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Big Crime, Little State: Murder, Mystery In R.I.
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Big Crime, Little State: Murder, Mystery In R.I.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Little Rhode Island has a big history of mob violence. Author Bruce DeSilva learned all about it when he was a newspaper reporter in Providence. When he started writing crime novels, he knew that's where he had to set his stories.

Here's NPR's Jennifer Ludden with our latest installment of Crime in the City.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: Bruce DeSilva says Providence is the perfect place for crime fiction.

BRUCE DESILVA: It is big enough to have the usual array of urban problems. But it's so small that it's claustrophobic. It's very hard to keep a secret in places like that.

LUDDEN: That also means crime is something of a spectator sport. This becomes clear when we stop for lunch at Caserta's Pizzeria, a no frills joint in the city's Italian neighborhood.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Three-oh-two.

(SOUNDBITE OF A CASH REGISTER)

LUDDEN: As we order, it comes out that DeSilva writes murder mysteries. And suddenly the next guy in line jumps in.

RANDY CROWE: Do one on the guy up there on Woonsocket - the guy who killed the three girls - the serial killer, Jeffrey Mailhot.

LUDDEN: Randy Crowe is a firefighter who's followed the local murder scene for years.

CROWE: It takes a really special kind of person to kill somebody with your bare hands and then dismember their body like that. I mean it's just...

LUDDEN: The man at the register nods his head, then chimes in with another gruesome tale, and on and on they go.

You remember the guy who murdered the family with a crossbow? Remember that?

CROWE: That was - yeah, what was his name?

LUDDEN: Murder and mayhem, just a fact of life here. To really understand why, DeSilva takes me on a driving tour. First stop, Prospect Terrace Park.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR DOORS)

LUDDEN: On a grassy plateau is a towering granite statute of Roger Williams. He's the free-thinking heretic who founded Providence in 1636, and DeSilva says corruption set in not long after. He points toward the horizon, Narragansett Bay, where colonial leaders were complicit in piracy, then the slave trade.

On a downtown street below, the office of mob boss Raymond Patriarca, who once decided everything from who got a liquor licenses to which songs were played on the radio. And just over, the imposing Baroque City Hall, where the Providence's longest serving mayor, Buddy Cianci, was convicted of a felony while in office - twice.

DESILVA: Providence is a place with an enormous chip on its shoulder and an inferiority complex. This was captured absolutely perfectly in a cartoon by Don Bousquet, a local artist. The cartoon showed two people driving in an automobile across the state line, and the overhead highway sign said: Now Entering Rhode Island, Keep Your Smart Remarks To Yourself.

LUDDEN: DeSilva wanted the central character of his novels to embody that attitude. OK, investigative reporter Liam Mulligan is based partly on himself.

DESILVA: Except that he's 25 years younger, he's eight inches taller, he's quicker with a quip.

LUDDEN: But DeSilva crafted young, tall, witty Mulligan as a Providence native, and he's comfortable in the moral gray area between right and wrong.

DESILVA: Mulligan's job is to uncover corruption. But he sees nothing wrong with, or even inconsistent with, placing a bet with his bookie, or paying a small bribe to keep his decrepit car on the road. In one of the books, Mulligan says Graft comes in two varieties, good and bad, just like cholesterol.

LUDDEN: In DeSilva's first book, "Rogue Island," Mulligan's girlfriend wonders why he doesn't want to leave Providence and move on to the big time. Mulligan explains by fondly recounting the city's history of corruption.

DESILVA: (Reading) I grew up here. I know the cops and the robbers, the barbers and the bartenders, the judges and the hit men, the whores and the priests. I know the state legislature and the Mafia inside and out - they're pretty much the same thing. When I write about a politician buying votes or a cop on the pad, the jaded citizenry just chuckles and shrugs its shoulders. That used to bother me. It doesn't anymore. Rogue Island is a theme park for investigative reporters. It never closes and I can ride the rollercoaster free.

This is America Street on Federal Hill in Providence.

LUDDEN: DeSilva shows me where his character lives, a street of triple-deckers, many with sagging porches and peeling paint.

DESILVA: I lived here myself in one of these buildings when it was all I could afford, at a time that I was getting a divorce.

LUDDEN: Mulligan's in the same situation. And like DeSilva did, he spends long hours at his newspaper job - in this case the fictional Providence Dispatch. We pass by the city's real newspaper, the Providence Journal...

(SOUNDBITE OF BANGING)

LUDDEN: ...and in the lobby run into one of DeSilva's old colleagues. Phil Kukielski says the truth in Providence is unbelievable enough. It's odd to see it rendered as fiction.

PHIL KUKIELSKI: And people will read this and say, my God, you know, what a fertile imagination Bruce DeSilva has. And I read it and say, my God, I remember all these stories.

(LAUGHTER)

LUDDEN: Take DeSilva's second book, "Cliff Walk." The story centers on a real life legislative loophole. Until recently it actually made prostitution legal as long as it was inside.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR DOOR CLOSING)

LUDDEN: We pull up to Club Fantasies, where DeSilva did a lot of research. It's a strip club whose parking lot is amazingly full on a weekday afternoon.

DESILVA: Tourist buses started arriving from out of town with customers. And at the height of this, this little state had 30 brothels operating openly, and it was big business.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LUDDEN: We step inside, and DeSilva explains how he'd come here to chat up the bouncers, the bartenders, and the women in skimpy bras and thongs.

DESILVA: Well, initially it was embarrassing because I was afraid people who I know might recognize me. And I would say, well, I'm working on a book about - and they would go, yeah, right.

LUDDEN: But that never happened. And thankfully, his wife found it all hilarious. As for that loophole allowing prostitution, lawmakers finally closed it in 2010.

Bruce DeSilva has already written his third book, tentatively titled "Providence Rag," and due out next year. Like the others, it deals in that moral gray area he and his protagonist find so compelling.

DESILVA: Mulligan has a very strong but shifting sense of justice that allows him to work with some unsavory people at times in order to bring worse people down.

LUDDEN: Because in Providence, he says, it's not always easy to tell the good from the bad.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: Those of you who are traveling this summer, check out our Crime in the City map at NPR.org to see if you too can get on the trail of a crime created by one of our mystery writers.

You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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