Chapter 24

“Yes,” I said, “I am a member of Joseph DeLucca’s immediate family.”

“And exactly how are you related?”

“He’s my brother.”

“Why is it, then, that you have a different last name?”

“We’re half- brothers.”

“I’m skeptical,” the hospital Nazi said.

It has been two years since Hope—Jack and Jenna Tanner’s bright and beautiful only child—walked out of her apartment door at the University of Wisconsin and vanished into the night.

Since then, Jenna’s grief has led to madness. She is confined now in a psychiatric hospital. Jack has been unable to concentrate on business. He has lost his job as a tax attorney at the largest law firm in Minneapolis.

Meanwhile, Slater Babcock, Hope’s college boyfriend and the only suspect in her disappearance, is enjoying the decadent life of a rich man’s spoiled son in sunny Key West.

Gregory McDonald has been dead for less than three years, yet already he seems in danger of being forgotten. A Google search turns up no recent chatter about his novels, and very little since his productive life as a writer came to an end in the late 1990s.

Aside from occasional late-night cable screenings of Fletch, a 1985 Universal Pictures movie starring Chevy Chase, McDonald’s most intriguing character also seems to be fading from American popular culture.

That’s a damn shame because McDonald was a gifted storyteller who peopled his crisply-written, very funny mysteries with irresistibly quirky characters. And behind the humor, he had some serious things to say about a host of American institutions from organized religion to the press.

Twenty-six years ago, long before I’d written my first crime novel, I had a long conversation with the great Robert B. Parker and got an earful about how it’s done.

I thought a lot about that conversation last night after I devoured a review copy of Sixkill, Parker’s final novel featuring Spenser, his Boston-based private eye—final because Parker is gone now, found dead at his writing desk in January of 2010.

He was 77 years old when he died; but when I met him he was 52, with a round face, a potato nose, slits for eyes, and a boys-regular haircut. He had a soft beer belly, but his chest and arms were hard muscle. I took all of that in as he opened the door of his Cambridge, Mass., condominium, looked me over, and grunted: “Oh my God! It’s the press!”

 

Rogue Island, Bruce DeSilva’s riveting debut that releases today, is not about a detective in Los Angeles tracking down a murderer, but rather a newspaper reporter (said reporter fancies himself an investigative journalist, but Woodward and Bernstein didn’t have to also write features about cute dogs) in his hometown of Providence, Rhode Island, on the hunt for a serial arsonist.

Publisher’s Weekly put it on their list of ten best debut novels of the year (not crime novels; novels, period), and it has also been lauded by Kirkus, Booklist, and Library Journal.

Harlen Coben hails Rogue Island as “a stunning debut.” Peter Blauner compares DeSilva to Michael Connelly, who in turn calls Rogue Island “a blast…a newspaper story that ranks with the best of them.”  Edgar Award winner James W. Hall compares DeSilva to Dennis Lehane, and Dennis Lehane says the book is “a tense, terrific thriller and a remarkably assure debut.”

Next to those stellar names, mine pales, and I don’t want to give anything away, but I will say this: as far as Rogue Island being a kick-ass debut…where there’s smoke, there’s fire.

 


 

GO: It took me longer than I care to admit to realize that the “Rogue Island” of your title refers to the smallest state in the union, where your debut novel is set.

BD: The title is more than just a pun on the name of the most corrupt little state in the union. One of the many quirks of Rhode Island history is that no one can say for sure where the name came from. One theory is that “Rhode Island” is a bastardization of “Rogue Island,” an epithet the God-fearing farmers of colonial Massachusetts bestowed upon the swarm of heretics, pirates, and cutthroats who first settled the shores of Narragansett Bay.

If so, it has certainly lived up to the name. That said, when I first heard the title, I have to admit, my first thought was: Holy shit!  Bruce has written a book about pirates!

My publisher’s marketing department had the same initial reaction you did and asked me to change the title to something that would sound more like a crime novel. When I suggested they could solve the problem by not putting a parrot or a treasure chest on the cover, they backed down. I like the cover design a lot; when you see it on a bookstore shelf, pirates will not spring to mind.

