We Were Kings


By Thomas O’Malley

By Douglas Graham Purdy

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In 1950’s Boston, the Irish Republican Army is running guns and killing witnesses. Cal and Dante are committed to stopping them.

When a body is discovered at the Charlestown locks — tarred, feathered and shot to death — it appears to be a gangland killing, and is almost immediately dismissed. However, Cal O’Brien’s cousin, Boston PD detective Owen Lackey, recognizes the murder style as the typical retribution for IRA informers. Combined with a tip-off about a boat coming into Boston weighed down with stolen guns and ammunition, the body in the locks hints that much more may be at stake than a one-off hit.

Serpents in the Cold introduced us to Cal and Dante, whose previous investigation brought them to the highest ranks of Boston’s political elite. This time, Cal and Dante descend into the city’s shadowy underbelly — a world of packed dance halls, Irish wakes, and funeral parlors. There they discover a terrorist plot that will shake the city to its core and bring them head-to-head not only with Cal’s past, but with the IRA Army Council itself.


People say: “Of course, they will be beaten.” The statement is almost a query, and they continue, “but they are putting up a decent fight.” For being beaten does not greatly matter in Ireland, but not fighting does matter. “They went forth always to the battle; and they always fell,” Indeed, the history of the Irish race is in that phrase.

—James Stephens, The Insurrection in Dublin



History has to live with what was here,
clutching and close to fumbling all we had—
it is so dull and gruesome how we die.

—Robert Lowell, “History”



And it is those among us
who most make the heavens their business
who go most deeply into this death-weaving.

—Thomas Kinsella, “Death Bed”


THE MIDIR, A seventy-eight-foot fishing trawler out of New York carrying five tons of firearms, ammunition, land mines, and explosives, ran low and heavy through the water. It wasn’t yet midnight and the air was still and charged with heat, and a mist moved like a separate sea a foot or so above the waves. The boat was an hour from Boston Harbor, had come down the Cape Cod Canal in darkness from the Brooklyn docks, its crew watching the lights of Buzzards Bay and Scituate emerge from the black landscape and the flickering lights of lobster boats moving along the crooked coastline and heat lightning trembling the darkness above.

Two crew members, dressed in oilskins and carrying guns, brought the man out onto the deck. He was similarly dressed but a smear of blood glistened on his face and his legs were bowed as if from a length of time kneeling. His hands were bound behind his back and he was gagged with a kerchief soaked with paraffin oil. His eyes were wide in his bloodied face as he struggled against his holders. Pushing and pulling, they walked him to the stern, turned him so that he was facing south against the railings, the way they’d come, pressing into the morning tide.

Beneath the boat’s props the sea churned blackly. He had a moment to consider this and the intermittent, sweeping light cast by the lighthouse on Minot’s Ledge and the clanging buoy of the eastern marker as they entered the waters of the bay, and he suddenly, urgently spoke aloud the Act of Contrition: “O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee and I detest my sins above every other evil because—” and the larger of the two crewmen shot him through the back of the head. The sound of the shot reverberated off the fog shoals and close coastline and as he pitched forward they allowed his momentum to take him. They released their grip and the body upended itself over the railing and into the frothing water. Within a minute the body lay, bobbing, two hundred feet behind them, and, quickly, it was out of sight, lost in the darkness of the heaving sea and carried swiftly by the current southward to deeper waters where above the horizon the sky was lit by brief shimmering flashes as lightning arced violently within the clouds.


THE CRYSTAL BALLROOM seemed as if it could barely contain them, hundreds of men and women dancing to “The Siege of Ennis”—stomping back and forth upon the dance floor so that it thundered and shook and the only thing louder than their feet was the sound of the band: accordions and saxophones, trumpets, drums, fiddle, and piano.

Women in lipstick and crinoline petticoats sat on the long benches lining one side of the hall; men with Brylcreem in their hair, wearing pressed jackets, ties, and trousers, stood in small groups on the other side. It’s hours since the first waltz began the night, and, fortified by a pint or two from the downstairs bar, men have lost their inhibitions and most everyone has asked a woman to dance. Above, a crystal ball sends spots of reflected light down upon the heads of the dancers, turning slowly as they spin themselves about the room.

On the stage at the front of the hall, a band of intensely sweating musicians moved from the earlier waltzes and set dances to reels and jigs.

