Joe LeValley, author of five Iowa-based mystery novels in four years, didn’t set out to write books, but that’s what he’s been doing since retiring in 2018 from a 30-year career as an executive at Iowa’s Mercy Medical Center hospitals.
LeValley’s books are set in the fictional town of Orney, Iowa, and follow the personal and professional life of Tony Harrington, a reporter for the local newspaper, The Town Crier.
As Tony moves and sometimes stumbles from one harrowing experience to another, readers also learn about the economic difficulties facing small towns and local news organizations in the digital age.
The plots cut a wide swath. LeValley’s first story wound across Iowa’s political landscape; his second effort focused on human trafficking. Next up was a story involving organized crime, followed by a Hollywood-comes-to-Iowa murder mystery. His most recent book focuses on an unsolved bank robbery and murder that occurred more than 50 years ago.
LeValley’s protagonist is far too good to be working in small-town journalism where pay is low, a problem the author solves by giving Tony a backstory. Tony’s father, a successful novelist and screenwriter who teaches at the University of Iowa Writers Workshop, has created a trust fund to offset Tony’s living expenses.
Tony, of course, got into journalism for all the right reasons. He took the reporting job in Orney because he wanted to work with the newspaper’s owner, Ben Smalley, who was himself a successful big-city journalist and had won a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting. (Spoiler alert: Tony also wins a Pulitzer for his work in Orney.)
More pieces of Smalley’s background are revealed in each novel, providing some rationale for why he cashed in his own fame and fortune for a down payment on the Town Crier.
After buying The Town Crier, Smalley hired Harrington and later purchased Orney’s local radio station, where Tony’s best friend and only competitor, Doug Tenney, works. With this miniature media empire, Smalley provides his county-seat town with news and advertising opportunities that keep it, if not vibrant, at least viable.
There are several similarities between LeValley and Tony. Both are musicians; Tony plays the piano; LeValley plays drums and guitar and is a member of the Iowa Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. LeValley grew up in Dayton, a small community south of Fort Dodge, in roughly the same location as Orney. And like Tony, LeValley was a reporter at Iowa newspapers in Boone and Mason City.
It was in Mason City during the 1980s that a reader compared LeValley with long-time Des Moines Register columnist Donald Kaul. And it’s where LeValley got the idea for what turned out to be his first Tony Harrington novel, “Burying the Lede.”
After covering six murder trials as a reporter, LeValley began outlining a crime novel and wrote six chapters before his day job and reality intervened.
By the time he married the girl that he often flirted with in the clerk of court’s office, LeValley realized that a reporter’s pay was not going to cut it. He left newspapers in 1983 for a job handling community relations at Mercy’s hospital in Mason City. From there he got an advanced degree in management, which led to his becoming a key executive in Iowa’s Mercy health care system.
As he was preparing to retire, LeValley dug out his first six chapters of “Burying the Lede” and over the next four months finished the book after soliciting and receiving advice from Des Moines-born novelist John Shors, among others.
As the book was being published in late 2018, LeValley began researching his second book “Cry from an Unknown Grave” about human trafficking. He wrote it in just 33 days.
Three more books followed, each about a year apart. All involved considerable research and an unusual writing technique.
Because LeValley’s stories revolve around a set of recurring characters — Tony’s family, friends, workmates and police at the local, state and national levels — LeValley writes with two open screens on his computer. While he creates the storyline on one screen, the second screen contains the names and attributes of all the characters who have appeared in earlier Tony Harrington novels.
That way when characters who appeared in earlier stories resurface — as Tony’s father, mother and sister often do — their storylines are consistent. It also makes it easier to select which character might take specific actions.
Over time, readers get to know the entire town of Orney as if they lived there.
The technique also allows LeValley to experiment with new situations — domestic terrorism, for example, in an upcoming book — and make notes about how his characters might react to new challenges.
Tony Harrington novels
Published by BookPress Publishing; available at bookstores and online sellers, including Amazon.com and JosephLeValley.com
Book 1: Burying the Lede (2019)
Introduces readers to small-town reporter Tony Harrington, who doesn’t accept the official version of a rural Iowa murder. Includes many Iowa touchstones, including bicycle trails and presidential caucuses, and ends in the basement of Iowa’s governor’s mansion Terrace Hill.
Book 2: Cry From an Unknown Grave (2020)
Tony and fellow reporter Madeline Mueller investigate an underage sex trafficking ring after receiving a late-night call from one of the victims.
Book 3: The Third Side of Murder (2021)
Tony seeks the help of organized crime to learn the fate of a cousin who mysteriously fell to her death from a sea wall near the family home in Italy.
Book 4: Performing Murder (2022)
Tony’s family is at the center of the murder of a Hollywood star on location in Orney, Iowa.
Book 5: The Sophocles Rule (2022)
An unsolved 1964 bank robbery/murder is behind the killing of one of Orney’s most prominent citizens with tentacles that reach into The Town Crier newsroom.