Asked how he undertakes the task of writing, local crime novelist Rock Neelly creatively sets the scene:
“Goose quill in blood on parchment rolls, mainly written under the glow of lamps lit with whale blubber…” he quips with a writer’s affinity for atmospherics and a quick wit to boot.
Asked why he’s immersed in a genre riddled with crime, victims and detectives, Neelly suggests it’s a matter of geography.
“I grew up on the high plains of Kansas, grandson of two cattle ranchers and the son of two teachers,” says the author of the Purple Heart Detective Agency series. “My university was the home of detective noir writer Mickey Spillane…”
Add crime-writing Kansans Rex Stout and Sara Paretsky to the mix and it’s no wonder Neelly says his “detective roots run deep” in the Sunflower State.
“I guess Kansans are fascinated with big city crime,” the current Southwestern Ohio resident and college professor speculates. “Big cities are kind of foreign to us so maybe we’re intrigued with the dark sides.”
That fascination with the “dark sides” has resulted in Neelly’s “thriller trilogy.”
The trio begins with “The Purple Heart Detective Agency,” the “story of two soldiers who are wounded in Iraq, return to America and are unable to get their jobs back,” he explains. “The two start a detective agency in order to begin anew in California. Their first big case is that of a missing person -- a television magician.”
Neelly says he based the detective agency in Los Angeles because it has “just the right amount of flash and trash for private detectives. Raymond Chandler’s ‘The Long Goodbye’ was there and it doesn’t get better than that,” he says.
Book Two is titled “The Prince of the Border.” It features the same two characters working on a kidnapping case south of the border. “But there are several princes and several borders -- some symbolic and some not,” Neelly slyly reveals.
Neelly’s third book is “a bit different,” he says. “‘The Babylon Blues’ is composed of chronological short stories from the case files of the detective agency. “It can be read like a novel but each story is a stand-alone as well. It was complicated to write, but I like how it turned out and the reviews have been quite good.”
This prolific local author has also completed a novella entitled “A Brand New Me.” It differs from his other works in that “you don’t really know what happens or who made it occur until fifty pages in.”
For Neelly, writing is as natural as breathing. “I, seemingly, can’t stop writing,” he admits. “I have a couple of pieces out there expecting publication soon. One is, strangely, about John J. Audubon. I have eclectic tastes and interests.”
It seems Neelly was destined to be a writer.
Growing up in the West, Neelly was fond of cowboy stories. He particularly enjoyed the works of American West novelist Louis L’Amour, whom he describes as “a great storyteller.”
In high school Neelly wrote for a newspaper “with my buddy, Von Pounds, the painter and graphic designer who illustrated my latest book cover,” he says. In college he covered the sports beat for a daily newspaper. A couple of his articles were picked up for publication by the Associated Press, “which was a feat for a student,” he recalls.
Neelly “went to a teacher’s college in Kansas to start, majored in business for two minutes, discovered eventually that I was good in the written word and graduated with a B.A. in English.”
Next he went to the University of Denver and received a master’s in Mass Communications. After fourteen years in sales management -- “a long story for another day” -- Neely received another master’s degree, this time in professional writing and editing at the University of Cincinnati. “Then I started teaching.”
Today, when he’s not conjuring plotlines and perpetrators for his next novel, Neelly imparts an appreciation for the creative arts as a professor at Gateway Community and Technical College in Northern Kentucky.
“I teach writing, of course, but mostly these days I teach film -- Introduction to American Film and International Film. I love turning college students to great films like ‘Sunset Boulevard’ and ‘Amelie,’” he says.
Not surprisingly, Neelly has taught classes on detective literature, social media-and-culture and Early American literature including the work of his “favs,” Henry David Thoreau and Edgar Allan Poe.
“I do love wordsmiths,” the local author declares. Authors Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh are high on his list of the admired.
Greene, he explains, is “the British Catholic writer who was known for both entertainment spy novels and serious Catholic novels... The man had a way with words.”
“Evelyn Waugh is perhaps my favorite wordsmith,” Neelly reveals. “The language in Brideshead Revisited mesmerizes me. I have read it perhaps ten times. Then I discovered Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. They are the kings of detective fiction. I fell in love with their California world of gumshoes and mobsters.”
Neelly’s writing process: finding the time, patience and a good team
The most challenging part of the writing process for Neelly is ”finding time, mainly,” he says. “It’s also physically hard. That sounds crazy, but you should not sit for long periods of time at a keyboard -- bad for your carpal tunnel and bad for your circulation. I now have a stand-up keyboard so I try to stand some every hour I work.”