Back in September, I published a guest post by the equal-parts intelligent and funny J.J. Hensley as part of The Book Wheel’s 30 Authors in 30 Days project. I’m happy to report that soon afterward, Allison (who owns The Book Wheel) and Velvet Morning Press teamed up to create a 30 Authors anthology, which will be available in the spring! I’m so excited for them and for all of the authors who have been invited to contribute — including none other than J.J. Hensley himself! To celebrate the kickoff of the Legacy anthology, I talked to J.J. about his books, working in law enforcement and what legacy could mean to a crime novelist. Check it out!
You have significant experience with law enforcement, having served both as a police officer and as a Special Agent with the Secret Service. In what ways did your work experiences inform Resolve and Measure Twice? Did you apply any of your personal characteristics to Dr. Cyprus Keller or to Jackson Channing?
My time in law enforcement played a huge role in the way I wrote both of those books. Going in, I wanted to stay away from any “Hollywood” portrayal of policing and give some element of authenticity to the novels. Therefore, I tried to make sure I focused on the cerebral part of the profession rather than have the cops get in shootouts or car chases every other chapter. In all of my crime fiction works, I attempt to give some insights into the job without making the reader feel that they are taking an academic course.
I’m sure both of the protagonists I’ve created thus far, Keller and Channing, have some of my characteristics. Like Keller, I’m extremely sarcastic and self-deprecating. The character of Jackson Channing probably reflects my private side where I’m stashing some of my own insecurities and doubt. But my focus with each of those characters was to be certain to keep either of them from being purely good or purely bad. Like all of us, they live in one big grey area.
As a fan of Measure Twice, I really enjoyed watching Jackson Channing’s personal growth after the loss of his former partner and his handling of Lester Mayton. Is there any chance he and Tina Lambert might wield their badges again in a sequel?
Absolutely. My third novel (still untitled) is due out in late 2015 and both Channing and Lambert will be featured prominently. To make things even more interesting, I’m bringing Cyprus Keller into the picture and readers of Resolve will be able to find out what happened to him after the final page of my first book.
Both of your novels are set in the city of Pittsburgh, and they read almost as love letters to the city. What inspired you to set the books there? How did you decide which landmarks and streets to feature?
My wife and I moved to the area several years ago and quickly discovered how much we loved the area. When I decided to write a book, I didn’t think twice about setting it in Pittsburgh because it’s such a wonderful backdrop for fiction. Between the rivers and bridges, there are diverse neighborhoods that provide an author with a background that transforms in wonderful ways as it scrolls by. If you want impressive biotech companies — we’ve got those. If you want renovated historical neighborhoods — we’ve got those. If you are looking for fantastic sports stadiums — no problem. If you want warm weather in January — well, you’re screwed. But, it’s still a wonderful place to live.
As far as deciding what specific areas in the city to feature, I let the story dictate those decisions. With Resolve, the protagonist is running a marathon so the course is predetermined to a large extent. With Measure Twice, there are some landmarks that play into the story and the geography of the downtown area is critical to the plot. Fortunately, with this city there are so many great location options available to writers.
What was your favorite scene in each of your novels, and why?
In Resolve, my favorite scene is probably the final conversation Keller has with his wife before the climax of the book. I don’t want to give anything away, but that conversation really defines their relationship for the reader and is likely to surprise some people.
In Measure Twice, my favorite part is definitely the climax of the novel. For the entire book, Detective Channing and Lester Mayton have been on a collision course although they have been on similar paths in the personal struggles. I also like the imagery I was able to use, although that particular location is one of the few I’ve ever used that is fictitious.
The Book Wheel and Velvet Morning Press have teamed up to create the 30 Authors anthology under the theme of Legacy. As a crime novelist, what does legacy mean to you? Can you give us a glimpse into your contribution to the anthology?
When I first started contemplating a story for the anthology, I was viewing “Legacy” as a positive theme. But, being a crime fiction writer, my twisted mind turned it around and I decided to take the assignment on a darker spin around the block. As we all know, some legacies are unhealthy ones and sometimes they need to be shattered in a deliberate, and possibly violent, manner.
And finally, one non-book-related question. As a former officer, what do you make of all the recent troubles surrounding American law enforcement? What, if anything, do you think could be done to improve relations between the police and the public?
This has been a topic that has weighed heavily on my mind over the past few months. I’m not a police apologist by any means, but I am a strong advocate for public education and for approaching these troubling incidents subjectively and without preconceptions. I’m troubled by three main things surrounding these incidents.
