Q&A with Rock Neelly, author of The Purple Heart Detective Agency

Q&A with Rock Neelly, author of The Purple Heart Detective Agency

When/why did you decide to become a writer?

In fourth grade in Mrs. George’s class at Union Valley Elementary in Hutchinson, KS. Everyone in the class wrote to an author. My author wrote back. However, I have forgotten who it was.  Mark Twain is out. The rumors of his death were not exaggerated by that time, though it was long ago.  But I’ve always written and wanted to write a novel.  This was at least my third attempt. The first two were me learning how to write one. 

What authors inspired you when you were younger? 

They really haven’t changed much from then to now. Okay, there are two sets – the entertainers and the literary.  For entertainers, Graham Greene’s spy novels are the best I’ve read.  His body of work is the ideal of what I’d like to pattern my career. He wrote what he called “entertainments” and then serious novels – in his case, serious Catholic novels.  But my favorite of his is easily The Quiet American. In that one he crosses the literary with the entertainment and ended up with a masterpiece.  

There are lots more, of course, which I must mention: Entertainers: Robert B. Parker, whom I am happy to say I met and who kindly did me a favor; Martin Cruz Smith (close to Greene in the literary); Don Winslow (whose surf noir is most close to my current series); and James Crumley (the decadence of his detective novels greatly influenced me).  

As for the literary, Hemingway captured me as a young man (although I know the current vibe on him is regarding his misogyny, but lordy, the man could turn a sentence); John Steinbeck; F. Scott Fitzgerald; and over the last few years, I’ve been taken with the transcendentalists, even to the point of obsession.  It all started with reading Susan Cheever’s American Bloomsbury. It so captured me that I wrote this gushing note to Ms. Cheever and she kindly replied. Nice of her. I read the sequel on Louisa May Alcott too, loved it, and then read pretty much all the transcendentalist work I could lay my hands on. So how nerdy is this:  I really, really like Ralph Waldo Emerson.  Try saying that at the sports bar during a Bengals game.


What books do you enjoy reading today?

As for new stuff, I got two books for Christmas that are begging at the shelf for me to start – Perfidia by James Ellroy, and The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell. I will certainly read Laurie R. King’s new Sherlock Holmes book, Dreaming Spies.

I always have multiple books going. I like Laurie R. King and her Mary Russell stories with Sherlock Holmes as her foil. I think Martin Cruz Smith is brilliant and try to read anything and everything he’s written. Charles Willeford and his Detective HokeMoseley series is a great read. John Burdett and his Bangkok series was a mind-blower.

But I’ve only given you the detective side of my reading. Perhaps Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh is my favorite book. I also reread Norman McLean’s A River Runs Through It every two years. Here’s a line or two from it: “Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.” Wow, that fella could write. 

I try to read all of Don Winslow’s work. He wrote a sequel to Trevanian’s Shibumi. Winslow’s sequel is called Satori. So although I read it long ago, I am going to reread Shibumi in order to fully appreciate Satori. I am pretty much a maniac.

What’s your latest book about?

My protagonists are veterans, both amputees, returned from Iraq. Roddy and Grace are heroes to our nation. These soldiers made a big sacrifice – they lost limbs, and they lost friends in war to protect our nation. And the novel is about what happens to two of them upon their return. They can’t find jobs. Their worlds have moved on, but strangely theirs were put on hold by their injuries. Their old lives are gone and to replace those vacuums they have opened a detective agency, using the skills they acquired in Iraq.

However, the two manage their problems quite differently: Grace carries his problems on his back in a big heavy bag that gets bigger with every case he takes on; Roddy is the more disturbed—violence, drugs, and illegal behavior. He is striking out. Neither has reached equilibrium.  This particular case allows them the first steps to reintegrate, but it’s a hell of a ride!  The Purple Heart Detective Agency is meant to be a page-turner, a cliff-hanger, and a laugh at the same time.

What was the inspiration behind your novel?

