We asked Hardboiled Collective member Bruce DeSilva all about his newest novel, Cliff Walk.
Tell us what the novel is about.
Cliff Walk is the second novel in my hardboiled series featuring Liam Mulligan, an investigative reporter at a dying Providence, R.I. newspaper. The tale begins two years ago when prostitution was legal in the state (true story.) Politicians are making a lot of speeches about the shame of it, but they aren’t doing anything about it. Mulligan suspects that’s because they are being paid off. As he investigates, a child’s severed arm is discovered in a pile of garbage at a local pig farm. Then the body of an internet pornographer turns up at the bottom of
the famous Cliff Walk in nearby Newport. At first the killings seem random, but as Mulligan keeps digging, strange connections begin to emerge. Promised free sex with hookers if he minds his own business–and a savage beating if he doesn’t–Mulligan enlists the help of Thanks-Dad, the newspaper publisher’s son, and Attila the Nun, the state’s colorful attorney general, in his quest for the truth. What he learns will lead him to question his long-held beliefs about sexual morality, shake his tenuous religious faith, and leave him wondering who his real friends are. Cliff Walk is at once a hardboiled mystery and a serious exploration of sex and religion in the age of pornography.
How long did it take you to write the novel?
I began writing the book shortly after my first Mulligan novel, Rogue Island, winner of both the Edgar and the Macavity Awards, was published; and I finished it in six months. The third Mulligan novel, Providence Rag, is also finished and will be published sometime next year.
Did it take a lot of research?
Yes and no. In a sense, the Mulligan novels took forty years to research because they draw on everything I learned about Rhode Island’s cops, street thugs, journalists, corrupt politics, and organized crime figures during my 40-year journalism career, about a third of it spent at The Providence Journal, the state’s largest paper. I was well prepared to write these books. But when I started Cliff Walk, I did not know much about the inner workings of the state’s sex trade. So I spent many dreary evenings hanging out at Cheaters, the Cadillac Lounge and several of the state’s other strip clubs where prostitution was openly practiced, discretely questioning bartenders, bouncers, and naked hookers who kept climbing into my lap. Since I’m a married man, that could have had serious consequences. Lucky for me, my wife found my research hilarious.
Where did you come up with the plot; what inspired you?
Unlike Rogue Island, which is entirely made up, Cliff Walk was inspired by real events in our smallest state, a quirky place with a legacy of corruption that goes all the way back to one of the first colonial governors dining with Captain Kidd. In 1978, COYTE, a national organization representing sex workers, sued the state in federal court, alleging that its antiquated prostitution law was so vague that it could be interpreted as prohibiting sex between married couples. The suit was dismissed in 1980 after the state legislature rewrote the law, redefining the crime and reducing it from a felony to a misdemeanor. As it turned out, however, a key section of the new law was left out, supposedly by accident, when the legislature voted on it. Amazingly, however, more than a decade passed before anyone seemed to notice. Finally, in 1993, a lawyer representing several women arrested for prostitution at a local “spa” did something remarkable. He actually read the statute. The only word used to define the crime, he discovered, was “streetwalking.” Therefore, he argued, sex for pay was legal in Rhode Island as long as the transaction occurred indoors. When the courts agreed, the state’s strip clubs turned into brothels, and a whole bunch of new strip clubs and “massage parlors” opened up. Soon, tour buses full of eager customers began arriving from all over New England. At the height of the state’s legal sex trade, 30 brothels were operating openly. Rhode Island didn’t get around to fixing the law until a couple of years ago.
Which scenes did you enjoy writing the most?
When I sat down to write the novel, the first thing I typed was this: “Attila the nun thunked her can of Bud on the cracked Formica tabletop, stuck a Marlboro in her mouth, sucked in a lungful, and said ‘Fuck this shit.'” That sentence, which ended up as the opening to chapter five, had the hardboiled feel I wanted and gave me the confidence to keep writing. But the short final chapter, which portrays a weary Mulligan’s inner turmoil about the soul-wrenching things he witnessed during his investigation, is my favorite part of the book.
Who is your favorite among the characters in the novel?
I’m tempted to say Mulligan because he’s a lot like me–except that he’s 25 years younger and eight inches taller. He’s an investigative reporter; I used to be. He’s got a smart mouth; I get a lot of complaints about the same thing. Like me, he’s got a shifting sense of justice that allows him to work with bad people to bring worse people down. But I have a special fondness for Attila the Nun, a former Little Sisters of the Poor nun who forsakes her religious calling for the rough-and-tumble arena of Rhode Island politics.
I noticed places in the novel where your own life or interests end up in some scenes, like the appearance of your wife Patricia, and a dog with the same name as yours. You also included an appearance by Andrew Vachss and often mention crime writers you personally like. Could you tell us a bit about why you enjoy including these little nuggets?
I want my characters to be real people, and that means giving them interests beyond the job of investigating crimes. Since Mulligan is so much like me, it makes sense to give him similar tastes. So he’s a fan of the blues (The Tommy Castro Band, Jimmy Thackery and the Drivers, Buddy Guy.) He reads crime novels (Vachss, Michal Connelly, Ace Atkins.) He drinks beer (Killians.) He smokes cigars. He loves dogs, although his landlord won’t allow him to have one. Unlike me, he’s no fan of poetry, but his girlfriend is. So when she tries to read poetry to him or takes him to a poetry reading, I toss in a few lines. I suppose I could have tried to write a bit of poetry myself, but I’m no poet. I could have chosen a passage from another poet and then spent weeks trying to get permission to use it, but why go through all that trouble when I’ve got my own live-in poet? So I included a bit of writing from my wife, Patricia Smith, who is one of America’s finest poets.
Is there anything else you’d like to say about the novel?
The early notices have been gratifying, with both Publishers Weekly and Booklist giving Cliff Walk starred reviews. Publishers Weekly said, “Look for this one to garner more award nominations.” Booklist called the plot “exquisite” and added that the novel is “terrific on every level.” I just hope people enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.