Rhode Island’s man of mystery

 Projo reporter Mark Arsenault carves a budding sideline in fiction
December 14, 2006 9:30:13 AM

Billy Povich should be smiling.

The hard-luck obit writer has just made his literary debut, in Gravewriter (St. Martin’s Press), a fast-paced mystery that represents a promising new chapter in Providence Journal reporter Mark Arsenault’s budding sideline as a fiction writer. With a tasty blend of hard-boiled noir and flat-out idiosyncrasy, the book is the first of Arsenault’s three mysteries to use Providence as the setting, and the backing of St. Martin’s Minotaur imprint should help to boost his readership.

PROVIDENCE PALETTE: Arsenault’s adopted home of Rhode Island offers a rich vein of fodder, for both journalists and mystery writers.

While Povich and Arsenault share a strong belief in the mission of the Fourth Estate, the author shows no outward signs of his protagonist’s periodic appetite for self-destructive behavior.

On the contrary, the fortunes of the native of a small working town about 50 miles west of Boston have steadily ascended since he came to Rhode Island in 1998, attracted by the Journal’s tradition in long-form reporting. Besides finding a useful place to practice journalism, Arsenault, 39, met his fiancé, writerly standout Jennifer Levitz, now a reporter in the Boston bureau of the Wall Street Journal, at the ProJo, and the colorful state offers a seemingly unending vein upon which to draw in distilling the further tales of Billy Povich.

Where else, for example, could a reporter working the State House beat be credited with saving the life of a seemingly unremarkable state senator, John Celona of North Providence, who subsequently became a central figure — and is currently awaiting sentencing — in an ongoing Smith Hill influence-peddling investigation?

Journalism figures prominently in Arsenault’s career as a mystery writer, on several levels. His first book, Spiked (Poisoned Pen Press, 2003) was inspired when an editor at the Sun of Lowell, Massachusetts, rejected his pitch to do a story on the hidden world of heroin addicts residing under a bridge near that city’s downtown. And Gravewriter marks a clever double-reference, not just to Povich’s desire to kill the retired police officer that he blames for his wife’s death, but also his particular assignment at a Providence-based daily.

The book, published November 28, took flight after Arsenault spent more than a year developing a novelistic three-part 2004 series about Craig Price, who, before turning 16, had killed four Warwick neighbors in the late 1980s. As part of his research, Arsenault conducted between 50 and 60 interviews with Price in the high-security unit of the Adult Correctional Institutions in Cranston. In something of an inversion of this real-life tale, he says, “I wanted to have a good person wrestling with a life or death question.”

The author downplays his place in the crowded field of mystery writers, likening himself, in a baseball metaphor, to “a poor man’s Julio Lugo.” Yet fiction writing has become a passion for the scribe, whose genial self-effacement obscures the discipline necessary to steadily face the keyboard before or after the workday — a practice he dubs “mind over ass.”

While anyone would have a hard time emulating the success of Robert B. Parker, the successful author of roughly 50 mysteries, some of the Arsenault’s friends believe he’s up to the challenge of eventually writing fiction on a full-time basis. The writer doesn’t encourage such talk himself, citing the rich supply of ideas that come with working as a journalist in Rhode Island. But with the publication of what he considers his best book thus far, Arsenault says, “I think this is a key moment.”

An ink-stained wretch
Arsenault is steeped in the world of newspapering, having worked as a paperboy, a section-stuffer, a newspaper delivery truck driver, and a paste-up artist on the way to becoming a reporter. According to a brief bio posted on the ProJo’s Web site in 1999, “Nobody outside the newspaper business ever wanted to hire him.”

His parents met at the Gardner News, a small daily in a former chair-manufacturing capital in northern central Massachusetts, and Arsenault grew up in the neighboring town of Templeton. He still recalls the intoxicating smell of ink from childhood visits to the newspaper with his father, an ad salesman.

After studying English and philosophy at Assumption College, “the second-greater Catholic college in all of Worcester,” Arsenault briefly worked for a weekly there, got laid off, and then took a reporting job at the News. “I just wanted to be a writer and I couldn’t think of any other place that would pay you do that,” he recalled during an interview last week at Murphy’s, a deli and bar near the Journal’s office in downtown Providence. “I thought it would be something to try for a little while.”

After three years, Arsenault moved to a daily in Marlboro, Massachusetts, and then, in 1994, to the (Lowell) Sun, before getting hired at the ProJo in 1998. He applied to the paper after reading a narrative story by Gerald Carbone — describing how a doctor had saved the life of a state trooper with a gunshot wound in the stomach — which the American Society of Newspaper Editors published in a collection of award-winning work. The chronological telling of the dramatic tale — a sharp contrast from the inverted pyramid of conventional reporting — struck Arsenault as a revelation, and he wanted to learn how to do such work.

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