The kernel that popped to become The Purple Heart Detective Agency came from a late night documentary on returning wounded veterans.  The documentary was about Dr. Jack Tsao, a physician who has studied the use of mirrors to treat phantom limb pain in Iraq war veterans. I had been challenged by Robert Beattie, the true crime writer, to write a novel. So I was looking for a protagonist whose story needed telling. I saw the use of the mirror therapy on wounded vets and eureka!  I had my main characters.

Tell us about your previous work?

Well, over the last 10 years, I have graded about 9,000 essays, so have not had a lot of writing time, but prior to that, I wrote a novel that is still on the shelf in the hall closet. It’s a caper novel about stealing a bunch of money from the IRS – I think I figured out how! I did write a chapter in Writer’s Digest’s book for 2007 on Christian Fiction.  Look at the previous two sentences and say, “Cognitive Dissonance!” 

Before that, I was a contributing editor and wrote a lot, and I mean a lot of magazine articles on apparel for trade magazines. There are still a few of them floating around on the web, but the recession of 2008 knocked some of those trade mags out of circulation and thus most of those pieces are gone for posterity.  I did win an award at the University of Cincinnati for a travel piece I wrote about Ouray, Colorado. It was a nice cash award, but it has not been published. 

I have submitted poems to magazines and written some songs which friends and I have recorded; in particular Cam Miller, did some amazing work, but nothing professionally. The Purple Heart Detective Agency has been my baby for about two and a half years. 

How do you develop characters?

The novel was carefully plotted before I ever wrote a word. So I knew what characters were going to inhabit the book before I started writing. That development usually happens in my car thinking away over a cup of coffee on the way to work, or more likely in the hour or so as I lay there trying to go to sleep. But it got really interesting as I began the writing process.  After I was fully engaged in the book, the characters took over the wheel so to speak. For a time two summers ago, I dreamed dialogue between Roddy and Grace. I would sometimes have to get up in the night to jot down a key idea or line. A time or two, I would wake up laughing at something Roddy or Grace had said in my dreams. Weird, right? 

Since I had outlined each chapter and knew where each ended and where the next would be begin, the whole subconscious mind play worked. That process worked, letting the subconscious mind write at night and having me put it on paper the next day on Purple Heart. But I tried to let the subconscious run with the sequel—meaning no outline. I was seventy pages in and had not introduced the plot complication. It was cool, Roddy and Grace riffin’ on life, but the detective novel went nowhere. I may steal some of the dialogue, but the passages go on the scrap heap. 

What’s your “go to” genre?

Good question.  You know how on youtube that there is this genre called mash-ups?  Those are two songs mixed together to form a new sound – one with ties to the past and links to the new.  The Purple Heart Detective Agency is like that, I think. So what are its ingredients? Let’s do it like a cocktail: one part hard-boiled detective novel, a ’la Raymond Chandler 1940’s style (think Bogey); one part war story (think Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket); and one part Martin and Lewis goofy comedy.

So what is the genre?  Perhaps Surf Noir comes closest.  Who’s the godfather of that genre right now?  Don Winslow easily wears that fedora. Read Savages—well, read it after you read The Purple Heart Detective Agency. Winslow kicks serious ass in that novel. And in his others as well. Surf Noir has a California setting, a slacker mentality, including the pot smoking, violence, profanity (used for effect and humor), and of course humor. Hopefully, what we’re doing will make you laugh while you’re hooked into the plot. 

I wanted to write a book that both women and men would read while sitting at the pool, in bed, or on the couch and enjoy. It’s supposed to be a fast read with short chapters, but chapters that propel you into the next chapter.  I want you to care about the characters; they should make you laugh and cry. Their world is kind of a hyper reality, but the main characters are intended as real people – people with whom you could identify, someone who could be your brother. 

What other genres would you like to try your hand at?

I’ve got the Great American Novel somewhere up there in the grey matter organizing itself. I want to write a family saga of my clan from Oklahoma from their settlement in the Oklahoma land run through the cattle drive days, the turn of the century, the depression, the war years, and into the modern and post-modern eras. It’s ready to go. As I said before, anyone want to buy me a block of time?

Where do you see yourself and your career in the next ten years?

