In J. J. Hensley’s captivating new thriller Resolve, Dr. Cyprus Keller, a criminology professor at a fictional Pittsburgh university, finds that he has to put his expertise in criminal behavior into practice. The reason: a former student is murdered, and Keller comes to suspect that some people very close to him are involved. As Keller uncovers possible motives and clues, and as the death toll rises, he becomes a potential victim himself—and a suspect.
All the while, Keller never stops training for the Pittsburgh Marathon, determined that a fellow racer—and the person he has identified as the mastermind behind the killings—will not live to cross the finish line
In this interview with Small Press Picks, Hensley discusses, among other things, Resolve’s exploration of justice and the moral ambiguity that sometimes accompanies it. (As the interview went to press, Resolve was named one of the Best Books of 2013 by Suspense Magazine.)
I really like the way that you structured the novel: the chapters track Keller mile by mile through the marathon as he pursues the killer, while flashing back to the events leading up to the race day. Did you have that structure in mind from the start, or did it take you a draft or two to decide that this was the way to go?
I had a good idea from the time I came up with the initial concept that the book would be constructed in this manner. By using 26.2 chapters to mirror the marathon, I was able to not only run parallel plot lines but also give some structure to my disorganized way of writing. I never outline and take very few notes, so by having the chapter structure in place, and having the story reflect what was going on in the setting, I was able to remind myself how the story was supposed to flow.
Given that you were once a police officer and a Special Agent with the U.S. Secret Service, you have significant real-world experience in law enforcement. In writing Resolve, was there anything about other fictional depictions of police work or criminal justice that you wanted to set straight? (I’m thinking especially of the way law-enforcement work is portrayed in many TV dramas.)
Over the years I’ve become very frustrated with the way law-enforcement officers are portrayed in fiction. It seems like anytime the protagonist is not a police officer, any law-enforcement officers used in a novel are either corrupt, incompetent, or just plain dumb. I was adamant that I would create realistic detectives who were skilled and competent, even if their interests run opposite of the protagonist.
Without giving too much away, there’s some moral ambiguity to the story. Keller has to skirt the letter of the law to arrive at what he believes to be just outcomes. Were you hoping that this would make Keller a more sympathetic character, or did you want his personal integrity to be more open to debate?
As a mystery/thriller fan, I don’t like the feeling of finishing a book and having it disappear from my memory in a few weeks. Stories where the good guy is COMPLETELY good and the bad guys are COMPLETELY bad, come across as phony to me. With Resolve, I knew that readers would finish the final page and still be thinking about Cyprus Keller. I see nothing wrong with some moral ambiguity. It’s more reflective of real life.
Keller’s passage through the marathon course gives readers a kind of tour of Pittsburgh, and we get a sense of both the revival and decline of various parts of the city. What inspired you to offer these glimpses into the city? Were there any ways in which you envisioned Pittsburgh as a character in the novel?
My wife and I didn’t move to the Pittsburgh area until 2006. When we first considered moving to the area, we had a preconceived notion that Pittsburgh was an industrial rust-belt city that suffered from harsh economic conditions. What we discovered was a vibrant city with booming industries and distinctive neighborhoods. I wanted readers to make the same discovery I had when I moved here. Also, I wanted local readers to have a chance to read a novel that accurately portrayed the city. I lived in Richmond, Virginia, many years ago and I remember picking up a Patricia Cornwell novel that was set in that city. I thought it was so cool to read a novel that perfectly described the streets around my apartment. With Resolve, it was my intention to give Pittsburgh-area residents the same feeling.
Do you plan a sequel to Resolve? If so, can you give us any hints about the challenges Keller will be facing? If not, do you have any other works in the pipeline?
I have two other manuscripts in the hands of my literary agent. One is called Measure Twice, and it follows a completely different plot line from Resolve. The other manuscript is titled Hedonistic Calculus, and it would serve as a sequel to both Resolve and Measure Twice as some of the characters come together in that book. People can follow my Goodreads page or Facebook page to track the progress of those novels. As far as what challenges Cyprus Keller may face … well, let’s just say that if you read Resolve you know that he ticks a few people off. If nothing else, he’s a knight in tarnished armor.
Is there anything else you’d like to say about your book, about your experiences with small-press publishing, or anything else?
The small-press experience has given me the opportunity to get my work out there. Not many big publishers wanted to take a chance on a novel that utilized a marathon as a storytelling vehicle. Now that it’s been very well received, perhaps some more doors will open for me, even if my work is a little unconventional.
Currently, the challenge is getting people to realize how many good small-press books are out there. Hopefully people will remember that just because a book does not show up as part of a giant bookstore display, or doesn’t pop up on an Amazon.com sidebar ad, it doesn’t mean the book isn’t great. Often, it is just a reflection of how much marketing money is behind a particular author. Hidden gems are out there, you just have to dig in the mine a little.
Would My Pick be Your Pick?If you're interested in ________, the answer may be "Yes":
• Mysteries with plenty of twists and turns. (Think of the novels of Michael Connelly.)
• Stories of disillusionment and (at least partial) redemption.
• Stories in which place--in this case, Pittsburgh--is a character.
• Distance running or any activity requiring endurance or resolve.