Resolve by J J Hensley
As a reader, it’s quite common to go through phases when the habit itself takes you forward even though the excitement and enthusiasm have temporarily evaporated. You keep turning the pages of the next so-so book, eating up the words mechanically, always hoping the book after that will be better. That you will suddenly find the wellspring of enthusiasm rises up again, endowing the mechanical chore with the interest you always hope to find. The dry patches can be days, weeks or, on one or two rare occasions, months. But in a long life spent reading, I’ve never been without the enthusiasm for long. I suppose this means I have to speculate on what might bring back the sense of excitement. It can just be the cleverness of the ideas in a story or book. Even though the writing itself may be mundane, there can be excellence in the quality of the underlying narrative. It’s one of these, “Now how did anyone think up something like that” moments that just brighten my day. I had one of those days recently — a mystery novel with a murder method quite unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. That kind of revelation keeps me going for a long time.
All of which brings me to Resolve by J J Hensley (The Permanent Press, 2013). I have to confess my initial feeling was one of dread. There’s one of this long authorial notes thanking everyone for their encouragement and help in producing the work in front of me. Even the dog wagged its tail when this advanced reading copy came back from the presses. But once I started on the book itself, I was captivated. This is the story of a man running a marathon. He’s been training for this latest excursion through the twenty-six and then some miles for weeks and he’s aiming to match his best time. He’s been slightly knocked around and is not at his best. So the structure of the novel takes us along the route of the run and, after a note about each successive mile, flashes back to the weeks leading up to this race. In a way, both narrative tracks are a race. There’s the literal run and his efforts to maintain his training regime despite the deaths of several people around him. Obviously he’s survived to take part in the race but that, in itself, was a close-run race. Fortunately, in the cooling down period immediately after the race, he gets to talk with interested parties and, in their different ways, they celebrate the fact he emerged a winner. Well, they say that everyone who finishes a marathon is a winner, no matter what their time.
So here’s one more reason for my continued enthusiasm for all things written. On occasion, you meet a protagonist and feel you know him or her. It’s the credibility factor. No matter what the plot, you feel this person walking (or running) through events says what you would expect in the circumstances and, given your knowledge of his or her background, behaves as you would expect. In this novel, we meet a professor of criminology at a second-rate university. This is a man who has improved himself. He began as a cop, switched over to being a probation officer, and then moved into academic life. This gives him a strong sense of who he is. On the streets and having to deal with sometimes very disturbed offenders, he learned how to handle himself. This did not, of course, prevent him from having a brain and, when he met the right woman who supported him and built up his confidence, he became a good teacher.
At this point, I need to congratulate the author because, for someone who has a background in law enforcement and the probation service, this character is remarkably naive when it comes to dealing with students. It seems not to occur to him that these are dangerously manipulative people who will try to engineer events so they will get what they want out of their university experience. In a world where he’s encouraged to engage in mild levels of self-deception, he therefore misreads the motives of many of those around him. It takes us until the end of the book for all the misconceptions to be swept away and the truth to stand clear. I was also impressed by the genuine acuity of both the detectives investigating the death of one of his students and of the senior member of faculty who supported his appointment. Quite independently and for completely different reasons, they are able to understand exactly what probably happened and, in their own ways, to be philosophically resigned to accepting the outcome. After all, with only their experience to rely on and absolutely no evidence, what can they do except walk away? From this you will understand this is a book that has total command of the plotting. There’s real intelligence at work at every stage. As a murder mystery that also gives us a first-person insight into the process of investigating a murder and what follows, it all fits together beautifully.
So there you have it. Resolve by J J Hensley is that very rare beast: an intellectual feast with credible characters working through to a satisfying outcome. That this is a first novel makes the achievement all the more pleasing. This is an author to watch!
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.