Probably doing about the same thing as now. Robert Frost said make your avocation, your vocation.  Make your hobby, your workI like what I’m doing. Why do I write? I guess I don’t know how not to. It is in me. I sometimes dream in dialogue.  Definitely during the writing of Purple Heart I found that the characters sometimes took off in ways I hadn’t outlined. They started having personalities on the page. I don’t think I’m crazy (well, a little), but the novel did consume me for a time.

Will I still be writing novels and having them published? 

Well, the reading public will ultimately judge.  But I tried to write a book I would love.  It’s quirky for sure. The world I’ve created is not quite reality – let’s call it hyper-reality. It’s fun. It’s the kind of place where everyone is witty and says what’s on their minds. It hopefully has moments when your heart is pained, and moments when your heart sings.  My editor told me she cried for joy for Roddy when he gets to walk again.But this world is also violent. It’s violent and there is definitely carnage. But the heroes save the day. 

So creatively, I evolved by letting the book be mine. I knew the greatest crime novelist Raymond Chandler’s rule about never letting magic (something that cannot be explained away) occur in the solving of a crime. Then I rejected it. Now the detectives use good old gumshoe procedures to find their way, but there is stuff happening here that will have you saying, “No you didn’t.” Oh hell yeah, I did.

What would you be doing if you weren’t writing?

I’d be reading. My knees won’t let me play basketball anymore. Roscoe my hunting dog went off and died so I don’t hunt pheasant anymore. So it’s reading. However, hanging out with granddaughters Lucy and Anna is pretty special.

Can you tell us what you are working on next?

The sequel is started already. I have the beginning and the ending and am outlining over the holidays to fit the pieces together. I have a short story or two in mind—I’ve been reading Dashiell Hammett’s The Big Knockover, a volume of short stories and novellas about the Continental Op.  I want to put Grace and Roddy into action in a short piece or two this year too.  Dashiell Hammett staggers me with his dialogue and storytelling, so I’ll use him for inspiration and then put him aside before I start writing as Dash can be pretty intimidating to someone writing about sleuths.

The sequel is about dualism. There are two cases. There’s two villains. There are much bigger parts for the two women in the story – Janelle and Karen move to the forefront a bit.  In particular, the first case is about reincarnation (two lives) and the second is about predictive policing (how the past can impact the future). But really, like the first, the novel is about Grace and Roddy. Having lost legs, they are out of step with society.  That sounds like a bad pun, and it is, but it is also true. The case(s) are simply excuses to put our heroes out there and let these soldiers not be forgotten. The case puts them out there to have an audience with whom to talk. They have a story and America needs to hear.

What authors, dead or alive, would you like to collaborate with?

Stanley Kubrick famously said that novels were written by a single individual and movies also should be. I agree with him. Novels, to my way of thinking, are a singular vision. That means one person’s vision. Writing a novel is often about denotation and connotation.  Denotation is dictionary meaning; connotation is the feel of a word. Writing in collaboration would change connotations of the novel through word choice.  I might choose “slimy.”  My collaborator might choose “slick.”  While they mean close to the same, they are not the same in connotation. At least for now, I’ll leave the collaborations to others. 

That being said, I would like to look over the shoulder of Salman Rushdie as he composes for a few afternoons. Don Winslow is someone I respect. I’d like to peek at his work-in-process. John Irving—yeah, him too.  Oh, and most significant, Anne Tyler. She’s brilliant. And very private, so to get to see her working would be terrific. But I would just as soon it be lunch with a drink or two. Collaborate is a bit much with someone you haven’t actually met. Writing is personal—people don’t become writers for the social aspects. Ha. It is not a social activity. It is hard work and it is solitary.

If the book was made into a movie, who would you cast in the leading role?

I think James McAvoy would be a terrific Grace.  Grace is guilt-filled and McAvoy seems to have that down perfectly, but he’s capable of a great range of emotion.  Grace has experienced loss and rage. And ultimately regret. McAvoy could do all that. 

