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Oh, there's more to come, you say?
on September 6, 2012
A mad arsonist blazes a trail through Providence, R.I., focusing on the low-income immigrant neighborhood of Mount Hope, former home of reporter Liam Mulligan. Mulligan is a newspaperman -- emphasis on the paper -- who's so old-school he still smears ink all over everything he touches. The city's arson investigators are too fat, lazy and incompetent, so Mulligan takes it upon himself to track the killer firebug. And that's about it as far as plot goes in former AP newsman Bruce DeSilva's crime fiction debut, "Rogue Island."
In the course of his journalistic crusading, Mulligan interacts with a progression of stereotypes from decades past: the Italian goombah ("Aaay, Vinnie!" "Fuhgeddaboudit."), the long-suffering editor (think Perry White or J. Jonah Jameson), the screeching shrew of an obscenity-spewing ex-wife and various hot women who naturally all want to sleep with Mulligan. He attends funerals for the arsonist's victims where DeSilva's attempts at unearned pathos fall flat. It's hard to feel anything for the dead when, by DeSilva's own accounting, the only people who live in Rhode Island are cartoon characters. It would be like mourning Wile E. Coyote. Later in the book, DeSilva displays a profoundly dysfunctional sense of irony when Mulligan smirks at a cliche-ridden broadcast from the local TV news airheads. "Who the hell writes that crap?" he wonders.
Mulligan isn't the only thing old-school about "Rogue Island." DeSilva spent 40-odd years working in the news media, and it's obvious he misses the pre-Internet days of print journalism: when grizzled old veterans did almost as much drinking and smoking at their desks as they did writing; when people communicated in complete sentences that often exceeded 140 characters; when everyone not shepherding late editions congregated after work at the nearby "newspaper bar" until closing, then went home with whomever. I don't blame him. I came into the biz at the tail end of that era and was lucky enough to learn my trade under those grizzled old vets. In many ways, those days were much more interesting and colorful than today's sterile, corporate newsrooms. Unfortunately, that time is gone, and it's not coming back. If DeSilva wanted to cling to the past, he should have set his novel in the past. Or he should have made a more serious attempt at addressing the newsroom dichotomy between the slow but accurate newspaper relics and the leap-before-you-look Twitterverse. Cramming his story into a modern framework makes it seem anachronistic and out of touch, less of a realistic, gripping thriller and more of an empty exercise in homage to the many crime writers DeSilva checks by name throughout his text.
Inevitably, I suppose, the second novel featuring Liam Mulligan came out shortly after I bought "Rogue Island." That is one modern aspect of DeSilva's writing: Everything's a franchise in the mystery genre these days. Standalone crime novels are becoming a rarity as characters return again and again for repeat performances. If I'd known "Rogue Island" was the inaugural volume of the Continuing Adventures of Liam Mulligan, I doubt I would've picked it up.
Like many series characters, Liam Mulligan has a bad case of the smartypants. Since the days when Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe antagonized cops, clients and crooks alike with his razor one-liners, fictional detectives have been moonlighting as stand-up comics. The big difference is that Marlowe was genuinely witty, his dialog an absolute joy to read. Many of his sleuthing progeny are merely asking for a slap upside the head. When I began to hear mental rimshots every time Mulligan dropped a line, I started rooting for the bad guys to beat him harder.
Even I am not totally immune to the franchise detective, but my series character dance card has long since been filled by the likes of Dave Robicheaux, Kenzie and Gennaro, Hap and Leonard, Burke, Parker and too many others. Anyone who wants to be added to that list had better impress me with their originality or mad writing skills. "Rogue Island" is strictly stock, forgoing believable characters in favor of archetypes from an old B&W on Turner Classic Movies. If DeSilva is just going to rehash the classics, why should I bother? I still have plenty of the originals in my to-read piles.
I realize I'm the one being anachronistic and out of touch in my prejudice against this brand of mysteries. If franchise heroes didn't sell, there wouldn't be so dadgum many of them being written and published. Readers like them. They eat up every installment, then clamor for more adventures featuring their favorite crimefighter, stories told in a comforting first person that ensures nothing too terribly awful will happen and that guarantees there will be another sequel.
DeSilva's broad sense of humor is certain to appeal to many of those mystery fans:
"Seems that last week, the mayor's probable opponent in next fall's election had legally changed her name from Angelina V. Rico to Angelina V. aRico so she would be listed first alphabetically on the ballot. But yesterday, Mayor Rocco D. Carozza legally changed his name to Rocco D. aaaaCarozza."
If that made you laugh, I have good news for you: There's two novels' worth of "more where that came from" for you to look forward to. If, on the other hand, that made you roll your eyes and heave a sigh, chances are that, like me, you are a humorless bastard who needs to look for his kicks elsewhere. I also could have done without DeSilva's clumsy attempts to shill for his wife's crummy poetry by shoehorning it in where it doesn't belong.
There are armies of readers who live on a steady diet of the kind of easy reading DeSilva serves up. It's not that he's a bad writer. He's quite competent at what he does, but what he does is of no interest to me personally.