Gateway Professor's Debut Novel Stars Veteran Amputees as New Detectives
First, Rock Neelly and I are friends and I admire anyone who completes and publishes a readable first novel, which Neelly has done with The Purple Heart Detective Agency.
Neelly discussed the process of writing his first novel over coffee recently in a back room of Roebling Point Books & Coffee in Covington. His uniform of the day was a white modestly starched shirt, a gray vest, and blue jeans with somewhat of a crease. His face sports a goatee, his black hair is combed straight back and he finds laughter easily.
What’s good about this tome of detective fiction is that it stays together, characters are roundly solid, the plots and subplots have more twists than a bag of Grippos, and the major theme of the value and treatment of war veterans rages through the pages. Topics such as phantom limb pain and extrasensory perception or clairvoyance as practiced by Edgar Cayce play important roles in this 280 page adventure.
The two main characters are Iraq war veterans, Clayton having lost one leg, and Roddy having lost both.
What could be better is that segments of the novel tend to be overwritten. For example, there’s a big gun fight that goes for pages in planning, then pages in execution, then pages of post-mortem.
“I wanted to edit the gun fight down and did a little,” said Neelly. “That part has so much overt violence, I wanted to keep it in perspective.”
And, too often, the lead character Clayton Grace, who is a single amputee, has to describe the street scene out his office window, passing scenery on the expressway, and the overarching details of the beauty of a Glock 9. The novel could come at 250-260 fast-paced pages.
With the overwriting aspect nit-picked, this is a novel screaming to be made into a movie and double screaming for a sequel. As with psychological thrillers by Newport’s Jack Kerley, I finished Purple Heart Detective Agency wanting to read more and wondering what Clayton and Roddy will do next.
Kerley, author of Her Last Scream, The Hundredth Man, and The Death Collectors draws on detective Harry Nautilus to solve strange and distorted crimes wherever he finds them, mostly in Southern Alabama. Kerley’s writing is fast, compact, and a couple of his books have been optioned for movies.
“I was doing some editing for Robert Beattie and he said he was shelving a novel he’d been writing and that I should write one,” said Neelly. “That was in 2011.” Beattie, author of Nightmare in Wichita: Hunt for the BTK Strangler, mentored Neelly through the writing process.
Getting into Neelly’s book, some scene setting must take place. The setting is southern California, specifically Greater Los Angeles with a side trip or two to San Diego. Clayton and Roddy are Iraq War veterans. Clayton, the single amputee, and Roddy, the double-amputee with a macabre sense of humor, are unable to find what they consider regular work so they establish The Purple Heat Detective Agency.
“Clayton Grace, your one-legged detective, at your service,” says Grace in a self-deprecating and ironic sentence. Countering what might be popular thought about veterans, service provided by Grace and Roddy is totally fly by the seat of their pants.
One aspect which Neelly handles deftly is character descriptions:
“Roddy was all iron and kinetic energy. His lean, sculpted cheek-boned face is notched below his slightly longer than GI flattop of black hair. His eyes are black with nearly no irises. They are dilated and I know he is high. He sports a black pearl earring in one ear. … Sometimes it is hard for me to comprehend that he is still only 27 years old. Fallujah was 2004, only two centuries ago.”
Neelly is equally good on the femme fatale, Angie Thayer, and his Iraq buddies, Penny and Robo.
But Roddy, a computer expert whose ‘mando’ (highly detailed) reports fill Grace’s head with facts, more centers himself at the end of the novel than does Grace who puts us in Topango Canyon ready for a sequel.
Given that both main characters are military veterans who have lost limbs, readers can expect some soldier language but it is not overboard. Still some readers might be put off.
Neelly, a Professor of English at Gateway Community & Technical College, has a second novel started and two others on a shelf somewhere. Readers can count on flashbacks (the book starts with one), more than adequate character sketches of good guys, bad guys, a femme fatale or two (or three), and the supposedly missing person, Trevor Baker.
As the coffee dwindles, conversation turns to Neelly’s influences and he lists Raymond Chandler, considered a master of detective fiction, which, of course, is Neelly’s chosen genre. He also lists detective fiction authors, James Crumey, Don Winslow, and Charles Willeford. Neelly reads Arthur Conan Doyle, but says, “I’m not as smart as Sherlock Holmes.”
The Purple Heart Detective Agency is available at Roebling Point Books & Coffee, other independent booksellers, and online.
Neelly and his wife, Vicki, live in east Cincinnati. A native of Wichita, Kansas, Neelly serves on the board of the Friends of Steely Library at Northern Kentucky University, and has worked in newspapers and played bad guitar in a garage band.
Written by Roger Auge, RCN contributor