Viola Davis would be perfect as Janelle Jackson, the homicide detective. She has ties to Grace, but can’t be his big sis anymore. He’s out in the cold cruel on his own, but Viola Davis has the humanity to show Grace the way back from his exile of the soul.  Yeah, she’s be great at that.

Roddy is a tricky role. He’s bigger and younger than Grace, but he’s a loose cannon and dangerous. Very, very dangerous. Channing Tatum or Chris Hemsworth have the build and the look to carry off Roddy’s particular brand of madness. 

For Angie, we would need someone who can jump the tracks at a moment’s notice. She’s the love interest for Grace, but she’s also the client and there’s this iffy thing going on with her the whole book. Hmmm, Natasha Henstridge has the right look, but inside me, I’m always thinking she’s gonnago all “species” on everyone, so the crazy might be too close to the surface there. 

What are your greatest challenges as a writer?

Finding that dear free time to write. Time, the ultimate commodity. Anyone want to buy me a block of time? I need every year to be a leap year and then some. Nicely, I have no night classes to teach this coming spring. My goal will be write 2000 words a week until school gets out. Then go to 10,000 through the summer.  With that, I should be pretty well done before school starts in the fall. Then the editing and smoothing process from my end can take place. It will be a challenge, but I’m looking forward to it. Roddy, Grace and I need to get together again.

Secondarily, I feared it would not be read. I thought it was pretty good, but as Emily Dickinson once said about judging her own work, “The mind is so near itself it cannot see distinctly.”  I know what she meant. She meant after you put your heart and soul in something it becomes quite difficult to judge its value. So I had friends read it – Greg Gaston, a local music writer, in particular, and the reaction was positive, so I proceeded to start marketing it. Luckily, Eric and Stephanie Beebe of Post Mortem Press and I met. I think it was the beginning of beautiful friendship, to paraphrase Bogart. 

Do you have a writing routine?

I don’t write full time. I write extra time. I teach full-time and do some other writing and editing part-time. I write when my grading time at the college is at a low ebb and I write late at night when my family has gone to bed. I am kind of a night owl.  This novel was written primarily during a summer break late at night.

I write a couple of days a week, generally from 11:00 pm to 1:00 am.  I can probably knock out 1500 words in that time, but the copy is rough. I smooth for a couple of days, rewriting, following up on research I discovered I needed as the chapter forms, and maneuvering the chapter to its breaking point. I outlined the book heavily, but outlined it so I knew where each chapter broke – at the visceral moment where that scene ended.  Each of those moments in the book is supposed to intrigue the reader to turn the next page, a new chapter which has its designed end.    

What advice would you give to a new writer?

First, have a completed book. Second, network with other writers. Three, attend writing conferences. Four, practice your pitches. Five, find a mentor to help you if at all possible. The roadside is littered with failed novels and false starts. A mentor can guide you through the rutted tracks. I was lucky enough to have two – Robert Beattie and Eric Beebe. 

I interviewed a lyricist once for Cin Weekly Magazinewho told me he “freetyped” a full page before his second cup of coffee. Then he reviewed it with his second go-round of java, found the best thread on the page and started there. That was pretty good advice. Having a strong outline is a great ally too. I have always told my composition students to understand that the first words you write do not have to be the first words the reader sees. You as a writer can backfill. Find your muse wherever in the story, chapter or passage it happens to land. Then backfill to get the details right. Smooth later. Get it on paper first. 

Here’s a great tip from the Miami crime writer Charles Willeford“Never allow yourself to take a leak in the morning until you’ve written a page. That way you’re guaranteed a page a day, and at the end of a year you have a novel.” That’s a dedication I do not have.

What’s been the biggest lesson you have learned on your writing journey? 

To trust my instincts, but to be open to advice. I think I found my voice in the novel, but I did have some trusted friends who gave me advice on what worked and what didn’t. Some of that advice started getting repeated. Obviously, changes needed to be made. I decided that I would not fall in love with my own words. Anything can be cut and anything can be rewritten. This novel has probably been through at least six major drafts and perhaps a 100 proofs and rewrites of sections. What is now the prologue was once a hundred pages back. What was the first word I wrote for the book is now not in the book. 

