Providence Rag

By Bruce DeSilva

(Tom Doherty Associates, $25.99, 352 pages)

Who is this author?

If you are a longtime reader of the Hartford Courant, you may recall Bruce DeSilva’s name. He was a reporter and editor there, and also served as the paper’s writing coach (in the dear, departed days when newspapers were healthy and profitable enough to have such positions.)   He went on to serve as writing coach world-wide for The Associated Press, where he edited many prestigious prize-winning stories. Earlier, he had been an investigative reporter at The Providence Journal.  DeSilva has been a consultant for more than 50 newspapers, taught at the University of Michigan and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and lectured at Harvard. His wife is the noted poet Patricia Smith.

Those who benefitted from Bruce’s help are not surprised to learn that after 41 years as a journalist, he has launched a successful career as a writer of mystery novels, featuring Liam Mulligan, an investigative reporter at a dying (of course) newspaper in Rhode Island. The first Mulligan novel, Rogue Island, won the 2011 Edgar and Macavity Awards for Best First Novel. Providence Rag is the third in the series.

What is this book about?

This novel was Inspired by a true story and a journalist’s ethical dilemma. Mulligan and his colleague Mason know that the Rhode Island judicial system, faced with laws saying even vicious killers who murder as juveniles must be released when they turn 21, is getting around the law by letting prison officials repeatedly – and falsely — charge this killer of five people with crimes committed in prison, in order to keep him behind bars. Mulligan and Mason don’t want to see the man freed to kill again, but they can’t condone the false charges that are keeping him locked up. Can they expose this injustice and at the same time find a way to keep the killer behind bars? It’s a fascinating battle between truth and justice: can both be served?

Why you’ll like it:

DeSilva deftly handles the down and dirty details of crime reporting and the toughness of working in a newsroom in this hard-hitting novel. The moral dilemma here will have readers wondering where they stand themselves, as the characters he created seemingly work at cross-purposes to pursue equally worthy, if contradictory, goals. The people are believable, the dialogue is delicious and the dilemma is a real one. If you like Providence Rag, be sure to read the two earlier books in the series, “Rogue Island” and “Cliff Walk.”

What others are saying:

Booklist says in a starred review:  “The third entry in this gritty newspaper series spans 20 years, from 1992 to 2012, at the start of which a teenage male commits five gruesome murders, is imprisoned for them, and, years later, becomes the center of a campaign to free prisoners convicted as juveniles. Liam Mulligan, the series hero, is a longtime newspaperman for a Providence, Rhode Island, paper who has witnessed the reduction of resources and the firings of friends, all the while still loving the imperiled business. Mulligan’s coverage of the murders in 1992 was partially responsible for finding the killer. Under the state’s criminal code, the killer should have been released at age 21, but creative fiddling has kept this killer safely behind bars. The son of the paper’s publisher wants to launch an investigation into what he sees as corruption, making the killer’s freedom a looming possibility. The ethical dilemma seems a bit forced, but it does raise the possibility of more mayhem to come. But there is real suspense here. And Mulligan’s character, played off the vicissitudes of his job, is skillfully layered and engaging. DeSilva, who worked for decades at the AP, won an Edgar for Best First Novel for Rogue Island (2010). He knows of what he writes.

Publishers Weekly’s starred review says: “Edgar-winner DeSilva melds moral dilemmas with a suspenseful plot in his third novel featuring Providence, R.I.–based reporter Liam Mulligan (after 2012’s Cliff Walk), his best yet. In 1992, when Mulligan is still handling the sports beat for the Providence Dispatch, an editor assigns him to help cover a gory double murder. Mulligan succeeds in getting more information from the police about the slaughter of Becky Medeiros and her four-year-old daughter, after the paper’s lead crime reporter fails. Two years later, a similar crime claims three more lives—a mother and her two daughters, ages 8 and 12. Mulligan ends up cracking the case, but the main action concerns the fate of the convicted killer, who is due to be released after six years thanks to a legal fluke. When a colleague discovers that efforts to lengthen the incarceration may have been unethical, Mulligan must find a way to balance his passion for the truth with his desire to protect the public,”

Says Kirkus review: “DeSilva’s third visit to Rhode Island tracks the potentially dire consequences of trying a 15-year-old killer as a juvenile instead of locking him up and throwing away the key. The first time Liam Mulligan (Cliff Walk, 2012, etc.) gets pulled off the sports desk at the Providence Dispatch, he’s sent out to cover the brutal murder of Becky Medeiros and her daughter Jessica, 4, in suburban Warwick. Their killer, not exactly a criminal mastermind, left so much trace evidence at the scene that it’s a simple matter to confirm that he’s the perp when Connie Stuart and her two daughters are slaughtered two years later. Mulligan, who’s made a friend and confidant of Andy Jennings, the cop in charge of the case, provides some sharp observations and asks a few good questions of his own. The result is the arrest and conviction of neighborhood teen Kwame Diggs. Tried as a juvenile, Diggs is supposed to be released when he’s 21. But he’s still in a maximum security cell 18 years later because the prison authorities have found one infraction after another to charge him with. When Edward Anthony Mason III, son of the Dispatch’s publisher, gets it into his crusading head to investigate whether the charges that have extended Diggs’ prison term are on the level, he unleashes a firestorm of protest from right-wing radio firebrand Iggy Rock, thousands of subscribers the struggling Dispatch can ill afford to lose, and of course Mulligan himself, who sees no reason that a sociopath like Diggs should ever be freed, especially now that he’s had nearly two decades to choose his next targets and reflect on the mistakes that got him caught. DeSilva, drawing on a real-life case, pours on the ethical complications with such unrelenting suspense that you’ll be glad you don’t live in Rhode Island. Only the last few chapters are a letdown from the general excellence.”

“Providence Rag” is an unflinching look at how doing the right thing can have dire reverberations. DeSilva’s other novels, including the Edgar-winning “Rogue Island,” have shown Mulligan secure in his career as an investigative reporter, an old-school newspaperman who thrives on the deadline pressure and the chase of a good story covering the nooks and crannies of his hometown, cultivating sources from various strata of society. . . . The remorseless killer was to have been released years earlier because of a legal loophole. But years continue to be added to his sentence because he has assaulted guards numerous time and smuggled in drugs. But Ed Mason, another reporter, believes those new charges have been fabricated by the warden and the prosecutor to keep the killer behind bars. Is the conspiracy real or a ploy by the killer to be released? . . . Mulligan and Mason each want the truth, and both know the consequences of their quests,” says

When is it available?

This compelling novel is waiting for you at the Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Mark Twain branch.

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