The seed for the book was planted when Arsenault undertook his lengthy series of interviews with convicted killer Craig Price at the ACI. “It really stuck with me,” he says, and changing the setting to Providence, instead of Lowell, the location for his two previous books, seemed natural.
After a conversation with his former West Bay editor, Jeanne Edwards, about ultimate interview subjects, Arsenault sent a letter expressing interest to Price, and the convict, who suggested a face-to-face interview, readily agreed. Since Arsenault was not allowed to bring a tape recorder or notepad into the prison, he made use of his memory, as well as letters from Price, to write the massive three-part series in 2004.
The effort (which can be found at www.projo.com/extra/2004/craigprice/) sparked hundreds of e-mails, a greater response, by far, than anything Arsenault has done in his journalistic career. “A good many of them thought it was the most disgusting thing they had ever seen,” he says, although still more complimented the project as a way of trying to answer lingering questions about Price’s motivation.
In another notable journalistic encounter, Arsenault was talking with state Senator John Celona (D-North Providence) in the Senate chamber in January 2003 when the legislator stepped backward, into an ornamental lamppost, sending a basketball-sized glass globe directly at Celona’s head. On instinct, the reporter says, he caught the globe on its rim, slicing a finger open in the process. “People came running up to Celona,” says Arsenault, who was saluted with a subsequent Senate proclamation, saying, “He saved your life.”
Although probably not life-threatening, the episode became a running joke at the State House, particularly after Celona emerged as a player in a State House corporate influence-peddling probe. After pleading guilty to federal corruption charges in 2005, he is due to be sentenced in February. Celona’s dark side came as a surprise to Arsenault. “I didn’t think he was going to run the place,” he says, “but I didn’t think he was headed for prison, either.”
The Mystery Beat
Rhode Island has a historic link to the mystery genre, since Edgar Allan Poe, who introduced the genre with his story “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841), visited Providence later in that decade to romantically pursue the poet Sarah Helen Whitman. The horror writer H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) — famous for the epitaph “I am Providence” — has an even stronger association with the state’s capital.
Arsenault pursues his mystery writing by steadily planting himself at his home computer and by attending occasional conventions for mystery writers, like the Bouchercon, held this past October in Madison, Wisconsin. While he likens the promotional aspect of mystery writing to campaign fundraising, the get-togethers offer a valuable opportunity to build ties with other writers. Arsenault, for example, says he “hacked the hell out of David Housewright on the basketball court,” before asking the Edgar-winner for a blurb for Gravewriter.
Other members of the ProJo staff have an interest in non-journalistic writing, and Jan Brogan, a former staffer, has made the transition to mystery writing. Executive editor Joel Rawson is working on a mystery, Arsenault says, while reporters Mike Stanton, Paul Edward Parker, and John Castellucci write fiction. Joined by other colleagues, the scribes occasionally gather for readings of outside work at Blake’s, a downtown watering hole.