For all the digs on Providence in the book—the snow, the corruption, the inferiority complex—there is a love for the place that comes through in the writing.

One reviewer called my portrayal of the place “jaundiced but affectionate,” and I think that’s exactly right.

What is your connection to Providence?

I began my long journalism career as a reporter at The Providence Journal. I arrived in the middle of a New-England-wide war between organized crime factions, the most powerful of them run out of a little vending machine office on Federal Hill in Providence, so I knew right away this would be an interesting place to cover. Rhode Island, as one of my colleagues there liked to say, was “a theme park for investigative reporters.” I ended up staying for 13 years before moving on to bigger things, but journalism was never quite as much fun anywhere else.

Sounds like it’s shooting fish in the proverbial barrel.

The state has a history of corruption that goes all the way back to a colonial governor dining with Captain Kidd, but it also has a history of integrity and decency that goes all the way back to its founder, Roger Williams. Those two threads are woven throughout the state’s history and are still present today. The tension between them is one of the things that make it such an interesting place. But that’s not all. Most crime novels are set in big, anonymous cities. There are also some very good ones set in rural areas. But Providence is something different. It’s a claustrophobic little city where everybody on the street knows your name and where it’s very hard to keep a secret. But it’s still big enough to be both cosmopolitan and rife with urban problems. I strove to make the city and the state not just the setting for the book but something more akin to a main character. I never considered setting my story anywhere else.

Rogue Island has been lauded by a veritable Murderer’s Row of detective fiction writers, including Dennis Lehane, Michael Connelly, and Ken Bruen, and the early reviews are glowing, with no less an authority than Publishers Weekly hailing it one of the ten best debut novels of the year.  Not only that, but you are, at the hallowed halls of AP, famed as a writing guru. So my question is: what’s it like to be the second-best writer in your household?

Oh, God! It’s a daily humiliation. Seems like every week someone gives my wife, Patricia Smith, another award: The Pushcart Prize, the Rattle Poetry Prize, the National Poetry Series Award, the Hurston-Wright Legacy Award, the Patterson Poetry Prize . . .

She was on the cover of Poets & Writers, too. Not too shabby.

At least she was only a finalist for the National Book Award, but if she wins the Guggenheim she just applied for, I may have to kill her—or myself. In case you are reading this, baby, that was a joke. The truth is, I am enormously proud of her; and the fact that I am married to this amazing woman astonishes me daily.

Do you help each other with your work, or do you operate solo in that regard?

We’re a great team. I edit her poetry. She edits my fiction. Our writing styles are nothing alike, and that’s one of the things that make the partnership work. Her writing is rich to the point of being sensual. Mine is spare to the point of sensual deprivation. I help her make her work tighter and crisper. She helps me make mine more descriptive and lyrical. By the way, I’m not sure I’m the second-best writer in my household. Our 15-year-old, Mikaila, is pretty darned good.

Seriously though . . . how did you get all those blurbs? Do you have dirt on all those writers? (It’s a detective story, so one imagines you in a fedora, sliding a brown envelope under a door).

I knew Dennis Lehane before he became famous, and the great Thomas H. Cook and I became friends a couple of years ago; so I felt comfortable asking both for blurbs. Their replies: sure, as long as I love the book—which is as it should be. Those two blurbs might have been enough, I suppose, but I was greedy. I e-mailed requests to thirteen other crime writers I’d met briefly at writing conferences over the years, hoping one or two of them would remember me and say yes. To my astonishment, all but one of them did. I was especially gratified that two of them, Joseph Finder and James W. Hall, who had been Lehane’s college writing mentor, favorably compared my book to his A Drink Before the War—my gold standard for debut crime novels.

The protagonist of Rogue Island, Liam Mulligan, is a journalist of the old school—obsessed with investigative reporting, curious to the point of danger, and all too eager to blow off his editor’s demands.  I like this choice a lot—it’s a twist on the usual private-investigator thing, and because he’s a writer, you get to inject more journalistic color into the hard-boiled prose.  Why do you think are there so few journalist heroes in popular culture?

