In “Demon Tide” Chatham author Matt Fitzpatrick’s third novel, a once idyllic fishing town on the North Shore is drowning in the poison of opiates. For lawyer-assassin Justin McGee and his young protegee, an orphan named Michonne, things have turned personal as they find themselves entangled in the nets of the illicit drug trade that runs aboard fishing boats between Nova Scotia and the fictional town of Guild Harbor. Currents of despair and depravity run deep as formerly upstanding members of the community have fallen on hard times, have compromised their values, and have begun dealing in death. Both the novel’s title and seeming hopelessness evoke a line from W.B. Yeats famous poem, “The Second Coming” in which “The blood-dimmed tide is loosed / The ceremony of innocence is drowned / The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” Fellow Cape Cod author Casey Sherman, who penned “The Finest Hours” among other bestselling works, writes of Fitzpatrick’s novel: “Demon Tide is a bite-your-nails-down-to-the-cuticles crime drama that’s gritty, witty, and chock full of surprises. Fitzpatrick is quickly elevating himself as the rightful heir to the Boston gangster throne once held by George V. Higgins and Dennis Lehane.”
For Fitzpatrick, the opiate crisis is personal. “Someone near and dear, I lost to that tragedy,” he says. “The scourge is unfortunately alive and well. When I was a kid, we’d grab a case of beer and a pack of cigarettes and go hang out in the cemetery, but it’s not like that anymore.” In writing “Demon Tide” he wanted to honor his lost friend while walking a certain moral line. “I didn’t want to make light of the topic, but it’s a crime novel, so I also want it to be fun—poignant, but embraceable, hopefully with characters who endear themselves to the reader.” Although much of his research for the novel centered around Gloucester, Fitzpatrick decided to create a fictional town out of respect to the living and the deceased. “There’s too much pain in Gloucester,” he said. Although Fitzpatrick grew up in Lowell, he spent most of his adult life living on the North Shore, so has firsthand knowledge of those communities. He had been coming to Chatham part-time for over thirty years; just before the outbreak of Covid, he relocated here and has been living and writing on the Cape ever since. “I’ve assimilated pretty well, I think,” he says. “Being on Cape Cod is so conducive to writing, which is why we have such a great arts community down here.” Although he has yet to set his fiction on the Cape, Fitzpatrick’s fourth book features a mean old grandmother who still lives in Chatham and happens to be be an active IRA agent.
Just as Fitzpatrick draws upon personal experience for the subject matter of “Demon Tide” he considers his protagonist something of an autobiographical character. In this final installment of the first trilogy about Justin McGee, the character has grown and become more sympathetic, in large part because taking Michonne under his wing in book two, “Matriarch Game” has allowed him to regain some of his humanity. Justin McGee is an actual assassin, and a murderer, but Fitzpatrick sees elements of his own personal life, such as divorce and lost relationships, for which he accepts responsibility for their demise, as an influence to his writing and character development. Fitzpatrick was something of what we used to all a “yuppie” for his first career, and some of that desire for the glamorous life plays out in Justin McGee, who like James Bond is “painfully handsome, and his narcissism knows no end,” at least initially. Prior to taking up writing, Fitzpatrick spent 25 years as a financial planner, managing investments, stocks and bonds, but as he wrote his first book, “Cross Hairs” he says, “I walked away from it, and I love my new lifestyle. I named my boat “Watchin’ the Wheels” which is a reference to John Lennon’s song about the criticism he faced after leaving the Beatles.” So pieces of Fitzpatrick are woven into his characters, but his deep roots in Irish Massachusetts are also at the core of his fiction. His family hails from Lowell, where his WWII veteran grandfather was a prominent figure and long-time city councilor—and mayor from 1956-59. He was also friends with the Kennedys and helped rally support for JFK’s successful US Senate run. Upon his passing in 1980, the city of Lowell named its public library for him, and in 2019, the community commemorated him with a plaque and event entitled, “175th Anniversary Veterans Day Samuel S. Pollard Dedication.” Fitzpatrick’s close relationship and admiration for his maternal grandfather helped to build the foundation of his understanding of both the Irish-American culture in the area and also the inner workings of politics—which, in his fiction, become embroiled in the underworld.
