Billy Povich should be smiling.
The hard-luck obit writer has just made his literary debut, in Gravewriter (St. Martin’s Press), a fast-paced mystery that represents a promising new chapter in Providence Journal reporter Mark Arsenault’s budding sideline as a fiction writer. With a tasty blend of hard-boiled noir and flat-out idiosyncrasy, the book is the first of Arsenault’s three mysteries to use Providence as the setting, and the backing of St. Martin’s Minotaur imprint should help to boost his readership.
PROVIDENCE PALETTE: Arsenault’s adopted home of Rhode Island offers a rich vein of fodder, for both journalists and mystery writers.
While Povich and Arsenault share a strong belief in the mission of the Fourth Estate, the author shows no outward signs of his protagonist’s periodic appetite for self-destructive behavior.
On the contrary, the fortunes of the native of a small working town about 50 miles west of Boston have steadily ascended since he came to Rhode Island in 1998, attracted by the Journal’s tradition in long-form reporting. Besides finding a useful place to practice journalism, Arsenault, 39, met his fiancé, writerly standout Jennifer Levitz, now a reporter in the Boston bureau of the Wall Street Journal, at the ProJo, and the colorful state offers a seemingly unending vein upon which to draw in distilling the further tales of Billy Povich.
Where else, for example, could a reporter working the State House beat be credited with saving the life of a seemingly unremarkable state senator, John Celona of North Providence, who subsequently became a central figure — and is currently awaiting sentencing — in an ongoing Smith Hill influence-peddling investigation?
Journalism figures prominently in Arsenault’s career as a mystery writer, on several levels. His first book, Spiked (Poisoned Pen Press, 2003) was inspired when an editor at the Sun of Lowell, Massachusetts, rejected his pitch to do a story on the hidden world of heroin addicts residing under a bridge near that city’s downtown. And Gravewriter marks a clever double-reference, not just to Povich’s desire to kill the retired police officer that he blames for his wife’s death, but also his particular assignment at a Providence-based daily.
The book, published November 28, took flight after Arsenault spent more than a year developing a novelistic three-part 2004 series about Craig Price, who, before turning 16, had killed four Warwick neighbors in the late 1980s. As part of his research, Arsenault conducted between 50 and 60 interviews with Price in the high-security unit of the Adult Correctional Institutions in Cranston. In something of an inversion of this real-life tale, he says, “I wanted to have a good person wrestling with a life or death question.”
The author downplays his place in the crowded field of mystery writers, likening himself, in a baseball metaphor, to “a poor man’s Julio Lugo.” Yet fiction writing has become a passion for the scribe, whose genial self-effacement obscures the discipline necessary to steadily face the keyboard before or after the workday — a practice he dubs “mind over ass.”