Bruce DeSilva's latest Rhode Island-based novel: `Providence Rag'

Mar 11, 2014

Rhode Island’s great exports may be political consultants, musicians and seafood. Add to that list Bruce DeSilva, author of three mystery novels set in Rhode Island. The thirds in this trilogy, `Providence Rag’, hits the bookstores tomorrow.

It is a gem that perfectly captures our cozy, claustrophobic state and its florid political culture. De Silva, a former Providence Journal reporter, now lives in New Jersey, but with this novel, his third set in the Ocean State, it is becoming clear that he is to Providence what James Lee Burke is to New Orleans.

This third Rhode Island-based work by DeSilva is arguably his crowning one; it certainly features the author’s best writing. Readers of his two previous works, `Rogue’s Island’ and `Cliff Walk’ will immediately recognize the main characters, especially Liam Mulligan (DeSilva’s Dave Robicheaux), the investigative reporter for a seen-better-days newspaper, the Providence Dispatch.

`Providence Rag’ tackles one of Rhode Island’s toughest criminal cases: The serial killer Craig Price of Warwick. Price’s teen-age rampages claimed the lives of four people. He was sentenced as a minor, and under Rhode Island law at the time he was eligible for release at age 21.  While in prison, Price was convicted of a series of offenses that would have kept him at the Adult Correctional Institutions for many years. That would have kept him away from the public.

Yet DeSilva has his utterly believable newspaper and law-enforcement characters ensnared in an ethical dilemma. When one of Mullligan’s reporter-colleagues, ``Thanks Dad’’ Mason, the son of the waspy publisher, uncovers evidence that the Price character, Kwame Diggs, was framed by ACI guards, the story goes into overdrive.

What happens when the Constitutional protections our society gives to criminals clashe with common sense notions of public safety?

This novel is a hard-boiled detective story, with reporters playing some of the parts usually reserved in television’s `Law and Order’ series for cops and prosecutors. As was the case in his first two Mulligan novels, DeSilva goes granular into Rhode Island culture.

There was a Providence dive bar called Hope’s where reporters and pols gathered after hours. The owner of Hope’s is Lee Dykas, an old-school crime and cops reporter. (There really was such a tavern on Washington Street in Providence; ask any Rhode Island reporter of a certain age and you will get a knowing smile. And yes, it was owned by Mr. Dykas. ). It was a dingy, stained-rug place where the state’s legal closing hour was gleefully ignored by both the pols and the folks who covered them; Celtics playoff games from Los Angeles were always watched in their entirety.

In `Providence Rag’ there is an attorney general named Roberts. (Dennis Roberts was Rhode Island’s attorney general in the 1980s). And a judge named Needham. (Rhode Island had a Superior Court judge named Thomas Needham).

A crucial character is a 30ish lawyer named Felicia Freyer. She is attractive, smart and idealistic. The Providence Journal actually has a reporter named Felice Freyer who fits that bill, except that she is a medical reporter and these days a wee bit older than 30.

As for Mulligan, well, there were actually two Mulligan brothers who were Journal reporters. John Mulligan was a street-smart, raffish political reporter and fine writer who was the ProJo’s longtime Washington bureau chief. Tom, his more polished brother, was a talented business journalist who went on to work for the Los Angeles Times.

Some well-known characters make walk-on cameos, including right-wing Fox news chatterer Greta Van Susteren, and cable crime doyen Nancy Grace. DeSilva says neither Van Susteren nor Grace ever visited Rhode Island. We don’t know about Grace but Van Susteren is well-acquainted with the Ocean State; her brother Dirk and sister-in-law Marialisa Calta, both worked in the ProJo newsroom. And Greta Van Susteren and her husband, John, moored their boat in Bristol harbor in the summer.

In `Providence Rag,‘ the newspaper is on very shaky financial footing and is put up for sale by its well-born family owners. The ProJo, of course, is currently on the block. DeSilva laments all this in his novel yet his affection for his dying industry is palpable.

Rhode Island politics and culture are refracted in prose both taut and lyrical in DeSilva’s third in this series. Yet the local landmarks  an characters never overshadow the moral complexity at the heart of this tale.

Some may find the end a bit melodramatic. But what a ride to get there. `Providence Rag’s is a minor masterpiece. We can only hope that DeSilva, like Burke’s New Orleans, has more Rhode Island-centric stories left.