What’s a Mystery Writer to Do When His Hero Loses His Crime-Fighting Job?
A lot of mystery story heroes used to do something else for a living.
For example, Robert B. Parker’s series character, Jesse Stone, was a professional baseball player before he became a police chief. Ace Atkins’s Quinn Colson was a soldier before he became a small-town lawman. Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder was a cop before he became a private eye.
But what nearly all of the job-changing heroes of crime fiction have in common is that their old jobs are part of their backstories. They already had begun their new lives when their creators started telling their stories.
The lone exception I can think of (although with tens of thousands of mystery novels out there, there must be a few more) is Bill Loehfelm’s Maureen Coughlin, who was introduced as a Staten Island barmaid in The Devil She Knows and then morphed into a rookie New Orleans cop in The Devil in Her Way.
With a dearth of role models for inspiration, I wasn’t sure what to do when Liam Mulligan, the hero of my hard-boiled crime novels, got fired from his investigative reporter job at the fictional Providence (R.I.) Dispatch in A Scourge of Vipers, the fourth book in the Edgar Award-winning series. But I had to figure out something. I owed my publisher another Mulligan yarn.
I hadn’t planned on Mulligan getting fired. Fact is, when I write I don’t plan anything. I just set my characters in motion to see what will happen. But looking back on it, I can see that Mulligan’s firing was inevitable.
When I first made him an investigative reporter at a struggling metropolitan newspaper, I had my reasons. I’d been an investigative reporter in Providence, too, and they say you should write what you know. I liked the fact that reporters can’t bring people in for questioning, get court orders to search houses and businesses, or compel people to testify, because it sometimes makes their jobs more challenging than police work. I liked it that unlike private eyes, reporters are supposed to adhere to a strict code of ethical conduct.
But the main reason is that I wanted my novels to be not only suspenseful and entertaining but to also address a serious social issue.
American newspapers are circling the drain. In recent years, many have shut down, and economic changes brought on by the internet have forced virtually all of them to slash the size of their news staffs. Soon, many more will be gone. This is a slow-motion disaster for the American democracy, because there is nothing on the horizon to replace newspapers as honest and comprehensive brokers of news and information.
It has always bothered me that in the popular culture, journalists are usually portrayed as vultures. The truth is that the vast majority of them are hard-working, low-paid professionals dedicated to the difficult task of reporting the truth in a world full of powerful people who lie like you and I breathe.
So it was my hope that as my readers followed the skill and dedication with which Mulligan worked, they would gain a greater appreciation what is being lost as newspapers fade into history. I strove to make the first four novels in this series both compelling yarns and a lyrical epitaph for the business that Mulligan and I both love.
With each novel in the series, The Dispatch’s finances became increasingly desperate, more and more of Mulligan’s colleagues got laid off, and his own job security grew perilous. As I was completing A Scourge of Vipers, it became evident that his 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 something to fill the spaces between the ads. And Mulligan’s squabbles with his editors were 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 as I sat down to write The Dread Line, I needed to invent a new life for him.
Mulligan had always said that he was a newspaper man because he could never be good at anything else. As he saw it, being a journalist was his calling, like the priesthood but without the sex. He figured that if he couldn’t be a reporter, he’d end up selling pencils out of a tin cup.
But as I looked back over Mulligan’s life, I realized he did have a few possibilities. Edward Mason, his young colleague at the paper, was leaving to start a local news website and wanted Mulligan to come with him. But the new business wasn’t making any money yet, so the job didn’t pay much. Mulligan’s pal Bruce McCracken ran a private detective agency, so perhaps Mulligan could do some work for him. And Mulligan’s mobbed-up friend Dominic Zerilli was retiring to Florida and needed somebody to run his bookmaking business.
What should Mulligan do? How about all three?
The opening of The Dread Line finds him no longer living in his squalid apartment in a run-down Providence triple-decker. Instead, he’s keeping house in a five-room, water-front cottage on Conanicut Island at the entrance to Narragansett Bay. He’s getting some part-time work from McCracken, although it rarely pays enough to cover his bills. He’s picking up beer and cigar money freelancing for the news website. And he’s running the bookmaking business with help from his thuggish pal, Joseph DeLucca.
For the first time in his life, he’s got a little money in his pocket at the end of the month. After twenty years as a reporter, he feels odd living above the poverty line—and even odder to be a lawbreaker. But as Mulligan puts it, he’s not breaking any important ones.
And of course, he still manages to find trouble when it isn’t finding him.
He’s feuding with a feral tomcat that keeps leaving its kills on his porch. He’s obsessed with a baffling jewelry heist. And he’s enraged that someone on the island is torturing animals. All of this keeps distracting him from a big case that needs his attention.
The New England Patriots, still shaken by a series of murder charges against one of their star players (true story) have hired Mulligan and McCracken (not a true story) to investigate the background of a college star they are thinking of drafting. At first, the job seems routine, but as soon as they begin asking questions, they get push-back. The player has something to hide, and someone is willing to kill to make sure it remains secret.
Mulligan may not be an investigative reporter anymore, but he’s still in the crime-busting business.
Bruce DeSilva’s crime fiction has won the Edgar and Macavity Awards; 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 award-winning noir anthologies, and his book reviews for The Associated Press appear in hundreds of publications. Previously, he was a journalist for forty years, most recently as writing coach world-wide for the AP, editing stories that won nearly every major journalism prize including the Pulitzer. His new novel, The Dread Line, is the fifth in his series featuring Liam Mulligan. You can visit his website here: http://brucedesilva.com/