Why Liam Mulligan, the Hero of My Crime Novels, Lost his Newspaper Job

bruce-desilva-2Bruce DeSilva grew up in a parochial Massachusetts mill town where metaphors and alliteration were always in short supply. Nevertheless, his crime fiction has won the Edgar and Macavity Awards; has been listed as a finalist for the Shamus, Anthony, and Barry Awards; and has been published in ten foreign languages. His short stories have appeared in Akashic Press’s noir anthologies, and his book reviews for The Associated Press appear in hundreds of publications. Previously, he was a journalist for 40 years, writing and editing stories that won virtually every journalism prize including the Pulitzer. His latest novel, just published by Forge, is The Dread Line.


In 1968, straight out of college, I went to work as a reporter for The Providence Journal. It was, at the time, the finest small-city metropolitan newspaper in America. Its large news staff of about 340 was bursting with energy, writing talent, and investigative know-how. And its private ownership had the will to take on the state’s corrupt politics and its powerful organized crime family.

The paper was also bursting with money. Sixty-five percent of the Rhode Island’s households took the paper – the highest state-wide household penetration of any daily paper ever. Each edition was much fatter with news and ads than the Sunday New York Times is today, and the Journal’s Sunday edition was so heavy that paperboys couldn’t carry it. It had to be lugged door to door by adults driving station wagons.

After working there for 13 years, mostly as an investigative reporter, I moved on to a career that took me from New York City to London and from China to the Arctic Circle. But I never had more fun being a journalist than I did during my time in Providence.

So when I took early retirement from The Associated Press seven years ago to write crime novels, it never occurred to me to set them anywhere but in quirky, corruption-plagued Providence, Rhode Island. And I my hero couldn’t be a cop or a private eye. He had to be an investigative reporter for The Providence Dispatch, a fictional newspaper based loosely on my first employer.

I wanted each novel in the series to work a suspenseful entertainment, of course, but I also had a serious purpose in mind.

Today, the newspaper business is circling the drain, succumbing to social and economic forces unleased by the internet; and nothing is on the horizon to replace newspapers as honest and comprehensive brokers of news and information. I can’t begin to tell you how bad this is for the American democracy. So I decided to use the popular form of the crime novel to chronicle the slow death of a once-great newspaper and to dramatize what happens to a community as it loses its most reliable source of news.

In the popular culture, reporters are often portrayed as vultures, but the vast majority of them are hard-working, low-paid professionals dedicated to the difficult task of reporting the truth in a world populated by powerful people who lie like you and I breathe. As Mulligan put it in Rogue Island, the first novel in the series, journalism is a calling, “like the priesthood, but without the sex.”

It was my hope that as my readers followed the skill and dedication with which Mulligan worked, they would gain a greater appreciation for what is being lost as newspapers fade into history. I wanted the series as a whole to be, in part, a lyrical elegy to the business that Mulligan and I both love.

In each of the first four novels in the series, the financial condition of The Providence Dispatch deteriorates, mirroring what is happening to most newspapers in real life. More and more of Mulligan’s colleagues get laid off, and he has to fight with his editors to carve out time from the routine of getting a newspaper out to pursue the investigative stories he lives for. By the third novel in the series, he ends up having to do most of this work on his personal time.

But as I was completing A Scourge of Vipers, the fourth novel in the series, it became evident that Mulligan’s newspaper career was coming to an end. The Dispatch had been sold off to a predatory conglomerate that had no interest in investigative stories and saw news as nothing more than something to fill the spaces between the ads. And Mulligan’s squabbles with his editors were becoming increasingly bitter, making life untenable for both of them.

By the time that novel ended, Mulligan had been fired in spectacular fashion, accused of a journalism ethics violation that he had not committed. So the beginning of The Dread Line, the new novel in the series, finds Mulligan (like so many newspaper journalists who have been fired or laid off in recent years) piecing together a new life for himself.

the-dread-lineIn Mulligan’s case, it’s a life that straddles both sides of the law. He’s getting a little part-time work from his friend McCracken’s private detective agency. He’s picking up beer and cigar money by freelancing for a local news website. And he’s earning some illegal cash looking after his semi-retired mobster friend’s bookmaking business.

Economic forces may have driven Mulligan out of the newspaper business, but he still manages to find trouble—when it’s not finding him.

He’s feuding with a feral cat that keeps dropping its kills on his porch. He’s obsessed with a baffling jewelry heist. And he’s enraged that someone in town is torturing animals. All this keeps distracting him from a big case that needs his full attention.

The New England Patriots, still shaken by a series of murder charges against one of their star players (true story), hire McCracken and Mulligan (not a true story) to check the background of a college star they are considering drafting. By all accounts, the player is a choir boy, so at first the job seems routine. But as soon as they start asking questions, they get payback. The player, it seems, has something to hide—and someone is willing to kill to make sure it stays secret.