Well, there are some. Gregory MacDonald’s Fletch novels spring immediately to mind. Bryan Gruley has written two fine mysteries about a newspaperman in a tiny, fictional Michigan town. And Michael Connelly has a couple of books with a reporter as the main character. For the most part, however, journalists are portrayed as vultures in the popular culture.

To our collective detriment, I think. We live in a country that loathes journalists and teachers and the federal government, but has a hard-on for strident political pundits and Kardashian sisters. What gives?

Why? Perhaps because too many writers—especially those who write for the big and small screens—are quick to grab hold of the nearest cliché. The truth is that the vast majority of journalists are hard-working, low-paid professionals dedicated to the difficult task of reporting the truth in a world full of people who lie like you and I breathe. When I began Rogue Island, I considered making Mulligan a PI; but as a former journalist, I found the idea too removed from reality.

They are certainly over-represented. I think there may be more fictional PIs than real ones.

Real private investigators are nothing 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.

And not, one imagines, being smacked on the back of the head with a blackjack several times a week.

Investigative reporter is one of the few occupations outside of law enforcement that really does investigate serious wrongdoing. I put Mulligan to work at a newspaper, rather than for a TV station or a web site, because most American newspapers are 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.

You were a reporter and editor for many years.  How close is Mulligan to Bruce DeSilva?

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 fierce but shifting sense of justice that tempts us to cut corners and work with bad people to bring worse people down.

At TNB, we’ve had a lot of discussion about the future of books.  What’s the future of newspapers?

They don’t have one; they are circling the drain. Newspapers see themselves as victims of the digital age. They are so full of shit. The internet isn’t killing newspapers; they are committing suicide. In the sequel to Rogue Island, tentatively titled Cliff Walk, Mulligan explains it this way:

“When the Internet first got rolling, newspapers were the experts on reporting the news and selling classified advertising. They were ideally positioned to dominate the new medium. Instead, they sat around with their thumbs up their asses while upstarts like Google, the Drudge Report, and ESPN.com lured away their audience and newcomers like Craigslist, eBay, and AutoTrader.com stole their advertising business. By the time newspapers finally figured out what was going on and tried to make a go of it online, it was too late. This all happened because newspapers didn’t understand what business they were in. They thought they were in the newspaper business, but they were really in the news and advertising business. It’s a classic mistake—the same one the railroads made in the 1950s when the interstate highway system was being built. If Penn Central had understood it was in the freight business instead of the railroad business, it would be the biggest trucking company in the country today.”

Well put, which doesn’t make it any less sad. Last question: when you found out you got your book deal, what kind of cigar did you break out for the occasion?

A Cohiba. It went well with the Bushmills that Mulligan and I both favor.

 

The questions I’m asked most often about my new crime novel, Rogue Island, are: “How long did it take to write?” and “How did you find a publisher?”

“That figures,” a friend quipped.“Nobody wants to read a book anymore, but everybody wants to get published.”

A contributor to Goodreads, one of those websites where people comment on the books they’ve read, was baffled by The Last Talk with Lola Faye, the latest literary crime novel by Thomas H. Cook.

“I did not understand the point,” she said. “Who did it? I’m so lost!”

Crime Dog

By Bruce DeSilva

Writing

Say Hello to Brady.  He’s a pure-bred Bernese Mountain Dog, and he turns one year old this week. When we got him, he was eight weeks old and about the size of a loaf of pumpernickel. Now he’s a hundred and ten pounds and still growing.

From the moment I laid eyes on him, he had my heart. And now he’s sneaked into the crime novel I’m writing.

It happened when my protagonist, an investigative reporter named Mulligan, was trying to figure out how to introduce himself to Peggy, a perky young secretary who works for a guy Mulligan thinks is up to no good. As a former investigative reporter myself, I knew that when you can’t get the goods on someone the easy way–from the cops or from documents–the best sources of information are ex-wives and disgruntled employees. Mulligan didn’t know if Peggy was disgruntled, but he was determined to find out.

So he was hanging around outside her apartment building in Providence, R.I. one afternoon, trying to decide what to say when he knocked on her door. Suddenly the door swung open and out stepped Peggy with a dog on a leash. At first, it was a small dog, so Mulligan bent down to pet it. Then I looked at Brady, who was sitting on my feet as I wrote, and had a better idea. I deleted the paragraph and started again.

