Bruce DeSilva‘s latest book involving Rhode Island newspaper man Liam Mulligan, Providence Rag, is a bit different in approach. Mulligan races against time to keep a killer in prison as another reporter is uncovering prison corruption that would set him free. We turned the tables on the former reporter and asked him a few questions.
MYSTERYPEOPLE I found the story Providence Rag takes on a much darker and somber tone than the previous Mulligan books, which are partly known for their humor. What was it like working on a novel where you couldn’t always pull that humor tool out of the box?
BRUCE DESILVA: I don’t entirely agree with the premise of your question. I think my second novel, Cliff Walk, which peers into the bleak world of the sex trade and deals with the abuse and murder of children, was an even darker story. And there is humor in Providence Rag. For example, there’s Mulligan’s displeasure with his new roommate, Larry Bird, his attempt to fob the creature off on Whoosh, and the way he deals with the gangsters who want the bird back. However, I do understand what you’re driving at.
What changed in Providence Rag was the point of view.The first two novels were written in the first person with Mulligan as the narrator, so his trenchant observations and wise-guy humor were never far from the surface. Providence Rag, however, is written in third person limited. Sometimes we see the story from Mulligan’s point of view, but nearly as often we see it from the point of view of his earnest young colleague, Mason. And parts of the story are told from the points of view of their friend Gloria, the one-eyed photographer, and of the killer. Mason and Gloria aren’t humorless, but they are not given to the kind of smart remarks Mulligan is noted for. And the killer does not display much of a sense of humor. It was necessary to change point of view in this novel because the story was too complex to be told only from Mulligan’s vantage point. The very heart of the novel required that readers be exposed to how different things look depending on where you sit. But in the fourth Mulligan novel, tentatively titled A Scourge of Vipers, Mulligan will return as the lone first-person narrator. That book is already finished and will be published in March of 2015.
MP: Mason comes into his own during the book and drives the story as much as Mulligan. How did you handle two characters sharing the spotlight?
BD: Providence Rag poses a troubling question: What are decent people to do when a loophole in the law requires that a murderous psychopath be released from prison–and the only way to keep him locked up is to fabricate charges against him?
To tell the story, I needed a strong character on each side of the issue. Mulligan, whose youthful idealism long ago gave way to cynicism about how the world really works, is the one willing to look the other way if that’s the only way to protect public safety. Mason, given how his character developed in the first two novels, was the logical one to take the position that allowing public officials to subvert the criminal justice system is dangerous. After all, if they can fabricate charges against this killer, they could do the same thing to anyone.
Of course, the moral dilemma the two friends, and the whole state of Rhode Island, face in the novel has no right answer. No matter which side of the issue you make your stand on, you end up condoning something that is reprehensible. So Mason, and Gloria as well, do drive the action more than the supporting characters did in the first two books. But the Mulligan novels have always had ensemble casts. In the first, Rogue Island, Mason, Whoosh (Mulligan’s bookie), and his best friend Rosie Morelli, all play major roles. Mulligan is always Seinfeld to their Kramer, Elaine and George–but in Seinfeld, nobody got stabbed or shot.
MP: Your serial killer, Kwame Diggs, I found to be as chilling as Hannibal Lector, yet more believable. How did you approach him?
BD: The serial killer is loosely based on Craig Price, a real teenage serial killer I wrote about as a journalist many years ago. But Price was already in prison when I researched and wrote his story. I never met him face-to-face. I know little about his childhood, have never heard him speak, and can’t even say for sure what drove him to murder. So the background, motivation, and speech patterns of the killer in the novel are drawn entirely from my imagination. I chose to reveal Diggs to the reader in three different ways:
1. With the overkill and chilling blood-lust he unleashes on his victims.
2. With the string of lies he tells to Mason in a series of jailhouse interviews.
3. With a series of flashbacks in which the reader sees him as a young child in the process of becoming a monster.
Each approach provides a different look at him, but together I think they reveal the full measure of the man
MP: Not only do Mulligan and Mason have ethical dilemmas about what is being uncovered, but so do the editor and owner of the Providence Dispatch. As someone with a journalism background, what did you want the reader to understand about how a paper faces those situations?
BD: Journalists face ethical dilemmas almost every day. Many of the stories they do print not only inform the public but have the potential to both benefit and harm. Sometimes the people harmed by news stories deserve what they get. Sometimes the harm is not deserved but is nevertheless unavoidable if the truth is to be told. But journalists should be cautious about harming people unnecessarily. As a writer and as an editor, I always tried to take care to prevent that from happening. In Providence Rag, I did want readers to see how seriously reporters and editors struggle with this–although few real-life dilemmas are as extreme as the one the book presents. But I also wanted readers to consider how the prosecutors, prison guards, politicians, and citizens of the state grappled with the same moral question–and to ask themselves how they would deal with it as well.
MP: From talking to you at Bouchercon, I know that you’re an aficionado of crime fiction. Which author from the past hasn’t got his due?
BD: If I may alter the question slightly, I’m more concerned with a couple of writers who were popular in their day but have been largely forgotten. Nobody reads Richard Prather or Gregory Mcdonald anymore. Prather’s hard-boiled Shell Scott novels, most of them published in the 1950s and 1960s, were great fun and really well-written. And Mcdonald’s, two series, Fletch and Flynn, published in the 1970s and 1980s, were both funny and devastatingly effective at lampooning sacred American institutions.
MP: Other than being able to draw from your experiences, what makes a reporter a great crime fiction hero, as opposed to, say, a PI or cop?
BD: Real private detectives are nothing like fictional ones. The real ones spend their days serving court papers, investigating insurance claims, back-grounding job applicants, chasing child-support delinquents, and trying to figure out who’s pilfering from warehouses. They go their whole lives without ever shooting anyone down or beat anyone up. The amateur detectives in popular fiction — many of them little old ladies – don’t exist in real life either. Aside from the many varieties of local, state, and federal law officers, the only professionals who regularly investigate wrongdoing are investigative reporters.
In my own career as an investigative reporter, I exposed political corruption, voter fraud, criminal business practices, child abuse . . . In fact, I even investigated a murder. So it was natural for me to make my protagonist an investigative reporter. But unlike cops, reporters don’t get to handcuff people and bring them in for questioning. They can’t get judges to issue search warrants or approve wiretaps. That makes their work more difficult and more challenging – and the inherent difficulties make for good fiction.
Providence Rag is on our shelves now and available via bookpeople.com. Bruce Desilva will be at our store on Friday, Mar 28 at 7PM in conversation with Tom Abrahams (Allegiant) and signing copies of Providence Rag. Click here for more information & to pre-order your signed copy.