Today’s spotlight is on Bruce DeSilva, the author of the hard-boiled Liam Mulligan crime novels.
His first novel, Rogue Island, won the Edgar and Macavity awards and was a finalist for the Anthony, Barry, and Shamus awards. The second, Cliff Walk, was recently published to rave pre-publication notices including starred reviews in Publishers Weekly and Booklist. It’s an enviable beginning, but Bruce has paid his dues. Before launching his career as a novelist, he worked as a journalist for 40 years, most recently as a senior editor and writing coach for The Associated Press. Stories he edited won virtually every major journalism prize including The Polk (twice), The Livingston (twice), and the ASNE. He also edited two Pulitzer finalists and helped edit a Pulitzer winner. He reviews books for the AP and is a master’s thesis adviser at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. His years of experience give his novels a polish and crispness that make them stand out from the crowd. Cliff Walk picks up not long after Rogue Island leaves off, but the books stand alone.
Want an appetizer? Here’s a brief description of Cliff Walk, followed by the opening chapters:
Prostitution has been legal in Rhode Island for more than a decade, and Liam Mulligan, an old-school investigative reporter at the dying Providence newspaper, suspects the governor has been taking payoffs to keep it that way. But this isn’t the only story making headlines. A child’s severed arm is discovered in a pile of garbage at a pig farm. Then the body of an internet pornographer is found sprawled on the rocks at the base of Newport’s famous Cliff Walk. At first, the killings seem random, but as Mulligan keeps digging into the state’s thriving sex business, strange connections emerge. Promised free sex with hookers if he minds his own business — and a beating if he doesn’t — Mulligan enlists Thanks-Dad, the newspaper publisher’s son, and Attila the Nun, the state’s colorful attorney general, in his quest for the truth. What Mulligan learns will lead him to question his beliefs about sexual morality, shake his tenuous religions faith, and leave him wondering who his friends are. “Cliff Walk” is at once a hard-boiled mystery and an exploration of sex and religion in the age of pornography.
Cliff Walk, the opening chapters:
Cosmo Scalici hollered over the grunts and squeals of 3,000 hogs rooting in his muddy outdoor pens. “Right here’s where I found it, poking outta this pile of garbage. Gave me the creeps, the way the fingers curled like it wanted me to come closer.”
“What did you do?” I hollered back.
“Jumped the fence and tried to snatch it, but one of the sows beat me to it.”
“Couldn’t get it away from her?”
“You shittin’ me? Ever try to wrestle lunch from a 600-pound hog? I whacked her on the snout with a shovel my guys use to muck the pens. She didn’t even blink.”
To mask the stink, we puffed on cigars, his a Royal Jamaica, mine a Cohiba.
“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph,” he said. “The nails were painted pink, and it was so small. The little girl that arm came from couldn’t a been more than nine years old. The sow just wolfed it down. You could hear the bones crunch in her teeth.”
“Where‟s the hog now, Cosmo?”
“State cops shot her in the head, loaded her in a van, and took off. Said they was gonna open her stomach, see what’s left of the evidence. I told ‘em, that‟s $250 worth of chops and bacon wholesale, so you damn well better send me a check, ‘less you want me to sue your ass.”
“Any other body parts turn up?”
“The cops spent a couple hours raking through the garbage. Didn’t find nothin’. If there was any more, it’s all pig shit by now.”
We kept smoking as we slopped across his twelve acres to the sprawling white farmhouse with green shutters where I’d left my car. Once this was woodland and meadow, typical of the countryside in the little town of Pascoag in Rhode Island’s sleepy northwest corner. But Cosmo had bulldozed his whole place into an ugly mess of stumps, mud, and stones.
“How do you suppose the arm got here?” I asked.
“The staties kept asking the same question, like I’m supposed to fuckin’ know.”
He scowled as I scrawled the quote in my reporter‟s notebook.
“Look, Mulligan,” he said. “My company? Scalisi Recycling? It’s a three mil a year operation. My twelve trucks collect garbage from schools, jails, and restaurants all over the Rhode Island. That arm coulda been tossed in a dumpster anywhere between Woonsocket and Westerly.”