Fitzpatrick first wanted to become a writer back when he was twelve years old, but an event at the Pollard Library would truly propel him into his craft. He grew up an only child until the age of ten, when his sister was born. “I was a consummate reader, I had plenty of friends, but my companions were also books and rock albums,” he recalls. “When I was twelve, I read “Salem’s Lot” by Stephen King. The clouds parted, and I knew, that’s what I wanted to do—write stories.” While his career in finance may have been a detour from actual writing, it led him to a meeting with another writer. Fitzpatrick was serving on the board of directors at the Pollard Library and had organized a visiting writers’ series called “Meet the Author.” He remembers, “We had people such as William Martin and Linda Greenlaw. And then we were so lucky one night to get Dennis Lehane. After the event, Dennis asked if there was a place where we could go for a pint. We talked about stories and characters for an hour, and I thought, ‘I’m gonna do this.’” That was 2016; two years later, Fitzpatrick would release his first novel on Labor Day, and the second book came out in 2020, again on Labor Day.
Over the course of his first trilogy, Matt Fitzpatrick has evolved and grown as a writer, much in the same way that Justin McGee develops as a character. He describes the process of writing “Cross Hairs” as “more stream of consciousness; I didn’t really know where I was going,” although he knew that he wanted to write something that would be “gritty nasty,” in keeping with many of his influences. “From movies like “Goodfellas” and “The Godfather” I was always intrigued by mob stories,” he says. One of his characters, Darby McBride, is modelled after an enforcer for the Angiulo crime syndicate, who Fitzpatrick interviewed after he had been released from prison. “I just ‘Irished’ him up in the novels, turned him into an aging Irish mobster,” he explains. But the Travis McGee series by John MacDonald, about which he and Dennis Lehane had conversed, was probably his most important inspiration, and Justin McGee is a clear homage to MacDonald’s character. “Mario Puzo’s books are phenomenal, too,” he says. “Not just “The Godfather” but “Fools Die” and “The Last Don.” I stole some ideas about story structure from him.” As Fitzpatrick delved deeper into the craft of writing crime fiction, he enrolled in a writers’ symposium up in Rochester, VT, called “When Words Count.” He says, “It’s four days at a pop with elaborate dinners in a gorgeous rustic inn. After dinner, we then go to the library, where we take turns pitching ideas to the group. We’ll pitch until 2-3 in the morning. You take your licks, but you also receive praise.” While being involved with the writers’ group was important, a reunion with an old favorite was even more profound. “I read Stephen King’s memoir “On Writing” and that changed everything,” he says. “That got me more serious about structure—I started planning, sketching out chapters, creating more of a road map. As a result, my second book is a lot tighter; I think my third book is my best yet. Demon Tide kinda wrote itself; the characters showed up, and I was just a conduit. It felt more natural, organic.”
Since taking to the writer’s keyboard, Matt Fitzpatrick’s adventures with Justin McGee and his cast of characters have been prolific and efficient. Along with his new publisher, Woodhall Press in CT, he’s already planning to release his currently-in-process fourth novel in about 18 months, on Memorial Day, 2023. His first three books released almost like clockwork. Fitzpatrick is also thankful for the relationship that he has built with Yellow Umbrella Books on Chatham’s Main Street. “Even as I released the first two books, I never thought I’d be promoting a third novel,” he says. “Ninety percent of writers are one and done.” So, he’s really looking forward to his signing event on Labor Day weekend. “The owner of the Yellow Umbrella told me that my first two signings were top five for the shop,” he says, “but you gotta work the crowds like a carnival barker. I’m gregarious, love engaging with people. Gotta be out there, gotta hustle, and I like to think I bring those skills to the literary world.”
Chris White is a contributing writer for Cape Cod Life Publications.