I hesitated before I started Bruce DeSilva’s “Cliff Walk,” eager as I was to read it. DeSilva’s first noir thriller, “Rogue Island,” was a brisk, witty, expertly judged work that won both an Edgar and a Macavity award for best first novel in 2011. So I feared a sophomore slump after freshman honors. “Funny Lady” after “Funny Girl.” “Jaws 2” after “Jaws.” “Scarlett” after “Gone with the Wind.”
I needn’t have delayed. With “Cliff Walk,” DeSilva lands another winner.
The action this time begins when the tuxedo-clad body of a man is discovered 70 feet below Cliff Walk, which runs beside Narragansett Bay in Newport, R.I. Police think the victim is Salvatore Maniella and that he was pushed from the walk’s slippery precipice. “Salmonella,” as some call him, allegedly controls 15 percent of the Internet’s porn sites and owns three local strip clubs, which of late have been the site of Mafia turf wars. This latter development suggests that Maniella’s murder was a mob rub-out.
On to the case comes jaunty Liam Mulligan, the investigative reporter for the Providence Dispatch who debuted in “Rogue Island.” Mulligan arrives at Cliff Walk already pursuing another case, the violent death of a 9-year-old girl. More grisly deaths of children follow, culminating in Mulligan’s discovery of a snuff film involving a child. Do these tragedies circle back to the murder at Cliff Walk? Mulligan suspects they do, and a brisk, surprising investigation follows.
“Cliff Walk” actually betters “Rogue Island.” The latter dealt with arson in a run-down Providence neighborhood as well as the fading days of the Dispatch. (DeSilva’s 40-year career as a journalist included a stint as an investigative reporter for the Providence Journal.) Rendered with pitch-perfect repartee and a keen sense of newsroom politics and personalities, the often-
hilarious scenes at the paper sometimes upstaged the central action.
No such imbalance affects “Cliff Walk.” The paper and its quirky characters remain secondary to the investigation, a case with more impact and reach than the one in “Rogue Island.” Mulligan sees the tragedies of kiddie porn, the cruel treatment of prostitutes and the poison of pornography as part of a broad cultural decline. Fighting off a night of bad dreams, he muses about an America that’s losing “its tenuous hold on civilization”:
“It happened in 1998, the year Joseph R. Francis released his first Girls Gone Wild video. Since then it’s been a downward spiral of celebrity boxing, Carrot Top, Jackass, Paris Hilton, Flavor Flav, Norbit, Lindsay Lohan, Glenn Beck, Starbucks Pumpkin Chai, Octomom, Bob Dylan’s Christmas in the Heart CD, and Jimmy Dean’s Chocolate Chip Pancakes and Sausage on a Stick.”
Dark and gruesome as the plot’s subjects may be, DeSilva never lets the work turn pretentious or entirely bleak. A polished, engaging raconteur, he spikes the tale with wisecracks and warms it with moments of genuine sentiment. Entering a hog farmer’s home, Mulligan wipes his feet on a Three Little Pigs doormat. On a Thanksgiving day that finds Mulligan working at the paper, a neighbor brings him a turkey dinner to enjoy as her young daughter plays “We Plow the Fields and Scatter” on her violin.
DeSilva also populates “Cliff Walk” with appealing, offbeat characters, people you want to chat with over coffee or something stronger. With a reporter’s gimlet eye, DeSilva winnows out their contradictions and vulnerabilities. “Gruff, gray” Rhode Island attorney general Fiona McNerney, who is also a member of the Little Sisters of the Poor religious order and who is justly nicknamed “Attila the Nun,” literally cries in her beer over the sad fate of a young child.
And then there’s Mulligan, hapless and focused, lost and found. He baits a stomach ulcer with whiskey, cannoli and cigars and then appeases it with Maalox. He falls hard for a lawyer for the Maniellas and flirts with her in scenes that tingle. DeSilva fades out on Mulligan in a despairing, melancholy scene that had me cuing up Miles Davis’s version of “ ’Round Midnight” and wondering what will happen the next time the reporter-
shamus turns up. I won’t hesitate to find out.
Bartell is an arts and travel writer in Manhattan.
By Bruce DeSilva
Forge. 318 pp. $24.99