Grit, Grime & Graft

An interview with crime writer Bruce DeSilva

by Megan Hauptman

Illustration by Casey Friedman

published April 11, 2014

Bruce deSilva now lives in New Jersey, but he’s definitely Rhode Island’s crime writer-laureate. His three novels—Rogue Island, Cliff Walk, and Providence Rag—all take place in Rhode Island, where deSilva worked as a reporter for the Providence Journal for over a decade. The downtown dive bars, pot-holed streets and mob-connected politicians of deSilva’s novels are fictionalized, but the veneer of invention is thin. DeSilva’s crime novels grew out of his experience reporting on Providence’s seedy underbellies; the city’s grit, graft and rainy weather feature prominently in all his books. We talk here about his time reporting at the Providence Journal, good graft vs. bad graft, and the dilemmas of fictionalizing true crime stories.

The College Hill Independent: How did you transition from journalism into writing crime fiction?

Bruce deSilva: Many people say that journalism is a great training ground for fiction, and I always tell them that it’s not. It does certainly provide me with a lot of experiences and interesting characters and stories to draw on. But anyone who’s lived a life that’s interesting and remained relatively conscious should be able to say that.

     The problem with journalism and making the transition to fiction is the way journalism is written, which is, with rare exceptions, abysmal. In journalism, there’s very little study in the way of characters; people in newspaper stories are just stick figures. What passes for setting in journalism is usually a street address rather than any attempt to create setting. Most journalism still is written in that horrible inverted pyramid form that may be the single worst way any one has ever devised to communicate. And journalism typically doesn’t produce a story—there’s no beginning, middle or end. No plot. Journalists call what they write stories, but most of it doesn’t resemble stories in any way.

     I spent most of my journalism career fighting against those conventions, trying to do real storytelling in journalism. And I’m certainly not the only one—the Providence Journal back in the day was one of the pioneers in bringing this kind of writing to journalism. But it’s always been a battle—storytelling versus journalism conventions. The main thing that journalism did teach me that was important and useful in the transition to fiction is that writing is a job. So you don’t wait for your muse, you don’t wait to be inspired, you put your butt in the chair and you write every day. Because that’s what writers do. You certainly don’t get to have writer’s block. Journalists don’t get writer’s block. Former journalists get writer’s block.

The Indy: You were talking about the type of writing that was happening at the Providence Journal when you were there [in the 1970s]—

BdS: The writing was pretty dull. It tended to be kind of an official mouthpiece for politicians in the state. But very quickly after I arrived, there was an internal revolution that radically changed that—that greatly broadened the definition of news and made the paper extremely aggressive in the pursuit of corruption. All kinds of great investigative reporting and a real revolution in the way the newspaper told the stories.

     The Journal—certainly not exclusively, certainly not everyone participated in it—became a place where people started really telling stories, with beginning and middles and ends and characters. Really fine, creative nonfiction, trying to tell the stories of what was happening in the state that was important. It wasn’t the only place it was happening, but the Journal was one of the national newspapers that started bringing storytelling—good writing—into journalism. It was a really exciting place to be.

The Indy: Is that why you chose to have Liam Mulligan [the journalist character and investigator in all of deSilva’s books] work at the Providence Journal?

BdS: Actually, it’s not really the Providence Journal. It’s the Providence Dispatch.

The Indy: Sorry, I just instinctively read it as the Providence Journal.

BdS: Well, it’s always smart to write about what you know. If you’re going to write crime novels, you have a couple of possibilities. You can make your character a cop, or you can make him a private detective, or you can make him an amateur sleuth. There are a lot of amateur sleuths in crime novels. I’ve never been a fan of amateur sleuths. I will never write nor will I ever read a book in which crime is solved by a hairdresser or a cat. There is a whole genre of books in which crimes are solved by cats, by the way. I think that’s just silly. That’s not something that happens in life. Cats and hairdressers don’t solve crimes.

     As a former journalist I’m concerned enough about reality to not be able to go that way. For the same reason, I couldn’t make my characters private detectives. In real life, private detectives are pretty boring. They do background research for job candidates, that kind of thing. They don’t investigate corruption or serious violent crime.  So my option was either to make Mulligan some variety of cop or have him be an investigative reporter.

     I chose Providence as a setting because it’s an amazing place, in many respects. Providence is a theme park for investigative reporters. There is so much that’s going on, so much corruption and graft.

     This isn’t recent. It goes all the way back to the founders; very early on in the Narragansett Bay there were real pirates. And there’s a long history of city involvement in the slave trade, in political corruption, in organized crime. And that corruption continues on and off til this day. On the other hand, the state was founded by this saintly figure, Roger Williams. All through the state’s history there have been a lot of really good and decent people. That tension between those two things—the good and the evil—is part of what makes life interesting. So I never really considered setting my books anywhere else. Rhode Island clearly was the place to set crime books.

