The Sam Spade of Providence

When I attended my fiftieth high school reunion in New Jersey last May, one of my classmates handed me a copy of Bruce DeSilva’s Rogue Island. As I happen to be the only graduate of ’62 living in Rhode Island, my classmate thought I would find the book especially entertaining.
Indeed, this page-turner mystery does manage to maintain the feel of our quirky state through its 300 pages. DeSilva, a former reporter for The Providence Journal, sprinkles the text with such Rhode Island particulars as “Mr. Potato Head in his moustache-and-glasses incarnation” and the pepperoni pizzas at Casserta’s on Providence’s Federal Hill.
The protagonist of Rogue Island (Forge, 2010) is Liam Seamus Aloysius Mulligan; but he insists upon being called by his last name only, Mulligan. Mulligan, an early middle-aged reporter for a fictionalized version of the Journal, uses his investigative skills to get to the bottom of a series of unsolved arsons in a decaying Providence neighborhood.
We come to see Rhode Island through Mulligan’s jaundiced but keenly perceptive eyes. Thus, when a clerk at the state’s Corporate Division declines to say “You’re welcome” to Mulligan’s “Thank you,” he comments drolly, “State employees in jobs with limited graft potential are seldom happy in their work.”
Later on, after numerous twists of an increasingly convoluted plot, Mulligan offers his take on Rhode Island politics: “I grew up here…I know the state legislature and the Mafia inside out, and they’re pretty much the same thing. When I write about a politician buying votes or a cop on the pad, the jaded citizenry just chuckles and shrugs its shoulders…Rogue Island is a theme park for investigative reporters. It never closes, and I can ride the roller coaster free all day.” Cynical? Yes. But for those of us who have spent a good portion of our lives in Rhode Island, Mulligan’s cynicism carries with it the loud ring of truth.
Despite his disdain for much of our state’s incestuous political culture, Mulligan just can’t stop loving the place in which he grew up: “I wanted to go home…I missed the bellowing of parti-colored tugs that bulled rusting barges up the river. I missed the way the setting sun turned the marble dome of the statehouse the color of an antique gold coin…I missed knowing the names of almost everyone on the streets.”
In Cliff Walk (Forge, 2012), DeSilva’s second “Mulligan novel,” the author continues to spice his narrative with references which help define what it means to live in Rhode Island — the Capital Grille Restaurant for the well-heeled in Providence’s old Union Station, “John Ghiorse, Channel 10’s septuagenarian weatherman.”  Nevertheless, the tale is even darker than the one told in Rogue Island; for in Cliff Walk DeSilva takes the reader into the hidden and often gruesomely violent world of child pornography.
As was my experience with Rogue Island, I could not put Cliff Walk down — staying up past midnight to finish it. What I have found so compelling about DeSilva’s writing is not so much his well-crafted who-dun-it plots or his frequently insightful — and occasionally “inciteful” — comments about our little “state you can throw a shot put across” but rather his sensitive portrayal of the protagonist, Mulligan, the existentialist noir hero or, perhaps, anti-hero. With both novels I kept flipping the pages trying to figure out what makes Mulligan run.
Everything seems stacked against Mulligan: overworked, underpaid, in a profession under siege, still hitched to Dorcas in a disastrous marriage, unable to forge a healthy and enduring relationship with any other woman, suffering from an ulcer which demands that he cut way down on the consumption of his cherished booze and cigars. In short, Mulligan’s life is a mess. DeSilva’s genius is in his making the reader really care about a man whose deepest human relationship is with a woman named Rosie, dead and buried — at Swan Point, no less.
In many ways Mulligan is the Sam Spade of Providence. Sam Spade is the private detective who is the central character in Dashiell Hammett’s novel, The Maltese Falcon, which serves as the basis of the 1941 movie of the same name. This film noir classic, directed by John Huston, starred Humphrey Bogart as the hard-bitten detective.
Like Sam Spade, Mulligan carries his fight to the finish in the face of seemingly unassailable obstacles. Moreover, come what may, he will not compromise his principles. Despite his many failures in life and in love, Mulligan is the consummate survivor. To find out more about what makes Mulligan run, readers will have to wait for DeSilva’s next novel, which, I have been told, is in the works.

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