A man approached the edge of the dance floor as the song “Biddy Murphy’s Cow” came to an end and nodded almost imperceptibly to the accordion player, who gave the pianist quick instructions for the next set—a round of slow vocal ballads—and then rose from his stool and strode to the edge of the low stage, greeting the female singer, Moira Brennan, as she went to the microphone and the pianist began “The Lass of Aughrim.” A trumpeter came to him before he stepped down and he said, “Get Finney on the pipes for the finale.”

The accordion player’s name was Martin Butler and he was a slight man with an unassuming boyish face and a receding hairline, and he smiled to men and women on the dance floor who called out to him. He walked the hallway to a back room and the man who’d nodded at him earlier followed. At the end of the hall they entered Mr. de Burgh’s empty office and the man closed the door after them. Inside, the windows were open and they could hear the sounds from the street and the trolleys and buses rumbling from Dudley Station. Amber light spilled from wall sconces and a fan ticked loudly on the desk, rustling papers.

The accordion player dabbed at the sweat on his forehead with a handkerchief. “What is it, Donal?” he asked. “Quick now, I’ve got to be back on for ‘The Boys of Wexford.’ Did they get word in time?”

Donal Phelan was tall and lean and built like cable. His face was weathered and his brow constantly furrowed as if something were eating at him but he had no way to express what it was. The accordion player doubted whether he’d ever seen him smile. On his lapel he wore a gold Fáinne and a Pioneer pin with an image of the Sacred Heart and an inscription declaring his abstinence from alcohol.

“We got word to them in time,” he said. “Buíochas le Dia.”

The accordion player nodded. “Thanks be to God. And they know what to do?”

“They do.”

“By the time we’re through here tonight, make sure it’s done. All of it.”

“It will be.”

“Good. On your way out, send in Cleland.”

When Donal left, the accordion player looked out the window onto Dudley Street toward Harrison Ave and Warren Street. The Square was still jumping. There were couples going in and out of the Hibernian, the Rose Croix, and the Winslow. Men spilling from the bars and taverns, and still more coming down the street from the Dudley Station El. Most of them would miss the last train home and they wouldn’t mind. Waves and waves of them coming in every week since the end of the war. Everywhere neon and people and music and even with the heat it continued like some great heaving and convulsing beast. You couldn’t stop it if you tried. Once it had its legs beneath it, it was too powerful to be stopped. It was a machine, he thought, with himself at the controls, making sure everything happened in the way that it did and it could never be stopped.

Above the rooftops and toward downtown Boston, the sky flickered from one end of the horizon to the other as currents of lightning sparked and raced, but no storm and no relief from the heat. There was a lull from the dance floor before another slow number began and in the cessation he heard in the distance the low peal of thunder and the sky continuing its stuttering, sparking dance. There was a war coming and he was ready for it. He waited and listened to the ballad nearing its end and considered the final set when they’d blow the roof off the place and bring all the walls down on them.

There was a knock at the door and a large man in his late forties entered. He had sad eyes and a heavily lined brow, as if he’d worked hard from a young age and seen his fair share of trouble and pain.

“Ah, Michael,” the accordion player said and paused, watching as the older man absently reached for the wedding ring on his heavy-knuckled finger and slowly rotated it back and forth. “Mr. de Burgh’s got a job for you.”


THE SLIGHT BREEZES of the afternoon had been left to die on the banks of the harbor, never reaching inland. And even with the sun long set, the temperature climbed as the minutes ticked away toward midnight. In the thick, swelling heat the sound of cicadas vibrated and thrummed hypnotically down the deserted streets of Dorchester. Houses and apartments along the Avenue remained silent, as if some sudden evacuation had been called for the neighborhood, yet in the shadows behind screen doors and wide-open windows and among continuously whirring fans, people tried to find shelter. From radios, exhausted broadcasters claimed that a Boston city record would most likely be broken by midday tomorrow—102 degrees—and for the rest of the week, no relief in sight. One doctor came on and warned of edema, heat cramps and heat rash, malaise, dehydration, and even death. It sounded like all the proper makings of a plague.

Parked along the Avenue, Dante listened to the radio and took a sip from a can of beer, the aluminum hot in his hand. One moment he felt his gut spin, and the next, he was breathing as if through a pinhole. It’s only going to get worse, he thought to himself.

Beside the car on the sidewalk, a stray dog lumbered along on branch-thin legs, paused to catch its breath, and glanced across the street, tongue hanging out over its bottom jaw like a piece of spoiled meat. Stepping out from an alleyway, a tramp unzipped and swayed, then leveled off by pressing one hand against the wall. He pissed on the side of a shuttered storefront and then guided whatever fluids he had left into a potted plant. The stray dog watched the tramp for a moment and then, eyes bleary from both hunger and exhaustion, lowered its head and continued ambling down the sidewalk. A police siren wailed off toward Savin Hill, and then suddenly, as if swallowed by the oppressive heat, it stopped midscream.

