MysteryPeople Q&A with Douglas Graham Purdy

  • Interview by Scott Montgomery

Thomas O’Malley and Douglas Graham Purdy’s second novel featuring Boston immigrants Cal and Dante, We Were Kings, takes place in the Fifties, covering such topics as gun running, the IRA, loyalty, and the weight of one’s past. Douglas Graham Purdy was kind enough to talk to us about his and O’Malley’s characters and their choice of setting.

“I think local provincialism definitely plays a large part in shaping Boston’s identity and it allows for a rich exploration of crime fiction. And with that particular type of provincialism there’s a guardedness, a suspicion of the other or outsider—when you talk to people from other cities who are familiar with Boston you hear about Boston’s coldness, its reputation as a tough city, a place where you don’t mess with the people.”

MysteryPeople Scott: This book delves deep into the Irish immigrant experience. What did you want to explore in it?

Douglas Graham Purdy: While not as emblematic as New York City, Boston has such a rich history of immigration, and with our characters Dante Cooper and Cal O’Brien both the children of immigrants, it came easy to us. However many people assume Dante comes from Irish parents, when in fact his father was Polish and his mother Italian. While Serpents in the Cold focused on Boston as a sheltered city during a horrible winter storm, We Were Kings offers a wider template as we crossed the Atlantic and showed some of the IRA men deciding on when and how they should take care of a burgeoning problem stateside in Boston. Their story, who they are and how they envision themselves as Americans, pairs well with Dante, Cal, detective Owen Mackey, who are already defined by America as citizens. It was interesting to have the IRA soldiers imagine the country as a land rich in opportunity and wealth, but once they arrive stateside, they find the dream is corrupt, that a great big land for the taking is a mirage. Immigration is founded on dreams and aspirations and imagination, and sometimes those dreams crumble under the reality that America wasn’t what they imagined from afar, yet somehow, someway, they must still become a part of.

Ask Tom, who actually is an immigrant, and he has a unique tale to tell related to Ted Cruz and Bill O’Reilly.

Of course when you’re talking about Boston you’re also talking about one of the largest populations of Irish immigrants in the U.S., the first port of entry for so many Irish who arrived over the centuries, but specifically aboard coffin ships fleeing An Gorta Mór, the Great Hunger.

“While Serpents in the Cold focused on Boston as a sheltered city during a horrible winter storm, We Were Kings offers a wider template as we crossed the Atlantic and showed some of the IRA men deciding on when and how they should take care of a burgeoning problem stateside in Boston.”

And it’s not by accident that we show the gunrunning boat, The Midir, at the book’s introduction, which was, to my mind, an imitation of the passage that the coffin ships of a hundred years before would have taken and what the passengers would have experienced and seen once they entered Boston’s outer harbor. The Great Hunger and this manner of migration is referenced again at the end of the book when the IRA gunmen pass through Galway, where so many coffin ships originally set sail from.

I think there’s something incredibly interesting about the ways in which Boston itself was transformed by various immigrant cultures and how the immigrants, in turn, were transformed and indelibly changed by the city. There’s also the complication of seeing and experiencing America via a particular romanticism or mythologization so that it exists in the consciousness as something more than just a place; it becomes the embodiment of ideals, values, and sensibilities that the immigrant desires, projects, and aspires to.

While Cal and Dante are children of immigrants they are also outside of the immigrant experience and the shocking, sometimes traumatic, duality that immigrants experience when their ideas of America are shattered by the reality that is America. And I think we explore a lot of that via the characters of Bobby Myles and Martin Butler, and how they believe Boston and the larger America beyond Boston will allow them opportunities and a distinct type of freedom and anonymity that they could never achieve in Ireland.

It’s also interesting to see how certain cultures reinvent themselves in America, forming many different subcultures within the whole that mainstream American is very often unaware of. To my mind, both the Irish dance hall culture of Dudley Square and IRA gunrunning in New York and Boston of the mid to late 1950s, in preparation for their unsuccessful Border Campaign in Northern Ireland were parts of those cultural subcultures that exist outside the mainstream and are rich for exploration in crime fiction.

