Creating an Unforgettable and
Unreliable Main Character
By Wendy Tyson
In J. J. Hensley’s latest thriller, FORGIVENESS DIES, former narcotics detective Trevor Galloway receives an unexpected job offer: someone wants him to investigate a series of threats against a provocative presidential candidate. Only someone later turns up dead, and Galloway, notorious for his violent temper and just released from three years of incarceration in a psychiatric hospital, becomes a prime suspect.
New York Times bestselling author Joseph Finder says, “FORGIVENESS DIES puts a uniquely fascinating protagonist—a detective who can’t trust his own perceptions—into a complex political thriller, and the result is propulsive. Hensley starts with a punch, and accelerates from there.” Indeed, the book is a thrilling—and creative—ride.
While Hensley is known for his well-drawn yet flawed characters, Galloway is a special case. “Galloway is absolutely my favorite of the protagonists I’ve created thus far,” Hensley says. “He’s a disgraced Pittsburgh narcotics detective who has PTSD issues brought about after his abduction and torture by a ruthless drug gang. He’s been trying his hand at working as a private investigator, albeit unlicensed, with mixed results.”
Even after release from the hospital, life isn’t easy for Galloway. “His major obstacles are that the drug gang that took him still wants him dead, he’s had some drug addiction problems, and he has a mental condition that causes him to hallucinate if not properly medicated,” Hensley says. “However, when he’s medicated he can’t focus well enough to work cases, which for him is an addiction in itself. Therefore, he’s got a slew of problems and—let’s face it—it’s no picnic to have a lot of enemies and then not know which ones are actually real.”
In addition to an unforgettable and unreliable main character, FORGIVENESS DIES has an interesting structure, with each chapter tied to a photograph, a clue in the underlying mystery. Hensley says he’s used unusual storytelling devices for many of his books—the mileage of a marathon, the steps associated with recovery from addiction, and, in this case, a series of photographs from a roll of film.
“I never outline my novels ahead of time,” Hensley says, “but I’ll sometimes structure the chapters in a manner as to keep me within some bounds. As for what device I use, it depends on the story and the protagonist. In this case, Trevor Galloway has been given a set of photographs and has to piece together clues, many of which are in those photos, to presumably stop the assassination of a presidential candidate. By using a photograph description as a lead for every chapter, I give the reader a potential piece of the puzzle in the same manner Galloway received the clue.”
Hensley hopes that in this way, FORGIVENESS DIES serves as a journey for both the protagonist and the reader.
But Hensley had to do some research to get this aspect of the story just right.
“Back when I was a police recruit, I had received some rudimentary training on both 35mm and Polaroid cameras (yes, Polaroid—shut up),” he says. “By the time I joined the Secret Service, things had started to go digital. However, all of my training took place many years ago, so I had to do some research online and then enlist the services of my brother, who had taken up photography as a hobby. Fortunately, I had those resources available, because all I remembered from my law enforcement training were the terms ‘aperture’ and ‘F-stop’—and I have no idea what either of those things actually mean.”
Hensley’s experience as a police officer and special agent with the US Secret Service informed more than his knowledge of photography. Hensley draws heavily from his background and training when writing both novels and short stories.
“At first, I kept my writing more in the realm of local police work. However, lately I’ve started to feel more comfortable incorporating more of what I learned in the Secret Service,” he says. “My Galloway series involves protective details, counterfeit money, and more.”
But writing about the Secret Service was something Hensley was reluctant to do at first. “I have to credit my dear friend, and a talented writer, Tom Sweterlitsch for pushing me to write about the Secret Service,” Hensley says. “I was adamant about staying away from the topic, but he basically yelled at me for not going in that direction. Actually, he was really rude about the whole thing. Never mind—don’t give him any credit.”
Despite the dark material inherent in much of Hensley’s work, his sharp sense of humor shines in his novels—a sense of humor that’s evident when describing his journey to publication and subsequent success as an author.
“My wife and I had always been big readers of crime fiction and consumed a lot of paperbacks and audiobooks. However, when I was based in Washington D.C. with the Secret Service, we were devouring audiobooks at a ridiculous pace because of the lousy traffic there,” he says. “We would often listen to the same book, discuss it in the evening, and talk about what we liked, didn’t like, and what we would have done differently. Eventually, my wife suggested I try to write a book.”
Years later, after he’d left the Secret Service and moved to Pittsburgh for another federal job, Hensley decided to give writing a try. “I cranked out a manuscript within a few months. An agent liked my manuscript for Resolve and a publisher picked it up a few months later. The next thing I knew, it was an ITW Thriller Award finalist for Best First Novel. So…all of that is a way to use a lot of words to say I got super lucky.”
When it comes to advice for aspiring and new authors, Hensley, who is a regular columnist for International Thriller Writers’ The Thrill Begins—an online magazine designed to help new writers—is pragmatic.
“This sounds harsher than I mean it to be, but my advice would be this: don’t quit your day job,” he says. “What I mean is don’t expect to sign a six-figure contract with a Big Five publisher and to live the life of a career writer. It might happen! I hope it does. However, I’d say 95 percent of the writers I know have a ‘day job’ or are retired from a day job. So, be realistic about the business.”
While Hensley has followed his own advice and continues to work full-time at a day job, he’s also busy working on the fourth novel in the Galloway series. After that? Hensley is coy. “It’s a mystery I’ll keep to myself for the moment.”