I knew it was true. Scalici Recycling was a fancy name for a company that picked up garbage so pigs could reprocess it into bacon, but there was big money in it. I’d written about the operation five years ago when the Mafia tried to muscle in. Cosmo drilled one hired thug though the temple with a bolt gun used to slaughter livestock and put another in a coma with his ham-sized fists. He called it trash removal. The cops called it self-defense.
I’d parked my heap beside is his new Ford pick-up. Mine had a New England Patriots decal on the rear window. His had a bumper sticker that said:
If You Don’t Like Manure, Move To The City.
“Getting along any better with the folks around here?” I asked as I jerked open my car door.
“Nah. They’re still whining about the smell. Still complaining about the noise from the garbage trucks. That guy over there?” he said, pointing at a raised ranch across the road. “He’s a real asshole. That one down there? Total jerk. This whole area’s zoned agricultural. They build their houses out here and want to pretend they‟re in fuckin’ Newport? Fuck them and the minivans they rode in on.”
A prowl car slipped behind me on America’s Cup Avenue, and when I swung onto Thames Street, it hugged my bumper. A left turn onto Prospect Hill didn’t shake it, so when I reached the red octagonal sign at the corner of Bellevue Avenue, I broke with local custom and came to a complete stop. Then I turned left, and the red flashers lit me up.
I rolled the window down and watched in the side mirror as a Newport city cop unfolded himself from the cruiser and swaggered toward me, the heels of his boots clicking on the pavement, his leather gun belt creaking. I shoved the paperwork at him before he asked for it. He snatched it without a word, walked back to the cruiser, and ran my license and registration. I listened in on my police scanner and was relieved to learn that my Rhode Island driver’s license was valid and that the heap I’d been driving for years had not been reported stolen.
I heard the gun belt creak again, and the cop, whose name tag identified him as Officer Phelps, was back, handing my paperwork through the window.
“May I ask what business you have in this neighborhood tonight, Mr. Mulligan?”
Ordinarily, I don‟t pick fights with lawmen packing high-powered side arms. Anyone who’d covered cops and robbers as long as I had could recognize the .357 Sig Sauer on Officer Phelps’s hip. But he’d had no legitimate reason to pull me over.
“Have you been drinking tonight, sir?”
“May I have permission to search your vehicle?”
Officer Phelps dropped his right hand to the butt of his pistol and gave me a hard look.
“Please step out of the car, sir.”
I did, affording him the opportunity to admire how fine I looked in a black Ralph Lauren tuxedo. He hesitated a moment, wondering if I might actually be somebody; but tuxedoes can be rented, and a somebody would have had better wheels. I put my palms against the side of the car and assumed the position. He patted me down, sighing when he failed to turn up a crack pipe, lock picks, or a gravity knife.
When he was done, he wrote me up for running the sign I’d stopped at and admonished me to drive carefully. I was lucky he didn’t shoot me. In this part of Newport, driving a car worth less than $80,000 was a capital offense.
I fired the ignition and rolled past the marble and terra cotta dreams of 19th century robber barons: The Breakers, Marble House, Rosecliff, Kingscote, The Elms, Hunter House, Beechwood, Ochre Court, Chepstow, Chateau-su-Mer. And my favorite, Clarendon Court, where Claus von Bulow either did or did not try to murder his heiress wife by injecting her with insulin, depending on whether you believe the first jury or the second. Here, sculpted cherubs frolic in formal gardens. Greek gods cling to gilded cornices and peer across the Atlantic Ocean. Massive oak doors open at a touch, and vast dining rooms rise to frescoed ceilings. A few of these shrines to hubris and bad taste have been turned into museums, but the rest remain among the most exclusive addresses in the world, just as they have been for more than hundred years.
Men who ripped fortunes from the grasps of competitors built the Newport mansions. Cornelius Vanderbilt, who stitched the face of America with rails and ties. Big Jim Fair, who dug silver out of Nevada‟s Comstock Lode. Edward J. Berwind, who fueled American industry with Appalachian coal. They were doers, and they built these forty-, sixty-, and eighty-room monstrosities as retreats, playgrounds, and monuments to themselves.