     Providence is not a typical kind of place for crime novels to be set. Most are set in New York, LA, Miami. But Providence is different because it’s a small city but it’s big enough to have the usual array of urban problems. But it’s small enough that it’s almost claustrophobic. So many of the people you meet on the street know your name. It makes it a place where it’s hard to keep a secret. And that’s different from a big city.

     I also made my main character, Mulligan, a native—he grew up in the neighborhood where the crimes are taking place. He is very much of the place, not coming in from the outside. Mulligan has an attitude towards corruption that I think is a very Rhode Island attitude. Mulligan’s job is to report on corruption, but he is not necessarily that critical of corruption. He pays off a state employee in order to get an inspection sticker for his beat-up car, because that’s how things work. Mulligan actually says in the first book that graft is like cholesterol. There’s a good kind and a bad kind. The good kind is for average people, who need an inspection sticker for their car because they can’t afford a new car. That attitude is part of what I like about Rhode Island, and setting stories in Rhode Island. The lines about right and wrong are a little more blurred, a little more unclear. And good guys aren’t all good and bad guys aren’t all bad.

The Indy: Your most recent novel—Providence Rag—is based off the true story of Craig Price, who is infamous as the youngest serial killer in US history. Can you talk about the process and ethics of writing a novel about a true crime story?

BdS: The story it is based on is about a serial killer, and I had always sworn that I wouldn’t write a serial killer book. For one thing, there are so many of them out there, and for another thing, writers are falling over each other to make each serial killer more creepy and bizarre than the last. Serial killers who cut their victims up and make puzzle pieces out of them, serial killers who kill people by burying them in their cars—it just gets weirder and weirder. I didn’t want to be a part of that. But a couple years ago, in the late ’80s, I was involved in covering the Craig Price case—Craig Price was the youngest serial killer in US history. He started killing his female neighbors in Warwick when he was 13 years old, and he wasn’t caught until he was 16, in part because of his age. No one thought someone that young could be doing this.

     And when he was caught, Price, despite the fact that he had killed four people, was facing only six years in prison. Because the state juvenile justice statutes hadn’t been updated in many years, and when they were written no one had envisioned a child like him, someone who was capable of that. So the law required that any juvenile convicted of a felony had to be released at age 21, given a fresh start. So the state of RI was faced with this psychopathic killer being released into the public again, so that was what the reality was back in 1989.

     Today, Craig Price is still in prison. He’s never been released. He’s been charged and suspected of a number of offenses that he supposedly committed in prison—assaults on guards, that kind of thing. I have long suspected that some of the charges may have been fabricated, and I’m certainly not the only one who thinks that’s a possibility. But what is definitely weird is that he’s been wildly over-sentenced for some of these things he supposedly did on the inside. For example, he was given 30 years in prison for refusing to submit to a court-ordered psychiatric exam. So even though it appears that Price’s rights may be violated—or at least they’re playing a game with him—no one seems to be concerned about that. No one is raising a cry about protecting his rights—he is obviously way too dangerous to let out. But for the purposes of the novel I want to explore this question.

     What happens in the book—it’s a very unusual serial killer book—is that the murders are all committed in the first 75 pages. And what happens in the rest of the book is that the main character and his friends are contending with this ethical question: if you let this killer out, then more people, they die. On the other hand, if you allow officials to fabricate charges to keep him in, that’s wrong too. They’re abusing their power, and if they get away with that, they could do the same thing to anybody. So the rest of the book involves all of the characters dealing with this question of what the right thing to do is here. Whether its to report the truth of fabricated charges, and the bad guy would get out, or to ignore that and let him stay in prison. And both the main character in my book Mulligan, and his best friend, Mason, come down on opposite sides of this question. So you get this intense suspense over whether the truth is going to come out. And a very strong argument between friends and one that comes to encompass most of the state over where justice really lies.

     I did find basing a novel on a true case to be difficult and somewhat nerve-wracking. You might think it would be easier because part of the plot is already laid out for you in real life, but in fictionalizing it, it has to be clear that the story you’re telling isn’t the story of Craig Price or the other people who’ve been involved in the case in some way. That’s tricky. When I wrote my first two novels, they sprang entirely from my imagination. And nevertheless there were people who tried to figure who I was really writing about. People thought the mayor of Providence in the books was based off of Buddy Cianci. I even have a couple of journalism friends who are convinced that my main character is them. He’s not.

     Having those experiences makes me concerned that people will be tempted to view this new novel as contemporary history instead of fiction. But when I created this serial killer character in the book, I gave him all kinds of attributes that are invented. I’ve never met Craig Price. I don’t know much about how he grew up. I don’t know much about his family background, I don’t know how he thinks. So I gave him a very distinctive voice in the book. I gave him a family background. I gave him a past. I tell stories about his childhood, all of which are completely made up. The story is inspired by his case, rather than based on it. But I think that it’s really important that people understand that the book is in no way an attempt to tell the true story of Craig Price, about him or anyone else who was involved in the case. It’s taking his story as a starting point and creating something.