'Resolve' author starts out with a bang in marathon tale

| Friday, May 2, 2014, 8:57 p.m.

J.J. Hensley won't be participating in Sunday's Pittsburgh Marathon as he has in the past.

The Cranberry resident and runner certainly has logged a lot of miles — and words — in using the race as the setting for his acclaimed debut novel, “Resolve.”

The book follows Dr. Cyprus Keller, a former police officer and professor of criminology at the fictional Three Rivers University who is an expert in criminal behavior and “victimology.” When a female student of his is murdered and his graduate assistant attempts to kill him, Keller finds himself frantically swinging back and forth between being a suspect and a victim.

Told over the 26.2-mile course of the 2010 Pittsburgh Marathon, with each of the 26.2 chapters representing another mile, Keller recounts the events leading to his current dilemma and how he is using the race to pursue the person behind the killing.

The book is drawing worldwide attention as a finalist for best first novel in the International Thriller Writers awards.

Other finalists in various categories include books by Stephen King, Lee Child and Lisa Gardner. “Resolve” previously was named one of the “Best Books of 2013” in the debut-author division by Suspense Magazine.

It is receiving heavyweight praise from the likes of bestselling authors James Grady (“Six Days of the Condor”) and John Verdon (“Think of a Number”), who wrote blurbs for the book.

The international Rachel Cotterill Book Reviews in England gives it five stars, calling it “a near-perfect debut,” a tale that grips “from the crowds milling at the starting line, to the exhausting sprint across the finish line.”

“When I first wrote ‘Resolve,' I was afraid the book would be considered ‘too local,' since the city of Pittsburgh plays such a central role in the story,” says Hensley, 39. “And not many novels use a marathon as a storytelling device.”

He and his wife, Kasia, are huge fans of mysteries and thrillers, and she suggested that he try to contribute his own take on the genre. Prior to 2010, he had not done any serious writing.

Hensley, a 1997 Penn State graduate, felt too many books in the genre were set in cities like New York, Los Angeles or London. He was determined to keep the book based in Pittsburgh.

“Pittsburgh is the perfect city for a book,” he says. “With all of its distinctive neighborhoods, it's really more like 20 settings than just one.”

For the book, he chose the 2010 marathon course, which began on Smallman Street, and ended at the David L. Lawrence Pittsburgh Convention Center.

Being a first-time writer among internationally known authors at the Thriller Writers awards gathering in New York City in July does not intimidate Hensley.

“I've been a police officer, a Secret Service agent and I have a daughter (Cassie) who is going through the terrible twos,” he says. “If those things haven't prepared me for anything, particularly the last one, I don't know what will.”

Hensley currently helps administer training operations for the U.S. Office of Personnel Management's Federal Investigative Services. His background in law enforcement plays a significant role in his writing.

“It probably gave me a slightly different perspective than some authors and helped me to get some of the details right,” he says. It was important to him to present the detectives in “Resolve” in a realistic fashion.

Hensley wanted his story to echo real life: “Not all choices are right or wrong, but they all have consequences,” he says.

More adventure is on its way from Hensley, who recently signed on for two more novels with, he says, “an exciting new publisher called Assent Publishing, based right here in Pittsburgh.”

Hensley loves the freedom of writing.

“There aren't too many endeavors out there where you can create something from nothing,” he says. “To be able to start with a blank page and turn it into something that evokes an emotional response, good or bad, is an amazing feeling.”

Hensley has not given much thought to working full-time as a writer.

“I love what I do for a living,” Hensley says, “and love serving my country.”

Rex Rutkoski is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4664 or rrutkoski@tribweb.com

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