If you like fast-paced crime thrillers with a rich sense of of atmosphere and a strong male protagonist, this is the book for you -- just don't expect too much from the plot. Set in a richly detailed grimy Providence, RI, the story follows newspaper reporter Mulligan ("just Mulligan") as he pokes his nose into an outbreak of arson in the city's run-down Mount Hope neighborhood. Meanwhile, the separated-and-nearly-divorced Mulligan is also embarking on a new relationship with the paper's beautiful courthouse reporter while fending off the attentions of the paper's hot photo-lab lady.
The book largely succeeds as an example of using the crime genre as a vehicle for presenting social history -- the reader learns about Providence's sordid past and present as Mulligan rolls around its streets and various local haunts form the backdrops for scenes. It's very reminiscent of aspects of George Pelecanos's crime novels set in and around Washington, D.C., which deliver a much more richly authentic history of the city and its inhabitants than any guide or history book. The whole reason I picked up the book is that I have two good friends who've settled in the Providence, and I was looking to get a little more sense of the city. In that respect, the book is quite good (although the constant Red Sox boosterism gets exceedingly tiresome).
Unfortunately, as a mystery/crime story the book is much less successful. The motive for the arson is easily guessed at, and when a hint regarding who might stand to benefit is given, it sticks out like a sore thumb. However, since the story requires some action, it delays the intrepid reporter hero from vigorously pursuing the obvious paper trail that will lead him to the motive and perpetrators. I'm not the kind of reader who likes to try and "figure out" a story along the way, I prefer to get immersed and let the story take me along for the ride. But this was a rare case where I kept waiting and waiting for the protagonist to take the obvious step that would lead him to the obvious culprit, and when he finally does, it's fairly underwhelming.
There are a few other missteps, for example the author cheezily inserting a mention of his wife's book of poetry into the story in a way that felt completely forced. I also found Mulligan's tough-reporter-meets-wise-guy patter just a bit too over-the-top at times. Partway through the book, a new character is introduced in a kind of "Odd Couple" partnership role that feels a bit forced. On the whole, I can write these off as the normal flaws of a first novel, and I'll definitely be checking out the next in the series for the local color, I just hope that the plot is much stronger.