Some media entities and activists immediately made the assumption that race was a factor in any of these incidents. Maybe it was… I don’t know. But, neither do most other people. Would the outcomes have been different if the suspect was white? Hispanic? Asian? What if the officers would have been African-American? I have no idea. But, we can’t make a blind assumption that skin color played a role in how these specific officers responded.
The response by some of those in law enforcement has been unacceptable. The initial reaction of the officials in Ferguson undoubtedly fanned the flames on that situation. A different type of trouble has sprung up in New York City. In that circumstance, the mayor helped support the assumption that race was a factor in that case. Then, the police union in New York City made a poor decision by protesting against the mayor during memorial services. It was a response that was polarizing at best. Even here in Pittsburgh, controversy arose when new Chief of Police was photographed holding a sign that read, “I resolve the challenge racism @ work”. For some reason the police union got upset about that. The Chief didn’t say that any officers were racist or acted improperly; he simply held a sign challenging the evils of racism. The negative response by some was an overreaction that is counterproductive to improving relations with the public.
Much of the general public does not understand police use of force rules. Part of this comes from misconceptions generated by television shows and movies. People see the TV cop shoot somebody in the arm or perform a Kung-Fu move to take a knife out of the hand of a suspect. It’s ridiculous. Police are trained to follow a use of force continuum and escalate through that continuum based on suspect reaction. If confronted with what could be deadly force, an officer may choose to respond in kind. Additionally, people need to remember that every physical altercation a police officer is involved in involves a weapon because the officer has a weapon that could be taken by a suspect. Non-compliance by any suspect creates a dangerous situation for all involved and everybody should to remember that resisting arrest is not a game. It’s vital that departments continue to work to educate the public. I recently saw a wonderful example of this being done when an activist agreed to attend a police use of force session. The activist should be commended for agreeing to participate and the results were eye-opening.
To me, the key to improving relations between the police and the public is in reserving judgment until facts are presented and in education programs provided by law enforcement. Additionally, all parties can demand more from each other in a civil manner. The police need to be better educators and less defensive. Activist groups can be patient and analytical. And the media can be more objective and less inflammatory. We should all have the same goal, which is a safer society in which laws are applied fairly.
About J.J. Hensley:
J.J. HENSLEY is a former police officer and Special Agent with the U.S. Secret Service who has drawn upon his experiences in law enforcement to write stories full of suspense and insight. Hensley, who is originally from Huntington, West Virginia, graduated from Penn State University with a B.S. in Administration of Justice and has a M.S. degree in Criminal Justice Administration from Columbia Southern University. The author is currently a training supervisor with the U.S. Office of Personnel Management and lives with his beautiful wife, daughter, and two dogs near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Mr. Hensley’s novel RESOLVE was named one of the BEST BOOKS OF 2013 by Suspense Magazine and was named a finalist for Best First Novel by the International Thriller Writers organization. (His second novel, Measure Twice, was published today!) He is a member of the International Thriller Writers and Sisters in Crime.
Note: A portion of sales for Measure Twice go toward breast cancer research through the non-profit group Par for The Cure.
And a few quick blurbs about J.J. Hensley’s books…
It’s about time somebody gave Hannibal Lecter a run for his money. Lester Mayton, the serial killer who sets new standards of murderous inventiveness in J.J. Hensley’s new novel “Measure Twice,” is up to the task. Hensley walks a reader right up the edge of unbearable dread, then leavens it with flashes of witty insights into the way local bureaucracies and political infighting can hamper something even as critical as the need to stop a killer before he strikes again.
— Gwen Florio, award-winning author of Montana and Dakota
J.J. Hensley keeps you turning the pages from the very start. A finely crafted story of redemption, MEASURE TWICE will keep your adrenaline pumping.
– Tim Green, bestselling author of The Forth Perimeter and Exact Revenge
“J.J. Hensley’s debut novel is a lean, fast-paced, suspenseful murder mystery — told with style, intelligence, and wit. It pulled me in immediately and kept me guessing from start to finish.”
— John Verdon – bestselling author of Let The Devil Sleep
RESOLVE marks the emergence of J.J. Hensley as a crime writer to watch, an author whose real world scars give him an insight into fiction’s mean streets.”
–James Grady – author of Six Days of the Condor and Mad Dogs
“The Pittsburgh Marathon serves as the backdrop for this impressive first novel from former police officer and Secret Service agent Hensley… This artfully constructed mystery makes effective use of the third-rate-college setting and of Pittsburgh, as revealed by the course of the marathon, marked by each of the 26 chapters plus a brief final one headed “.2.”
– Publishers Weekly (see full review here)
:One of the 10 best books of the year.”
– Pam Stack, Authors on the Air