There is a moment in Bruce DeSilva's new book, Cliff Walk, when the novel's hero — a wisecracking, coffee-swilling investigative reporter named Liam Mulligan — flops on his mattress to read a book by former Tampa Tribune reporter Ace Atkins. "Crime novels were his parachute out of the newspaper business," Mulligan says. "If only I had that kind of talent."
‘PROVIDENCE IS DIFFERENT’ DeSilva.
DeSilva is a former Providence Journal reporter who turned to crime novels as, you might say, a "parachute out of the newspaper business." And the Ace Atkins scene is one of many moments when readers (especially local ones) might have trouble distinguishing fact from fiction.
Liam Mulligan works at a once-revered Fountain Street newspaper called the Providence Dispatch. He pals around with a short-haired, outspoken attorney general nicknamed "Attila the Nun," who bears a striking resemblance to former Rhode Island Attorney General Arlene Violet. And he punches bags at boxer Vinny Pazienza's gym until his knuckles bleed.
DeSilva played coy during a recent stop at the Providence Public Library to promote the book. Attila the Nun shares only a nickname with Violet, he averred, and the Providence Dispatch, which Mulligan describes as "circling the drain," is in much more dire circumstances than the ProJo. But Mulligan, DeSilva admitted, is definitely him. A younger, taller, wittier, version of him.
DeSilva had just finished leading a public radio correspondent on a tour of Mulligan's Providence. They stopped in Mount Hope, where Mulligan grew up; hit Hope High, where he went to school; and visited Caserta Pizza, where he dines. "Most crime novels are set in big, anonymous cities, like Los Angeles or New York or Chicago," DeSilva said, "but Providence is different." It's cosmopolitan, yet claustrophobic. It's hopelessly corrupt, yet pious enough to print "HOPE" on its state flag.
As fans filed into the room, DeSilva sat near a table with bright orange stacks of Cliff Walk and explained how Rhode Island's infamous indoor-prostitution loophole inspired his latest book. After a local strip-club baron is shot through the neck (his body is splattered on the rocks at the landmark of the book's title), Mulligan sets off on a statewide odyssey — from the Chad Brown projects in Providence, to a porn studio in West Warwick, to a pig farm in Pascoag — to nail down the story.
Like his 2010 debut, Rogue Island, Cliff Walk is an elegy to a dying newspaper industry. Mulligan's beloved Dispatch is shuttering bureaus, laying off reporters, and eliminating its Saturday print edition. When a local bookie places the over-under for the paper's survival at three years, Mulligan puts 50 bucks on the under. Even Mulligan's lofty ideas about journalism are strained by the novel's end. He has an epiphany during a conversation with a pornographer that their businesses aren't so different. Both are fending off online content aggregators and consumers who expect their product for free.
A couple of DeSilva's old cronies from the Journal — long-time political columnist M. Charles Bakst and reporter Don Sockol — were in attendance at the Providence Public Library. They sat in rapt delight as DeSilva read a scene about a shootout between a young thug and a party of off-duty cops at a local strip club called the Tongue and Groove.