Books

THE STORY BEHIND THE BOOK

‘Serpents in the Cold’ by Thomas O’Malley and Douglas Graham Purdy

David Wilson for The Boston Globe

As a literary setting, Boston has a rich, varied cast of characters — from the Revolutionary War heroes of Esther Forbes’s children’s classic “Johnny Tremain” to the immigrant families in Jhumpa Lahiri’s “The Namesake” — but it specializes in less wholesome types.

“We’re a gritty little city,” said author Douglas Purdy, whose debut novel, “Serpents in the Cold,” is set in Boston just after World War II, a bleak period for the city. “It was the perfect time and place where criminals could get away with certain things downtown.”

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Much of the book’s action takes place in Scollay Square, a seedy yet vital area his coauthor, Thomas O’Malley, said epitomized the change and loss Boston went through in that era. “There were very rich cultural places that were vibrant and alive, and within 10, 15 years all that would be gone,” O’Malley said. “There’s a trauma there.”

Both of its main characters are damaged as well: one a shellshocked war veteran turned private eye, the other a grieving heroin junkie. Both were born in Boston — specifically, in creative-writing workshops taught by the writer Lee Grove that Purdy and O’Malley took together at the University of Massachusetts Boston some 20 years ago. After class, Purdy said, “we’d have pints at the Field over in Cambridge. We sat there in the corner and started talking.”

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“We both created these separate characters,” O’Malley added, “and realized that we were writing about the same era, and wouldn’t these two characters know each other? They came from similar backgrounds. They seemed to have a natural affinity for each other.”

A collaboration was born, one that now spreads beyond the bookshelf: O’Malley is engaged to marry Purdy’s sister. “I couldn’t get rid of him if I wanted to,” O’Malley said. “It’s like a force of nature now.”

The authors will read 7 p.m. Monday at Porter Square Books in Cambridge.

Kate Tuttle can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.
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