But that was generations ago. Today, those who live in the mansions are scions of the doers, living on somebody else’s money in somebody else’s dream. They try to keep the Gilded Age alive in a blaze of crystal chandeliers, the scent of lilies drifting over elegantly attired dinner guests. And they keep the likes of me out with ivy-covered walls, hand-wrought iron gates, and a vigilant local constabulary.
Except tonight. Tonight, I had an invitation.
Just past Beechwood, the Astors’ Italianate summer cottage, I slid behind a shimmering silver Porsche in a line of cars drifting toward the gilded iron gate to the grounds of Belcourt Castle. One by one, they turned into the torch-lit, crushed stone drive: a Maserati, a Bentley, a Ferrari, a Lamborghini, a Maybach, another Bentley, and something sleek that may have been a Bugatti, although I‟d never seen one before. Trailing them was a poverty-stricken sad sack in a mere Mercedes Benz. I wondered if Officer Phelps had hassled him, too.
Up ahead, liveried valets opened car doors, grasped bejeweled hands to help ladies from their fairytale carriages, climbed in, and floated away to distant parking lots. Then a nine-year-old Bronco with rust pocks on the hood, a crushed passenger-side fender, and a diseased muffler rumbled up, and I got out.
“Be careful with it this time,” I said as I flipped the keys to a valet. “Look what happened the last time you parked it.”
I strolled through the courtyard to a heavy oak door where an Emperor Penguin with a clipboard was checking the guest list. He studied my engraved invitation and scowled.
“Surely you are not Mrs. Emma Shaw of The Providence Dispatch.”
“What gave me away?”
“Do this job as long as I have,” he said, “and you develop a sixth sense about this sort of thing.” He looked me up and down. “I can see that your eyebrows haven‟t been plucked lately.” He paused to rub his chin with his big left wing. “And your perfume is a little off. The last dame to walk through here was wearing Shalimar. You smell like Eau d‟ Cigars.”
“You don’t know any women who smoke cigars?”
“Not the kind made out of tobacco,” he said. From his snicker, I could tell he took special pride in that one. “I’m sorry, sir, but I can’t admit you.”
“Oh yeah? Well this isn‟t the only mansion in town, buster.” I turned away to retrieve Secretariat, my pet name for the Bronco.
I’d drawn the assignment to cover the annual Derby Ball after Emma, our society reporter, quit last week, taking a buyout that trimmed 30 more jobs from a newsroom already cut to the marrow by last year’s layoffs. Ed Lomax, the city editor, had pretended he was doing me a favor.
“I can guarantee you the cover of the living section,” he said.
“Let me get this straight,” I said. “We can no longer afford to have our baseball writer travel with the Red Sox. We don‟t have a medical writer or a religion writer anymore. Our Washington bureau is down to one reporter. And this is a priority?”
“The ball is the final event of the week-long Newport Jumping Derby,” he said. “It’s one of the biggest hoity-toity events of the year.”
“So they say, but who gives a shit?”
“Other than the horses?”
“I’m a little busy with real stories right now, boss, I’m trolling through the governor’s campaign contribution list to figure out who’s buying him off this year. I’m looking into the toxic waste dumping in Briggs Marsh. And I’m still trying to figure out how that little girl’s arm ended up as pig food last week.”
“Look, Mulligan. Sometimes you have to do things you don’t want to do. It’s part of being a professional.”
“And I have to do this particular thing because . . . ?”
“Because the publisher’s 17-year-old niece is one of the equestrians.”
But if I couldn‟t get in, I couldn‟t be blamed for not covering it. Lomax didn‟t need to hear how readily I took no for an answer. I’d almost made it out of the courtyard when I heard high heels clicking behind me and a woman’s voice calling my name. I quickened my pace. I was asking a valet where I could find my car when the high heels clattered to a stop beside me and their owner, a tiny middle-aged woman who’d had one facelift too many, took me by the arm.
