As Bruce DeSilva describes the way he and his wife, acclaimed poet Patricia Smith, write together, you picture a talented couple deftly blending their skills. You see Tracy and Hepburn as they whip up a lamb curry in Adam’s Rib or Lunt and Fontanne as they thrust and parry lines in The Visit.
“Taking comfort in each other’s company,” DeSilva says, he and Smith work in DeSilva’s home office. Usually, they work in silence, at least until they have full drafts to work on.
“Once one of us completes a manuscript, the collaboration becomes intense,” DeSilva says. “Patricia’s writing is rich to the point of being sensual while mine can be spare to the point of sensual deprivation. I help her make her work tighter and crisper, and she helps me make mine more descriptive and lyrical.”
The editorial sessions have paid off. DeSilva’s new thriller, Providence Rag, is “descriptive and lyrical” when it counts and “spare” where it should be. Add “trenchant” and “witty” and you have a sense of all three installments in DeSilva’s Liam Mulligan series, which follows an investigative reporter for the fictional Providence Dispatch. The first two books in the series scored big. Rogue Island, the debut entry, won Edgar and Macavity awards for best first novel. Cliff Walk, the follow-up, garnered ecstatic reviews.
Now, early notices praise Providence Rag as the best of the three works. Previewing thrillers coming early in 2014, a Kirkus blogger found the book “highly rewarding.”
DeSilva is not surprised the third time charms readers.
“Many years of working as an editor have left me clear-eyed about my work,” he says. “As I wrote Providence Rag, I knew it would be my best book to date. Partly that’s because the story is so ambitious, awash in moral complexities. And partly it’s because I become a better writer with each novel, which is as it should be.”
One reason Providence Rag is so riveting is that the plot is based upon the actual case of Craig Price, the youngest serial killer in U. S. history. A month before his sixteenth birthday, Price was convicted of four murders, to which he had calmly confessed. Sentenced to prison as a minor, he was thus eligible for release when he turned 21. But in prison Price was convicted of a series of offenses that would have kept him behind bars for life—and safely away from the public. Some of the charges, DeSilva suspects, “were fabricated.” The situation created what DeSilva terms an “ethical conundrum.”
“The villain is too dangerous to be set free,” DeSilva says, “but if officials can abuse their power to keep him locked up, they could do the same thing to anybody. No matter which side of the issue you take, you are condoning something reprehensible.”
Mulligan pursues the case in a less-than-secure environment. On shaky financial legs for some time, the paper he works for goes up for sale. This situation, too, is drawn from real life. The Providence Journal, where DeSilva was an investigative reporter—and which bears more than passing resemblance to the Dispatch—just went on the market, a prospect that displeases DeSilva.
“Decades of hemorrhaging revenue have reduced the Journal to a shadow of the vital institution it once was,” he laments. “It’s hard to see how the situation can get much worse, but every time I say that, it does.”
DeSilva, who worked in journalism for 40 years, is equally pessimistic about the media in general. “Television network news is shriveling into irrelevance. Twenty-four hour TV cable stations spew endless loops of trivia and poison the public discourse with partisan distortions. And the few Internet news sites striving to do things right lack the revenue to cover the news with breadth and depth,” he says. “I can’t begin to describe how much harm this is doing American democracy.”
DeSilva says the Mulligan books are “in part an elegy to the dying business that I love.” So what happens to Mulligan if his paper folds? “You’ll have to wait until next year when the fourth novel in the series, tentatively titled A Scourge of Vipers, is published. I think the answer will surprise you.”
Meanwhile, back in DeSilva’s study, the author and the poet are passing back and forth pages of a thriller they’re writing together. “It has dueling narrators,” DeSilva says. “A white Chicago cop who speaks in my voice and a black hairdresser who speaks in hers.”
Gerald Bartell's book coverage appears in Kirkus Reviews, the Washington Post and the San Francisco Chronicle.