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In Conversation with Douglas Purdy about Serpents in the Cold

Jan 21, 2015 in Mulholland Authors

Serpents in the Cold by Thomas O'Malley and Douglas PurdyThe first novel in Thomas O’Malley and Douglas Purdy’s Boston Saga, Serpents in the Cold, has just been published by Mulholland Books. Kirkus Reviews calls it a “bone-crunching, gut-wrenching novel . . . It delivers noir fiction like we always want it to be.” Click here to read an excerpt from the book.

Mulholland Books: Tell us how you two decided to partner up to write Serpents in the Cold.

Douglas Purdy: Twenty years ago, Tom and I met at the UMass-Boston campus along the grey-slate waters of the Boston Harbor. Fittingly enough, it was for a class on Detective and Crime Fiction. Later in a creative-writing workshop, Tom began writing “The Iscariot Kiss,” his protagonist named Cal O’Brien, and I started working on “The Wooden Man,” featuring a desperate junky, Dante Cooper. Over pints of Guinness one night, we sat in the corner of a pub, The Field (Cambridge, Mass) and discussed what would happen if O’Brien and Cooper were to meet on the same page. At one point we had them in Los Angeles, another time in some nameless Gothic city. Years later, we decided it was finally time to have Cooper & O’Brien team up—and not in any other city but our own, Boston. We were in Cape Cod, and Tom and I came up with the opening scene on Tenean Beach, a beach that my mother used to go to in the 1940s, and one that Tom went to when visiting Boston from overseas. During that meeting, we asked ourselves, “Who is this woman [found dead on the beach], Sheila?” And from that point on, we explored this dark world of 1951 Boston and decided that the novel had to take place during one of the worst winters on record. For over the next four years and countless pages, we finished Serpents in the Cold. We hoped that it not only served the genre well, but also our city. Boston is both Cal and Dante, two men who could not have come from any other place in America.

Mulholland: Tell us more about Cal O’Brien and Dante Cooper, the central characters who drive the investigation in Serpents in the Cold.

Purdy: For me, reading David Goodis, Jim Thompson, and Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key really shaped the dark place Dante was coming from. I knew that Dante wouldn’t exist in the modern world—he’d probably be an obituary in the first few chapters. His era had to be the 1940s or 1950s, wearing a beat-up fedora, dirty gabardine slacks, a penchant for jazz and junk, a fragment of the man he was before the overdose of his wife, Margo. He was interesting to me because he is one who skirts the underworld, the pool halls and flophouses where the lecherous and the downtrodden live—all while representing some form of righteousness that may or may not lead to some redemption in the end. Cal is an ex-cop, and he’s a war veteran. He comes from a different place, but still a place where violence is prevalent, and with their shared past, we thought they’d be a unique duo with many stories to tell.

Wintry Boston in the 1950sMulholland: Aside from your personal ties to Boston, why did you choose to set Serpents in the Cold in such a particular time and place? 

Purdy: I think some crime novels lack a full sense of atmosphere, and it was important to both Tom and I to create a rich, layered one for this novel. We wanted an atmosphere that also had an isolated feel to it, and how more isolated can you get than the cold and the snow, the worst winter on record? Also, Boston as a city is not known for being overly kind. It has a hard-knuckled introspective manner to it, uniquely Northeastern. So it’s a perfect place for ambiguity and deception, a locale where corruption and violence can take effect. Not only does the oppressive weather augment the claustrophobic elements in tandem with the damaged psyches of the characters, but it also paints a widescreen cinematic effect. Boston is a beautiful city, but by the winter, a gray pallor seems to suck the life out of the streets. The waters turn to slate, the skies turn raw and bleak, and the collective moods of the population sour and become downright miserable.

Mulholland: What was it like to co-write a novel?

Purdy: Collaborating with a friend is equal parts excitement and hard work. Writers are solitary creatures, so I wouldn’t recommend two writer friends going into a novel together, unless they have a strong grasp of the book before starting on Chapter One. There were times when we wanted to put out a hit on one another, but in the end, such disagreements only pushed us to work harder at solving a difficult chapter. We scrapped scenes, took them back out in the alley and put a few bullets in their heads, and then buried them without thinking of them ever again. Other times, a chapter floundered and one of us would come in and breathe new life into it. There was plenty of “pitching” involved, and like any Hollywood meeting, we sometimes responded to each other’s proposals with laughter or dismay. In the end, one of the biggest positives was that when one of us was down, the other would be there to get the fire stoked again, a crucial plus as both Tom and I continue to write Cal & Dante novels in our “Boston Saga.”

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