Newsweek recently crowned New Jersey, where I now live, the most corrupt state in America; but the magazine also declared Rhode Island the most corrupt per capita.
My first job after college was with the venerable Providence Journal, our smallest state’s biggest newspaper. I arrived in the middle of a bloody New England-wide war between organized crime factions, the eventual victor operating out of a little vending machine office in the city’s Italian neighborhood of Federal Hill.
I spent 13 years in Providence, specializing in investigative reporting about government corruption and incompetence, organized crime, and voter fraud. Over the years, an even 100 people (I once added it up) were indicted or fired as a result of the stories I wrote. Far more should have been, but this was Rhode Island, a place where the jaded citizenry winks and chuckles at misdeeds that would be prosecuted as felonies in normal states.
In Rhode Island generally and Providence in particular, organized crime and political corruption are time-honored traditions. The smallest state’s culture of thuggery and skullduggery goes all the way back to one of the first colonial governors dining with Captain Kidd. For more than a hundred years, pirates slipped from Narragansett Bay’s hidden coves to prey on merchant shipping. In the late 1700s and early 1800s, Rhode Island shipmasters dominated the American slave trade. During the French and Indian War and again during the Revolution, privateers skulked out of Providence and Newport to seize prizes with little regard for the flags they flew. After the Civil War, Boss Anthony kept his Republican machine in power by buying votes at the going rate of two bucks apiece. At the turn of the century, Rhode Island’s own Sen. Nelson Aldrich helped the robber barons plunder the country. In the 1950s and 1960s, a Providence mobster named Raymond L.S. Patriarca was the most powerful man in New England, deciding everything from who lived and died to which songs got played on the radio. And more recently, Providence Mayor Vincent A. “Buddy” Cianci Jr. did federal time for conspiring to operate a criminal enterprise, a.k.a. the city of Providence.
So when I retired from journalism after 40 years and decided to try my hand at crime novels, I knew where my books had to be set. It never entered my mind to set them anyplace else.
One of the many quirks of Rhode Island history is that no one knows how the state got its name, although historians have come up with several half-baked theories. According to one of them, the name derives from the fact that the state resembles the Isle of Rhodes. The only problem with that one is: It doesn’t.
My favorite theory is that “Rhode Island” is a bastardization of “Rogue Island,” a name the God-fearing farmers of colonial Massachusetts bestowed upon the nest of pirates, heretics, and smugglers who first settled the shores of Narragansett Bay. Hence, the title of my novel, “Rogue Island,” which ended up winning both the Edgar and MaCavity awards. I decided not to go with the Cotton Mather’s pet name for Providence: “The sewer of New England.”
My second novel “Cliff Walk,” published in May of this year, is also set in the state, the name borrowed from the famous path overlooking the sea in Newport. “Providence Rag,” the third novel in my series featuring Providence investigative reporter Liam Mulligan, will be published sometime next year.
The crime novels I love best are the ones that transport me to interesting places and let me hear, see, smell, and taste them. Raymond Chandler, Walter Mosley, James Ellroy, and Michael Connelly have shown me Los Angeles through the decades. I can’t imagine Ken Bruen’s best novels set anywhere but in his native Galway. When I read James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux novels, I am transported to New Iberia, LA, even if I never leave my house..
I vowed, then, to take my readers to Rhode Island, one of the most interesting places I know.
Although the state’s legacy of corruption is undeniable, it also has a time-honored culture of decency and integrity that began with its pious founder, Roger Williams. The competing strands of good and evil wind their way through the state’s history , and the tension between them makes for great storytelling.
But that’s not the only reason I set my novels there.
Most crime novels unfold in big, anonymous cities like New York, Los Angeles, Miami, and, of course, Chicago. There are also many fine mysteries set in rural areas. But Providence, Rhode Island’s capital, is something different.
The city is large enough to have the usual array of urban problems, and it’s surprisingly cosmopolitan; yet it’s so small that it’s claustrophobic. In fact, the whole state is so tiny that you can almost throw a baseball across it. Nearly everybody you meet on the street knows your name, and it’s almost impossible to keep a secret.
In “Rogue Island,” Mulligan needs to have a face-to-face meeting with a cop. The two don’t want to be seen together, so they have a hard time figuring out where to go. Finally they pick a sleazy strip club in a bad part of town. No one there is likely to know them, they think; but as soon as they walk in, someone shouts: “Hey, Mulligan! How ya doin’?”
Mulligan is paid to root out corruption. But he was born in Providence. He is not just from but of this place. So while he digs to uncover the truth, he’s not above placing a bet with a mobbed-up bookie or paying a small bribe to get his decrepit Ford Bronco through the annual state motor vehicle inspection.
As Mulligan sees it, graft comes in two varieties, good and bad, just like cholesterol. The bad kind enriches greedy politicians and their rich friends at taxpayers’ expense. The good kind supplements the wages of underpaid state workers, putting braces on their kids’ teeth. Without the lubrication of good graft, Mulligan says, not much would get done in Rhode Island, and nothing at all would happen on time.
I strive to make the city of Providence and the state of Rhode Island not just the setting but something more akin to characters in my novels. One reviewer called my portrayal of the place “jaundiced but affectionate”—and I think that puts it exactly right.
Bruce DeSilva is the author of the hard-boiled Mulligan crime novels, Cliff Walk, and Rogue Island, with a third,Providence Rag, on the way. His fiction has won the Edgar and Macavity awards and been a finalist for the Anthony and Shamus awards. Previously he worked as a journalist for 40 years, most recently as a senior editor for The Associated Press. Stories he edited won virtually every major journalism prize including The Polk (twice), The Livingston (twice), and the ASNE. He also contributed to two Pulitzer finalists and a Pulitzer winner. He reviews books for the AP and is a master’s thesis adviser at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
(The Killer Nashville Guest Blog series is coordinated by KN Executive Director Beth Terrell (http://www.elizabethterrell.com/). To be a part of this series, contact Beth at email@example.com.)