All the way down the Avenue, traffic lights changed from red to green but barely a car came through. From the passenger side of his ’46 Ford Tudor sedan, Dante looked across the street. Two men stood out in front of the Emerald Tavern. The green neon of the shamrock sign above the door reflected off their skin, shining with perspiration, and hollowed out their features, making them look wan and sickly. Both wore sleeveless undershirts and smoked.

Dante stepped out of the car and crossed the street. Trash littered the curbs and the stench of it was heavy. In an alley between the bar and a hardware shop with its metal grate pulled down and padlocked, he caught a glimpse of a woman’s pale thigh, the swell of her buttock, the flash of bleached-blond hair in tangles, falling over and hiding her face. She had both hands pressed against the brick wall as a man slammed into her from behind. Her moaning didn’t sound like pleasure, and the man’s exhausted grunts increased in intensity as he pounded into her with the desperation of a feral animal.

At the entrance to the Emerald Tavern the two men in front eyed Dante. Perhaps they were just waiting their turn with the whore in the alley. Perhaps they were too out of it to even notice.

One had cauliflower ears and the nose of a hopeless boozer, thick and veined with crimson. He wore the gray, navy-blue-lined slacks of a postal worker. The other had the complexion of a man a few steps away from a fatal heart attack. His lower jaw was swollen with tobacco chew, and Dante watched him take another haul off his cigarette, and then proceed to spit out a stream of black juice onto the sidewalk.

“You the electrician?” the man asked.

Dante ran his hand through his sweat-soaked hair. “No.”

The other guy asked, “You the iceman?”

“Do I look like an iceman? Or an electrician?”

The man’s lips tightened into a filthy grin. “No, I guess you don’t.”

The man with the boozy nose began to chuckle. “The refrigeration went to shit, so Gerry got the iceman coming. We thought you could be him, even though you got no ice.”

“All the ice in the city is probably a puddle by now,” Dante said.

The neon sign above them suddenly dimmed and then flickered. Down the Avenue, in a chain-reaction-like effect, the lights faded in storefront windows and above the transoms, the lamps in apartment windows sputtered, and the streetlamps curving over the road pulsed weakly, and then they all came back to full strength.

“Fuck me,” the guy in the postal slacks said. “Just what we need. A goddamn blackout.”

The other said, “The lowlife blacks and Ricans will have a field day looting.”

Dante looked down the length of the Avenue, waiting for it to go dark.

He became worried. Claudia and Maria were back home in the North End. He imagined them in the dark, calling out his name. He nodded to the men, who didn’t return the gesture, opened the heavy wooden door, and went inside.

A few ceiling fans spun but did nothing to break the stifling heat. Cigarette smoke webbed the air, and the sour stench of men was thick and unrelenting. By the looks of it, they were mostly from construction, some with paint still on their shirts and their hands, plaster on their knuckles, faces marked with soot and grime, and skin caked with dust.

All of them were drinking from bottles. Empty shot glasses glistened along the bar, and the bartender did his best refilling them. A jar of pickles and another full of pickled eggs sat beside the beer taps. The bartender had a dishtowel wrapped around his head; his white T-shirt was sopping wet and sticking to him like cellophane. He pulled the glass top off one of the jars and reached inside with his bare hand, fingers fluttering wildly until they grasped a dill pickle. He pulled it out and passed it to one of the men at the bar, who quickly went at it, chewing it on the side of his mouth that had more teeth, the green-yellow juice trickling down his chin.

Dante eased into a spot at the bar, raised his hand to the bartender.

“Nothing cold, buddy,” the bartender said. “Refrigeration went out this after.”

“I just want a bottle of whiskey to take home.”

“We charge an extra buck for that.”

“That’s okay with me.”

The bartender charged him even more but Dante was too damn tired to start an argument. He paid up, took the sealed bottle off the bar top, and walked back outside. The two men were still standing there, one of them lighting another cigarette. “That’s what the doctor ordered,” the postal worker said, nodding toward the bottle in Dante’s hand.

Dante ignored the man,  crossed the street and got back into his car, turned the engine over, pulled a U-turn on the empty Avenue, and sped toward Savin Hill.