The most surprising lesson was that my subconscious guided me in passages and in dialogue. My outline was good and I stayed with it most of the way, but within chapters, characters had free reign to move about as they decided to—in my dreams and in my subconscious. That was an amazing process, seeing the characters emerge and act “on their own.” Sometimes I felt a conduit to the muse. Like I was just the medium putting lines to paper. It was fun.

I learned a lot. This is my third attempt at a novel, and it took me two years of writing and another year to sell it, edit it, market it and promote it. I’ve never worked so hard on something. It has been very rewarding. And now my publisher wants a second novel, so we have not heard the last of The Purple Heart Detective Agency and its heroes – Roddy and Grace.

About The Book

 Title: The Purple Heart Detective Agency
Author: Rock Neelly 

Genre: Comedy / Mystery

“What do wounded warriors do when they return from war missing a leg or two? These tough guys start The Purple Heart Detective Agency. Using battle-tested skills, laughing all the way, when others have turned their backs, these sleuths solve mysteries. Rock Neelly’s novel is easy to pick-up, hard to put down.”

– Robert Beattie, author of Nightmare in Wichita: Hunt for the BTK Strangler

“Rock Neelly hands the reader well-defined, believable characters, caught up in a deft blend of old-school detective noir and modern technology.”

– Brian Dobbins, author of The Witch’s Cartel and Corryville

The sudden disappearance of a magician isn’t usually cause for alarm, but it’s a different story when the disappearance isn’t part of the act.

Clay and Roddy are two war veterans – both amputees – trying to rebuild their shattered lives through their struggling Purple Heart Detective Agency. Then the beautiful Angela Thayer enters the picture, asking for their help in finding her missing friend and employer, Trevor Baker – stage name, Merlyn the Magician. The high profile case promises to jumpstart their careers…until the search leads to betrayal, intrigue and mind control. And then the murders begin…

A hard-boiled detective story of murder and mayhem, a war story of pathos and survival, an action story of intrigue and violence, a love story of abandon and betrayal, a stick in the eye of the entertainment industry, wry social commentary on how America treats its veterans of war, but mostly a rousing tale of brotherhood in war and beyond.

And of course, a foul-mouthed monkey named Jerry. 


About the Author

 Rock Neelly is a Professor of Communications and English in the Cincinnati area. He has written numerous articles in magazines, journals, and books over his career. In his storied career, Rock has been a newspaper man, a sales manager, a contributing editor, and a bad guitarist in a garage band. The grandson of cattle ranchers, Rock grew up on the high plains of Kansas shooting baskets and pheasant. He currently teaches film, literature, and writing at a community college in Northern Kentucky. He lives with his wife and family in Liberty Township, OH.The Purple Heart Detective Agency is his first novel. 


 player’s shades. The glasses cross over his Italian nose, flattened a bit from a fight in boot camp. He has on a Black Keys tee shirt cuffed above his “guns,” and his ever-present cargo shorts are strapped tight to his narrow waist, hemmed closed efficiently at the base of his stumps which begin above his knees, or where they would have been.
Sometimes it is hard for me to comprehend that he is still only 27 years old. Fallujah was 2004, only two centuries ago.


Yes, Angie was beautiful, but she had me with her voice and particularly her laugh. It was melodious, inviting, and immediate. It might as well have been a siren’s song– maybe a siren crooning some Joni Mitchell, because she did have just a little of that West L.A. lilt in her words and in the way she tossed her hair and held her head. I realized it had been too long between words. I had been taking inventory of her. I had been staring for way too long. She stood and light from the window illuminated her face. Angie Thayer was our new client. I
reflected on that a moment and decided I liked the idea of it.

Helen Treharne

I’m Helen Treharne, fiction author an creator of The Sophie Morgan Vampire Series. I live in South Wales with my husband, young son and rescue cat.
My books are available at all major digital retailers with soft back copies also available from Amazon, Createspace and other stores.
When I’m not writing fiction, I blog at www.WelshMumWriting.com, sharing my experiences of being a busy parent jugging working, writing, and more. Follow me there for my personal insights.

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