Joe LeValley, author of five Iowa-based crime novels in four years, had no plans to write books, but he has since retiring in 2018 after a 30-year career as an executive at Mercy Medical Center hospitals in Iowa.
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 stumbles and occasionally stumbles from one harrowing experience to another, readers also learn about the economic hardships facing small towns and local news outlets in the digital age.
The plots cut a wide swath. LeValley’s early story crossed the Iowa political landscape; his second effort focused on human trafficking. Then there was a story involving organized crime, followed by a Hollywood murder mystery in Iowa. His most recent book focuses on an unsolved bank robbery and murder that happened over 50 years ago.
LeValley’s protagonist is far too handsome to work in small-town journalism with low wages, a problem the author solves by giving Tony some backstory. Tony’s father, a successful novelist and screenwriter who teaches at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, set up a trust fund to help offset Tony’s living expenses.
Tony, of course, got into journalism for all the right reasons. He took the job as a reporter at Orney because he wanted to work with the paper’s owner, Ben Smalley, who was himself a successful big-city reporter and had won a Pulitzer Prize for his investigative reporting. (Spoiler alert: Tony also wins a Pulitzer for his work at Orney.)
Other elements of Smalley’s background are revealed in each novel, explaining why he cashed in on his own fame and fortune for a down payment on the Town Crier.
After buying The Town Crier, Smalley hired Harrington and later bought the local radio station in Orney, where Tony’s best friend and only competitor Doug Tenney works. With this miniature media empire, Smalley provides his capital city with information and publicity 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, roughly the same location as Orney. And like Tony, LeValley was a reporter for Iowa newspapers in Boone and Mason City.
It was in Mason City in the 1980s that a reader compared LeValley to longtime Des Moines Register columnist Donald Kaul. And that’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 sketching out a detective novel and wrote six chapters before his day job and reality kicked in.
By the time he married the girl he often flirted with in the clerk’s office, LeValley realized that a reporter’s salary wasn’t going to cut it. He left newspapers in 1983 for a community relations management job at Mercy Hospital in Mason City. From there, he earned an advanced degree in management, which led him to become a key executive in Iowa’s Mercy Health System.
As he prepared to retire, LeValley dug into his first six chapters of ‘Buying the Lede’ and over the next four months finished the book after seeking and receiving advice from the Des Moines-born novelist. , John Shorts, among others.
As the book was released in late 2018, LeValley began researching her second book “Cry from an Unknown Grave” on human trafficking. He wrote it in just 33 days.
Three more books followed, each about a year apart. All involved considerable research and unusual writing technique.
Because LeValley’s stories revolve around a set of recurring characters—Tony’s family, friends, co-workers, and local, state, and national police—LeValley writes with two screens open on his computer. As he creates the storyline on one screen, the second screen contains the names and attributes of all the characters who have appeared in Tony Harrington’s previous novels.
That way, when characters who appeared in previous stories resurface — as Tony’s father, mother, and sister often do — their plots are consistent. It also makes it easier to select which character can perform specific actions.
Over time, readers get to know the whole 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 take notes on how his characters might react to new challenges.
Novels by Tony Harrington
Published by BookPress Publishing; available at bookstores and online vendors, 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. Features many of Iowa’s touchstones, including bike paths and presidential caucuses, and ends in the basement of the Iowa Governor’s mansion, Terrace Hill.
Book 2: Cry from an Unknown Grave (2020)
Tony and fellow journalist 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 enlists the help of organized crime to uncover the fate of a cousin who mysteriously fell off a dike near the family’s home in Italy.
Book 4: Murder on Stage (2022)
Tony’s family is at the center of the murder of a Hollywood star in Orney, Iowa.
Book 5: Sophocles’ Rule (2022)
An unsolved 1964 bank robbery/murder leads to the murder of one of Orney’s most prominent citizens with tentacles that reach into the newsroom of the Town Crier.