MPS: What do Cal and Dante provide for each other as friends?

Their friendship goes back to their childhood growing up on the hard streets of Dorchester, Boston. Even at a young age, they endured a brutal existence, living through the Great Depression and, later, through violence; they’ve helped carry each other into adulthood. Even decades later, after much tragedy, they maintain a close presence in each other’s lives, a bond that may not shine with gold, but is a tarnished union, like two brothers cast out to endure the suffering and pain of a fallen city, in this case Boston during urban renewal and corruption.

Both men have lost their wives. They don’t have much family to cushion the grind of living day to day. Holding down a job becomes tougher and tougher. They’ve become lone wolves carrying their wounds silently, fueled by their own existential grit and a hunger for redemption.

“Even decades later, after much tragedy, they maintain a close presence in each other’s lives, a bond that may not shine with gold, but is a tarnished union, like two brothers cast out to endure the suffering and pain of a fallen city, in this case Boston during urban renewal and corruption.”

Their relationship is one based on trust and loyalty, even if, at times, that trust has been broken and the loyalty severely tested. But like all friendships there is a power dynamic between them and here we see that Cal is, most often, the one putting himself at risk and bailing Dante out of dangerous situations, but Cal is also driven by violent and dark impulses. He has, after the death of his wife, Lynne, something of a death wish and very little to lose. It is Dante who manages to pull him back from the abyss and we know, from Serpents in the Cold, that, if necessary, Dante would risk his life for Cal.

Dante looks up at the Heavens while in the gutter, while Cal looks down at the gutter from the Heavens. They balance each other out, allows them to co-exist in this grim setting, this limbo realm of Boston that is equal parts the gutter and the Heavens. (Yeah, as you can see, these are books are on the bleak side.)

MPS: There are several colorful characters in the book. Did you have any that were particularly fun to write?

I think every character offers something different. While Cal and Dante come across as humorless, scarred poster boys for Noir literature, it was good to offset them with eccentric characters such as the lowly henchman, Shaw, and Shea Mack, the sleazy kingpin. Shaw is great because he’s kind of the idiot who never shuts up, but when it matters, he rises to the occasion. Shea Mack is the self-appointed king of the underground, and every time he makes an appearance, it is usually as ribald as it is sadistic. He pushes the boundaries of taste, and it’s always refreshing to write scenes that push the boundaries into dark, and sometimes comedic, territories. While we always wanted to have unique original characters as our main players, we allowed ourselves to pay respects to the pulp as well. For example, there’s a scene at Fenway Park where Dante and Cal encounter the saddest-looking henchmen, rejects from the Dick Tracy universe, sad f**king bastards.

MPS: What makes Boston such a rich backdrop for crime fiction?

As a city, Boston is not known for being overly kind. It has a hard-knuckled introspective manner to it, uniquely Northeastern, at times terse and moody, at times overly proud, over-protective and provincial. While not as big and crowded as New York City and Chicago, it forms a perfect labyrinthine grid consisting of specific neighborhoods with their own unique cultural identities, their own codes, and their own, distinct immigrant histories.

I think local provincialism definitely plays a large part in shaping Boston’s identity and it allows for a rich exploration of crime fiction. And with that particular type of provincialism there’s a guardedness, a suspicion of the other or outsider—when you talk to people from other cities who are familiar with Boston you hear about Boston’s coldness, its reputation as a tough city, a place where you don’t mess with the people. There’s also the local trait of never forgetting or forgiving a wrong. That type of historical memory is a complex and distinctly Boston thing. It lends itself to a culture of codes and secrets and to very clannish structures that pit different clans against other clans.

“As a city, Boston is not known for being overly kind. It has a hard-knuckled introspective manner to it, uniquely Northeastern, at times terse and moody, at times overly proud, over-protective and provincial.”

