Noir comes to Providence

 In Cold Blood
By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  October 28, 2009

 TJI_Arsenault_main

“FICTION IS HARDER” Arsenault.

Former Providence Journal reporter Mark Arsenault’s new novel, Loot the Moon, is the second in a series focused on obituary writer, inveterate gambler, and investigator Billy Povich. And the early reviews are strong. Booklist, for one, calls it a “top-notch crime novel.” And little surprise. Arsenault has been turning out compelling mysteries for years.

The Phoenix caught up with Arsenault — self-described “runner, hiker, political junkie, and eBay fanatic who collects memorabilia from the 1939 New York World’s Fair” — for a little Q&A via e-mail.

WHAT OF MARK ARSENAULT, MILD-MANNERED REPORTER, CAN BE FOUND IN THE WORLD-WEARY BILLY POVICH?
My character, Billy Povich, is an obituary writer, a job I did early in my career. Unfortunately, when I wrote obits in my early 20s I didn’t appreciate how important they are to the newspaper or the community. Billy understands, as I do now, that obits are news stories — or, at least they used to be. Billy and I share a horror over what’s happened to the obit page, not just locally but nationwide. Obits are advertisements now.

The other thing I have in common with Povich is dark humor. A crime novel needs humor to help ratchet up the suspense. Humor and tension are opposites, and when you put them together both become more intense, like colors on opposite sides of the color wheel.

EVEN THE BEST INVESTIGATIVE REPORTER CAN HAVE TROUBLE DIVINING THE MOTIVES OF ALL THE PLAYERS. IS THE OMNISCIENCE OF THE FICTION WRITER MORE SATISFYING?
Fiction and journalism are satisfying in different ways. Fiction is harder to write because you’re not divining the motives of the characters, you’re creating the motives. Journalism is easier be-cause all the facts already exist; you just find the facts and write the story. That’s why I never understood the jackass journalists who make stuff up (Jack Kelley, Stephen Glass, Jayson Blair, etc.) Making stuff up isn’t a shortcut — it’s more difficult.

In my case journalism has always informed my fiction. I spent two years doing prison interviews with Craig Price, the former teenaged killer who is maybe the most feared and despised person in Rhode Island history. The stuff left over in my imagination after those interviews became Gravewriter, the first book in the Povich series.

YOU’VE WRITTEN BOOKS SET IN MASSACHUSETTS AND BOOKS SET IN RHODE ISLAND. HOW DO THE STATES COMPARE AS BACKDROPS FOR FICTION?
My first two books were set in Lowell, Massachusetts. I think of them as Lowell books, specific to that fabulous, gritty old mill city.

In my Povich series, I’m trying to do for Providence what Robert B. Parker has done for Boston and Laura Lippman has done for Baltimore, which is to bring the city into the novel as a character.

Not every city has what it takes to make it in crime fiction, especially in a noir novel like Loot the Moon. A book draws on a city’s history to help set the tone of the story. Provi-dence was founded by a guy kicked out of Massachusetts for running his mouth and getting on people’s nerves, which endowed the city at birth with a rebellious streak and a take-no-crap attitude. I can picture Roger Williams flipping off Massachusetts as he’s being exiled, screaming: “And the horse thou rode in on!”

Providence also has literary chops as the home of horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, and still has an edgy reputation leftover from the days of the Mob. A celebrated history of political corrup-tion is also helpful, and I’m very appreciative. The city is also diverse, not only in ethnicity but in economics. My characters are mostly working class and the underclass, so it’s nice to have some rich folk around to rub them off.

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