*  *  *

At times, mostly at night, Cal returned to Savin Hill, to where he and Lynne had once lived and the place where Lynne had died. The building was still a burned-out husk, blackened frame and timbers pebbled with flash-scorched grease. No one had attempted to rebuild in the three years since, and city officials seemed uninterested in tearing it down despite the condemned signs plastered on the warped wood. Perhaps they’d forgotten. There were countless other buildings like it throughout the city.

He stood in the wreckage where the porch had been and then proceeded through what had been the front door to the scorched boards that rested upon the stone foundation. Here, he stood directly over the basement furnace, but on the third floor this would have been in the space of their kitchen, and over there the dining room and the hallway leading to their bedroom. He went in that direction, walking through the rooms as if the walls still existed, turning left and then right. In his mind’s eye he reached for the doorknob to their bedroom and then turned it and opened the door. He looked at their unmade bed, the tousled sheets, her underthings on the floor. Through the window at the front of the room, he could see Malibu Beach, still and gray beneath a blue sky. He heard water running in the bathroom and, through the door, Lynne’s voice singing off-key as she bathed.

He approached the bathroom door and again his hand turned the doorknob. White steam and heat spilled from the room. The sound of her voice was louder—no longer muffled, he could hear her clearly now—and he could just make out the shape of her through the steam, lying back in the bath, becoming more visible as he stepped forward on the damp tile. Rising from the water, she smiled at him. Her skin was flushed pink with the heat and he reached for a towel to wrap about her.

The humidity had brought down upon the house a huge, muffled silence; it buzzed in his ears along with the other buzz that was the effect of alcohol and the electric lights farther down the street, the heady thrum of cicadas hidden in the trees. He closed his eyes but the darkness made him feel queasy—things were spinning and within this vertigo, images were emerging: black-ashen faces and flashing red lights, orange flames racing up the side of a building, windows exploding, glass bursting in the heat and raining down on the black sidewalk, and flames licking hungrily at the same space where just moments before there had been windows—and he had to open his eyes again. And then suddenly Lynne was there, as if she had somehow materialized out of the silence and the heat-light and the steam.

It’s okay, Cal, it’s okay, she said to him. I’m here. I’m right here. And she was holding his face up to hers so that he might see her fully and then pulling his head against her so that it lay upon her damp, warm shoulder. He let her, feeling so weak and empty inside, as if something important and necessary—a small flame of sorts—had just been extinguished and all that remained was a whirling, black vacuum and the sense of plummeting, falling without end into that blackness. He was afraid and only now realized that he had always been afraid—years of being afraid and of trying to keep the fear at bay. Lynne’s hand stroked the back of his head, his hair plastered to his scalp with sweat. She whispered soothingly into his ear. He wrapped his arms around the warmth of her, pulled her to him, squeezed, and held on, afraid to let her go, and then he allowed her to lead him out into the street and into darkness, away from the flames and the fire and their home, the last place they would ever make love to each other.

They came down the staircase and out into the yard amid the rubble of scorched and blistered clapboard and overgrown grass and weeds smelling of cat piss, and the dream collapsed in on itself. He could taste a sourness in his mouth, feel the sweat beneath his armpits, smell the sweet, charred scent of burned timbers. A patrol car rolled by, sweeping a spotlight at the house, and he blinked in its glare. “That you, Cal?” one of the cops called from the open window and he shouted back, “Yeah, it’s me,” and they switched off the light and he waved and they rumbled on.

It was high tide and kids hollered as they jumped from the John J. Beades Memorial Bridge, a drawbridge over the inlet from Dorchester Bay. Cal saw flashes of them as they passed through the light cast by the lamps on the bridge and into the water below.

“I thought I’d find you here.”

Cal turned at the sound of Dante’s voice. He emerged out of the darkness grinning, the street a spear of light at his back. He wore chinos and a T-shirt damp with sweat. In his hand, a bottle wrapped in a brown paper bag. He held it aloft.

“You in the mood?”

Cal laughed. “Sure,” he said. He was glad for the sharpness of clarity that sobriety brought, but only in small doses; sometimes reality needed something to soften it a bit and blur its jagged edges.

They sat at the water’s edge passing the bottle back and forth and watched the lights reflected in the water shimmering as ripples shuddered the surface. They looked at the kids jumping from the bridge into the water, thrashing toward the rotten spars, climbing out, and returning to the top of the bridge wall, daring one another to risk more and more dangerous spins, somersaults, twists into the water, the cars rumbling past on the narrow spans of metal behind them. It was so hot the kids would probably keep it up till midnight, till their parents called them in or the cops sent them home.

