Providence Rag, the third book in the Liam Mulligan series by Bruce DeSilva, forces a journalist to dig through his town's archives in order to keep a convicted serial killer in jail (available March 11, 2014).
Bruce DeSilva, 2011 Edgar winner for Best First Novel, reflects his 41 years as a journalist in his new novel, Providence Rag, a crime novel inspired by a true story.
The captivating beginning of Providence Rag describes the thoughts of a convicted serial slasher, Kwame Diggs, who is at the heart of this novel. Here, Diggs is a child torturing a grasshopper.
“The grasshopper struggles, its six legs making a faint scratching sound as they rake the stone. The boy burns the legs off one by one, and the scratching stops. Carefully, he amputates each antenna. A brown, unblinking eye stares up at him, pleading for an end to this…”
In the end of the scene, Diggs is amazed at his power:
“With a start, he feels a swelling in his jeans. He wonders: Am I God?”
Many chapters are introduced with Diggs’s twisted thoughts as he grows into full adolescence driven by sexual needs and the physical power to fulfill those needs.
He lingered under the tree, giving her time to fall asleep. Then he laid his binoculars in the pine needles, crawled out from under the branches, vaulted her white picket fence, and crossed the wet grass to the rear door. There, an overhead lamp was burning. He reached up and gave the bulb a twist, extinguishing the light.
He tried the door. It was locked. He considered breaking a pane of glass to reach the inside latch, but that would make too much noise. Instead, he edged along the back of the house, looking for another way inside.
Diggs, black, was only fifteen when he slashed five, white, neighbors to death. So according to Rhode Island's antiquated juvenile laws, he was supposed to be released at the age of 21, after having served only six years in prison. To keep Diggs off the street, prison guards fabricate assaults, with the approval of the warden of the maximum security prison. This illegal process keeps Diggs locked up for eighteen years.
The story begins in Providence with the treat of Diggs finally being released from jail as a result of an investigation into the bogus charges by reporter, Anthony Mass, III. Mason writes for the failing newspaper, The Providence Dispatch, and is suspicious of the crimes that Diggs supposedly committed in prison believing that if such unjust practices go unheeded they could also be used against others.
The crusty reporter, Liam Mulligan, working for the same newspaper, has no problem with fabricated crimes to keep the serial killer off the street. The respected newspaper with a history that stretches back to the days of President Lincoln finds itself in an ethical dilemma.
Since fighting for the rights of a serial killer is far from popular, the limping newspaper is suddenly confronted with a flood of subscription cancellations. So Mulligan turns to his connections from the lowly, and up to the governor to desperately search for information focusing on crimes Diggs may have committed before he was locked up.
The personal lives of the two reporters add more to the rich texture of the crime novel. Each reporter is concerned with protecting women at large, and, in particular, two blonde, white women that they had befriended, and Diggs is sure to target.
Race is, obviously, part of DeSilver’s Providence Rag and, unintended or not, there is an element of stereotyping here. In particular, with his serial killer, Diggs, being a black man who seeks only blonde, white women as his victims. This alone, in my opinion, feeds into the pernicious labeling of black men, again intended or not by the author.In fictionalizing the true story, DeSilva had several options open to him. But he could have simply, in his author’s note, named the real people in the true story, establishing that the basic facts regarding race are consistent with his story. Then he could have addressed the issue in some manner, to offset racial stereotyping in his fictionalized version.
Finally, the captivating story hinges on the question: will Mulligan’s investigation keep Diggs in jail while Mason maintains the journalist reputation of the venerable newspaper.
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Dorothy Hayes is the author of Murder at the P&Z from Mainly Murder Press. She’s been known to blog at Women of Mystery.