“I am so sorry for the confusion, Mr. Mulligan. Your Mr. Lomax called to say you would be taking Miss Shaw’s place, and I neglected to amend the guest list.”
“And you are?”
“Hillary Proctor, but you can call me ‘Hill.’ I’m the publicity director for the Derby, and I am honored that you are joining us this evening. I do hope my lapse hasn’t caused you any embarrassment.”
“Look, Hill,” I said as she escorted me past the shrugging penguin and into the mansion’s antechamber, “I’m supposed to write about the important people who are here and describe what they are wearing, but I can’t tell the difference between a Vanderbilt draped in a Paris original and a trailer park queen dressed by J.C. Penney.”
“Of course you can’t. You’re the young man who writes about mobsters and crooked politicians. I love your work, darling.
“So you’re the one,” I said.
“Oh, I do love a man with a sense of humor. How would you like to be my escort for the evening? I’ll whisper the names of the worthies and what they are wearing in your ear, and the gossips will be all a twitter about the mysterious man on my arm.”
“That’s a very gracious offer, Hill, but I like to work alone. Do you think y ou could just jot everything down while I wander around and soak up a little color?”
“Certainly,” she said, not looking the least bit disappointed.
I handed her my notebook, strolled across the antechamber, and stepped into a huge dining room with a mosaic pink marble floor and a wall of stained glass windows that bristled with Christian iconography. Men in tuxedos and women in ball gowns were loading china plates with shrimp, roast beef, and several dishes I couldn’t identify, all of it tastefully displayed on a 16-foot-long walnut trestle table.
The room was illuminated by nine crystal chandeliers. The grand dame who owned the house liked to boast that the largest of them had once graced the parlor of an 18th century Russian count. The hunky plumber she had impetuously married and then divorced tattled that it had actually been scavenged from a dilapidated movie house in Worcester, Mass. I made a mental note to include that tidbit of Newport lore in my story.
The Dispatch’s ethics policy prohibited reporters from accepting freebies, but the roast beef looked too good to pass up. I scarfed some down and then followed the sound of music up a winding oak staircase to the second floor. There, four chandeliers blazed from a vaulted cream-colored ceiling that arched 30 feet above a parquet ballroom floor. A fireplace, its limestone and marble chimneypiece carved to resemble a French chateau, commanded one end of the room. The hearth was big enough to roast a stegosaurus or cremate New England Patriots’ offensive line. At the other end of the room, a band I wasn’t hip enough to recognize played hip-hop music I wasn’t tone-deaf enough to like.
I snatched a flute of champagne from a circulating waiter and circumnavigated the dance floor, spotting the mayors of Newport, Providence, New Haven, and Boston; the governors of Rhode Island, Connecticut, Vermont, Kentucky, and New Jersey; one of Rhode Island‟s U.S. senators; both of its congressmen; three bank presidents; four Brown University deans; twelve captains of industry; two Kennedys; a Bush; and a herd of athletic-looking young women.
I found a spot against the wall between a couple of suits of armor and watched the mayor of Boston try to dance the Soulja Boy with a teenage girl whose last name might have been DuPont or Firestone. When a waiter glided by, I nabbed another flute, but it just made me thirsty for a Killian’s at the White Horse Tavern. After observing the festivities for a half-hour, I figured I’d seen enough.
I was looking for Hill so I could retrieve my notebook when I spotted Salvatore Maniella. He was leaning against a corner of the huge chimneypiece, as out of place as Mel Gibson at a Seder. What was a creep like him doing at a swanky event like this? I was still lurking a few minutes later when our governor strolled up and tapped him on the shoulder. They crossed the ballroom together and slipped into a room behind the bandstand. I gave them 20 seconds and then followed.
Through the half-open door I could make out red flock wallpaper, a G clef design in gold-leaf on the ceiling, and a grand piano—the mansion’s music room, which the current owner had proudly restored to its original garishness. Maniella and the governor had the room to themselves, but they stood close, whispering conspiratorially in one another’s ears. After a moment, they grinned and shook hands.
I slipped away as they turned toward the door.
To learn more about Bruce and his writing, check his website and his blog.