“Seems like a long time since we did that,” Dante said.

“Yeah. Seems like a long time since we did a lot of things. And I don’t ever remember a summer this hot.”

“Does it make it any easier, coming here, going through the house?”

“I don’t know.” Cal frowned, considering, and his brow creased. He took a swig from the bottle. “I guess it’s something I just have to do until I don’t have to do it anymore.”

A kid dropped from the bridge and started swimming toward the shore, crying. He swore at one of the older kids above him who had, it seemed, pushed him into the water. When he was done with the swearing but not with the crying, he ran across the beachfront to a side street.

“It feels like it only happened yesterday,” Cal said. “I see everything over and over again. It’s like a bad dream. Every single day, a bad fucking dream.”

“Nobody’s putting a clock on it, Cal. It doesn’t work that way.”

“Listen to me—you know better than anyone. I’m sorry.”

“Time, man. That’s all it takes, time.”

Cal grunted and sipped from the bottle. “I used to think that way about the war. After I got back. I’m not so sure anymore.”

“No,” Dante said, “neither am I. But what else are you going to say to yourself? You hope time changes things—I mean, it’s got to, right? Eventually? Otherwise, what’s the fucking point?”

Cal handed him the bottle. A haze had come down out in the bay, and although they could hear boats out there moving across the horizon and see the signs of their passing in the swells rolling through the channel, they could not see them; even the lights of Marina Bay were lost in the haze. Distant thunder, out toward Quincy, sounded but they saw no lightning. The rumble seemed to circle the bay, coming to them loud and then diminished and then loud again.

“So,” Cal said as they stared toward the sound, “how long do you wait, how long until things change?”

“I don’t know. I’m still waiting.”

The tide slowly went out and at close to eleven the kids left the bridge. They watched them passing between the streetlights, towels draped over their shoulders, as they crossed the two lanes of traffic and headed south toward Neponset. A brief breeze came up but not even that brought relief. It was the type of heat you sat in without moving, aware of your lungs working, slowly taking air in and forcing it out. The whiskey mellowed the mind—made you forget about the heat—but it also made you aware of the fragile shell you wore, a heap of skin draped over bones containing nothing but ballast and barely functioning pumps and shunts. Cal felt his heart working, a tight ache at the center of his chest, as if he’d taken a savage blow there and days later the pain had ebbed but still persisted.

“It’s Owen’s birthday tomorrow. They’re celebrating in Dudley Square. Anne said you and Claudia should come. It’ll be fun.”

Dante continued looking toward the bay. Only a few cars moved along Morrissey Boulevard. “Why?”

“What do you mean, why? Why wouldn’t you be there, after everything we’ve all gone through?”

“Owen hates my fucking guts.”

“He doesn’t hate your fucking guts. All that’s in the past. What we did…back then…” Cal shook his head. “Jesus, he stood by you, didn’t he? He saw to it that you and your sister could adopt Maria as your own. He did all that paperwork, saw it pushed through, no questions asked. He put his ass on the line, for the both of us.”

“I know he did. I don’t forget it.”


  • "Well-written . . . Written with verve . . . Strikingly visual with a very readable style."—Benjamin Boulden, Mystery Scene
  • "This brilliant second entry in the Boston Saga sizzles . . . This stunning narrative will enrapture fans of James Crumley and the astonishingly deep and dark Sara Gran."—Booklist (starred review)
  • "The authors deliver noir done well in dark-city descriptions and a cast of damaged characters."—Kirkus Reviews

    "In the best noir tradition, these co-authors shine a smoky light on lives often lived in the shadows."—Carol Iaciofano, WBUR
  • "Like Sara Gran's Dope, Serpents in the Cold lovingly revisits the hardboiled noir. From the dives of Dorchester to the Locke-Ober Café, John Garfield and Richard Widmark would feel right at home in O'Malley and Purdy's bygone, fallen Boston."—Stewart O'Nan, author of West of Sunset

On Sale
Jun 21, 2016
Page Count
384 pages
Mulholland Books

Thomas O’Malley

About the Author

Thomas O’Malley is a graduate of the University of Massachusetts, Boston, and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and currently teaches on the faculty of creative writing at Dartmouth College. He lives in the Boston area.

Learn more about this author

Douglas Graham Purdy

About the Author

Douglas Graham Purdy is a graduate of the University of Massachusetts, Boston and currently works in Film & Media Studies at MIT. This is his second novel.

Learn more about this author