Monday, April 06, 2015

The Story Behind the Story:
“A Scourge of Vipers,” by Bruce DeSilva

(Editor’s note: This is the second piece The Rap Sheet has posted by novelist Bruce DeSilva, following a 2014 backgrounder on his previous yarn, Providence Rag. DeSilva’s crime fiction has won the Edgar and Macavity awards, and he’s been listed as a finalist for the Shamus, Anthony, and Barry awards. His short stories have appeared in Akashic Press’ well-respected noir anthologies. DeSilva has reviewed books for The New York Times Book Review, Publishers Weekly, and The Associated Press. Prior to his novel-writing success, he spent 40 years as a journalist, and most recently served as worldwide writing coach for the AP. His fourth book, A Scourge of Vipers [Forge], is just out this week in hardcover and e-book editions.)

One morning a couple of years ago, I poured myself a cup of coffee, opened my New York Times, and spotted a story about sports gambling. It wasn’t about the odds on the New England Patriots winning the Super Bowl, or an exposé on point-shaving, or a breathless account of a raid on a bookie joint. Instead, it was a dry-as-dust bit of government reporting on a bill Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey was planning to introduce.

Republican Christie, eager for ways to balance the state budget without raising taxes, wanted to legalize sports gambling so he could tax the profits. I could see right off that the idea was bound to generate some heat.

For one thing, it meant Christie would have to take on the U.S. government, because federal law outlaws sports gambling everywhere but in Nevada and three other states where it was grandfathered in.

For another thing, it pitted the governor against the men who ran the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and the professional sports leagues, all of whom had long opposed legalization, claiming it would threaten the integrity of their games.

Sure enough, the NCAA was especially apoplectic, threatening to blackball New Jersey arenas from the annual March Madness basketball tournament unless Christie backed down.

And the way I saw it, organized crime figures, aghast at the prospect of seeing their bookmaking profits disappear, wouldn’t much like Christie’s plan, either.

But the governor’s proposal also had powerful supporters. Some public employee unions saw it as a way to protect their threatened pensions. And the Atlantic City gambling kingpins were eager to tap this new source of revenue. Once, they had run the only games east of the Mississippi; but they’d seen their profits cut in half by the explosion of casino gambling in nearby states over the last couple of decades, and they were growing desperate.

What all this portended was conflict--not such a good thing for the legislative process, perhaps, but solid gold for a crime novelist.

I clipped the story from the paper and started keeping a file on developments. As soon as I finished writing Providence Rag, the third book in my Edgar Award-winning series of crime novels set in Providence, Rhode Island, I started researching sports gambling in earnest. I thought I already knew quite a bit about the subject, but I was startled by some of what I learned.

I knew a lot of Americans liked to bet on sports, but I had no idea how many. According to surveys, 85 percent of us gamble on sporting events at least once in a while.

I also knew a lot of money was changing hands, but I had no idea how much. It turns out that the total amount Americans gamble on sports, most of it bet illegally, is estimated at three hundred and eighty billion dollars a year. To put that figure in perspective, it’s six times greater than the annual budget of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Clearly, both the proponents and opponents of Christie’s plan had deep pockets, millions at their disposal to try to influence the outcome. And before long, a number of other governors with hard-pressed state budgets started thinking about following Christie’s lead.

So I asked myself, “what if”--the question that has launched every novel I’ve written.

What if the colorful fictional governor I’d introduced in my previous novels proposed legalizing sports gambling in Rhode Island? Fiona McNerney, a former religious sister nicknamed Attila the Nun for her take-no-prisoners style of politics, wasn’t much like Christie, but she did resemble him in one respect. She wasn’t one to back down in the face of pressure.

With that, my new novel, A Scourge of Vipers, began to take shape.

The action begins when powerful organizations that have a lot to lose--or gain--if gambling is made legal, flood Rhode Island with millions of dollars to buy the votes of state legislators. All that money in a little state where the average campaign for a seat in the state legislature normally costs just $10,000.

Naturally, all hell breaks loose. First, a powerful state legislator turns up dead. Then a mobbed-up bagman gets shot down, and his briefcase full of cash goes missing.

My protagonist, Liam Mulligan, an investigative reporter for the fictional Providence Dispatch, wants to investigate, but the bottom-feeding conglomerate that recently purchased the struggling newspaper has no interest in serious public-interest reporting. So Mulligan goes rogue, digging into the story on his own. Soon, shadowy forces try to derail his investigation by destroying his career, his reputation, and perhaps his life.

The result is at once a suspenseful murder mystery and a serious exploration of the hypocrisy surrounding sports betting and the corrupting influence of big money on politics.

As I was working on the novel, Governor Christie pressed forward with his plan, pushing his legalization bill through the state legislature in defiance of the federal law. He declared that the sports betting would be launched at the Monmouth Park racetrack, and that it would soon spread to the Atlantic City casinos.

The professional sports leagues sued to stop him, and last fall a federal judge blocked Christie’s plan. Now, the issue is headed to the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia--and quite likely, eventually to the U.S. Supreme Court.

READ MORE:A Scourge of Vipers: New Excerpt,” by Bruce DeSilva (Criminal Element).

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