This time the apartment door flew open and an enormous Bernese Mountain Dog burst out, dragging the perky young blonde down the steps. The dog was just a pup, maybe nine months old, but he was already closing in on a hundred pounds. He took one look at Mulligan and bolted straight for him.  Peggy shouted “Brady, no!” but Brady wasn’t listening. He kept coming, ears and big pink tongue flopping. She outweighed him, but not by much, and he was a lot stronger. He dragged her right to Mulligan. Good doggie. Mulligan squatted on his heels to meet him. The dog draped his front paws over the reporter’s shoulders and worked that tongue in his ear. “Brady!” Peggy said again, and tugged on the leash with no discernible effect. “He can’t help himself,” Mulligan said. “Dogs and women love me.” The perfect introduction.

Since the real Brady came to live with me, he’s helped me with a lot of things. He’s great company when my wife is on the road. He’s brought joy to our 15-year-old girl. He sniffed out a box turtle that became a welcome guest in our house for a week before we released him into the wild. Brady gets me up from the computer to take him on walks, exercise we both badly need. I’d tell you that he is a great chick magnet if I weren’t worried that my wife might read this. And now he’s helping me write the sequel to “Rogue Island” (Forge, Oct. 12).

I’ve lived with dogs most of my life. On my fourth birthday, my father surprised me with a little black mutt that I ingeniously named Blackie. He was a terror. Snarled at visitors. Killed and ate our neighbor’s chickens. Chased cars, getting sideswiped by tires. And died in his sleep at the age of 17.

Later, I raised Border Collies. Our Sadie, progeny of Scottish champions, had great litters. Some of her pups went on to become obedience champions, and one ended up making commercials in Hollywood. I kept two of Sadie’s pups, Poco and Panda. Mama and the pups were all smart (everything you have heard about the breed is true), but Poco was a genius among dogs. When I trimmed the hedge, she’d try to help by jumping up and tearing at the branches. When I picked strawberries in our garden, she’d pluck them with her mouth and drop them in my basket. When I husked corn, she’d grab an ear, brace it with her front paws, and tear the husks away with her teeth. Anything to lend a hand.

Back then, I was working out of my house in Massachusetts, covering eastern and northern New England for a newspaper in another state. I was one of those writers who needed to read his stories out loud to someone so I could hear how the words sounded when they came out of my mouth. But often I was alone at home with the dogs.

So I’d call Poco and say, “sit.” Poco would sit. I’d say, “stay,” and Poco would stay. Then I’d read my story to her, and Poco would listen to my voice, cocking her head as if she were fascinated by every line. For a while there, I was worried I might have to save for her college tuition.

Twelve years ago, I moved into an apartment that didn’t allow pets and stayed there for ten years. Boy did I miss having a dog. So last summer, after we bought a house in a nice suburban town in New Jersey, the very next thing we got for ourselves was Brady.

You can learn a lot about people by how they treat dogs. The same goes for fictional characters.

So when I started writing my first crime novel, “Rogue Island,” dogs inevitably worked their way into the story. In that book, Mulligan pines for Rewrite, the Portuguese Water Dog his harpy of an ex-wife doesn’t care for but keeps out of spite. And a mutt named Sassy, looking like a cross between a German Shepard and a Humvee, figures significantly into one of the sub-plots. Rewrite reappears in the last lines of the book–lines that Ken Bruen, Irish master of noir, calls “as callous as I ever read, and perfectly fitting.”

In the sequel I’m writing now, tentatively titled “Cliff Walk,” an aging bookie named Zerilli adopts a big mutt from the pound.

“Got a name for him yet?” Mulligan asks.

“Calling him Shortstop.”

“How come?”

“‘Cause Centerfielder’s a stupid fuckin’ name.”

Zerilli got the dog to guard his place at night, but it’s not working. The dog loves everybody. Mulligan almost asks if Zerilli is going to keep the dog, but from the way the bookmaker’s fingers are working behind the dog’s ears, he already has his answer.

And the reader has learned something important about Zerilli.

I could tell you more about all this, but Brady is tugging at my pants leg. It’s time to go for a walk.