Boston also possesses a historical landscape that reveals both its heights as a city and its decline, and the conflict of its Brahmin and working class sensibilities. There’s something quite powerful, shocking even, about suddenly discovering the richness of that landscape with its elaborate history, somewhat subsumed and hidden by the infrastructure of a city trying to be modern, trying to be something it has never been. This allows us to explore, both visually and thematically, the juxtaposition between the grand and the decrepit, the splendor and the vice. Until very recently, change in Boston has been glacial, and that informs the moods and perspectives of its citizens, neighbors and criminals alike.

Ambiguity and deception can thrive in these places where corruption and retribution can take effect at the drop of a dime. Whether along the fading blue-collar bars along Dorchester Avenue, or at the state house exemplifying the ‘city on a hill’, or the college campuses of international renown, MIT or Harvard, and even the tourist traps selling overpriced lobster rolls. There are so many landscapes where a crime can happen, a mystery unfolding. And more and more it’s becoming a city for the rich, the professionals. More people are flocking in and buying up properties at ridiculous prices. One has to wonder when the bottom drops. What criminals will arise from this to pick up the scraps?

Boston is a beautiful city, but by the winter, a gray pallor seems to suck the life out of the streets. The waters turn to slate, the skies turn raw and bleak, and the collective mood of the population sour and at times become downright miserable. For Serpents in the Cold and We Were Kings we highlighted the oppressive weather to augment a claustrophobic tension that we hope enhanced the damaged portrayal of our characters. In Serpents it is the coldest winter on record. In Kings, it’s a long, brutal summer with no relief in sight.

Also interesting is its duality, working class town and the hub of academia. It has a transient vibe that clashes with its tried-and-true lifers and townies. You can easily have a murder mystery on a college campus as well as a gritty, raw tale of the desperate low lives, which George V. Higgins (Friends of Eddie Coyle) captured so well.

“For Serpents in the Cold and We Were Kings we highlighted the oppressive weather to augment a claustrophobic tension that we hope enhanced the damaged portrayal of our characters. In Serpents it is the coldest winter on record. In Kings, it’s a long, brutal summer with no relief in sight.”

MPS: What part of the city’s history are you going to delve into next?

That’s a great question because many of Cal and Dante’s old haunts are now gone or soon will be as we move into the 1960s. It’s also a matter of how the two recover emotionally and physically from the events that occur in We Were Kings. Often, Doug and I learn about that damage and what it means to the story as we begin writing again. We’ve toyed around with the idea of having the book set in the late 1960s with the Vietnam War at its peak, and the city still disillusioned and heartbroken by the Kennedy assassinations. It would be interesting to see Cal and Dante in the seedy nether world of Boston’s Combat zone, the place of vice and prostitution that thrived after Scollay Square was demolished. Of course, Shea Mack would also have a place there. Such a world was made for the likes of him. We picture Cal and Dante as older men and potentially at odds with each another—can their friendship survive the various traumas and events they’ve experienced, the crimes they’ve committed? There’s guilt and shame in that knowledge and a shared culpability that neither can ever escape.

We’ve also explored Dante Cooper and Cal O’Brien standalone novels that continue the Boston Saga yet allow them to move more freely in their own narratives. But for now, Doug is working on a dark crime comedy, Scumbag, and I’m working on an apocalyptic thriller, At the End the Sea. Both of them are set in Boston.

“While misanthropes, both men believe in the public house, the place to gather and raise a few for the living and the dead. That’s where I’ll always see Cal and Dante, at a bar along the Avenue, the sun laying amber light through the windows as they gesture to the barman to pull another pint and pour another whiskey.”

MPS: Is there anything about your partnership that is reflected in Cal and Dante’s?

I think Cal (Thomas) is an optimistic at heart. He strives to think that there is something better out there. He goes to church. He prays. Dante (Doug) however is anxious at heart. He believes in the day-to-day. He’s the moody existentialist who feels more at home at a smoke-drenched jazz club than the church. But both characters do meet in the middle, the pub. While misanthropes, both men believe in the public house, the place to gather and raise a few for the living and the dead. That’s where I’ll always see Cal and Dante, at a bar along the Avenue, the sun laying amber light through the windows as they gesture to the barman to pull another pint and pour another whiskey. And Thomas and I will be there alongside them.

You can find copies of We Were Kings on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

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