and warring propaganda machines. Most online news sites are no better, and the few that try to do an honest job aggregate most of their news from dying newspapers. As a consequence, we find ourselves in an era of misinformed citizenry, paranoid conspiracy theories, and the widespread belief that political opponents are traitors. Real reporting is expensive, and investigative reporting is especially costly. I see nothing on the horizon to replace newspapers as honest brokers of information.
Did you have a personal goal for yourself when you starting writing fiction?
Because my wife, Patricia Smith, is a wildly successful writer—one of the few poets able to make a very good living–I faced no economic pressure when I retired from journalism. I approached the first novel as if it were a hobby to be pursed at my leisure. But after the first novel won awards and was lavishly reviewed, my agent and publisher clamored for the next one. Suddenly the hobby became a full-time job. Now I’m in the middle of a six-figure, three book deal; and just like when I was a reporter, I have deadlines again.
What can fans expect to see from you in the future?
My fourth novel, “A Scourge of Vipers,” is finished and will be published next spring. In it, Mulligan explores the world of legal and illegal sports betting and the impact of big money on politics. I’m now working on the fifth. When that’s finished, my wife and I intend to a crime novel together.
Providence Rag is the third novel in my Edgar Award-winning series featuring Liam Mulligan, an investigative reporter at a dying Providence, R.I., newspaper. I hope you will purchase a copy from an independent bookstore; you can locate one in your area here. If that’s not convenient for you, the novel, as well as the first two books in the series, are available in print, e-book, and audio editions here.