secret_history (2007-10)

Ruzak, P.I.

A recent mystery novel, and its highly effective locale

by Jack Neely

I've long been convinced that Knoxville will come into its own when novelists who don't live here find it useful as a setting. Especially mystery novelists. To be a good setting for a mystery novel, a city has to have a diversity of potential scenes of light and shadow, and a diversity of characters, high and low.

Best-selling mystery writer Patricia Cornwell has used Knoxville settings in a couple of her novels, largely due to her fascination with Dr. William Bass and the Body Farm, but her Knoxville frankly seems pretty pale.

Last month I stumbled across another novel in the New Books section at the library. It's a slim volume, not much bigger than a Hardy Boys' book, by a guy named Richard Yancey. It's called The Highly Effective Detective . Published last summer, the book has gotten nationwide praise ("one of the most well regarded and enjoyed mystery debuts of the year," according to Publishers Weekly ). It's said to be the first in a series about an overweight gumshoe named Teddy Ruzak, who has his office in a building called the Ely, in downtown Knoxville.

It's an odd little thing, hard to put away. Much of the narrative is as silly as the title, and deliberately so; it's at least half comedy. But it's also a well-wrought detective yarn, somewhere between Raymond Chandler and Encyclopedia Brown. The story takes some surprising twists and turns that are so complicated I couldn't describe them without reading it again.

Of all the novels ever written about Knoxville, it's probably the most place-specific of any since Cormac McCarthy's 1979 book, Suttree --which it does not resemble in any other way.

Ruzak lives in the Sterchi Lofts. The description of the Bistro is especially rich ("The servers were all either actors or students studying to be actors and therefore could be counted on to be temperamental.")

In general, he portrays Knoxville as it was about five or six years ago, when the Old City Diner was open, and the Crescent Moon was still serving cool avocado sandwiches in its subterranean recess. But also when you could still say, "the downtown pretty much died on the weekends, despite millions of dollars spent on revitalization, and all the tax breaks and rent subsidies they handed out, trying to get people to move downtown."

In Yancey's Knoxville, at least there's a Walgreen's on Gay Street. Maybe he remembers the Revco/CVS, which closed in the '90s.

The Tennessee Theatre is described as it was quite a few years ago, "where fading singing stars came for concerts and where old movies that hardly anyone came to see played on the weekends." I remember when the Tennessee was like that, maybe 25 years ago, but the last few old movies I've seen at the Tennessee sold out before showtime.

He takes a few geographical liberties: For some reason Jackson Avenue is repeatedly mentioned as if it's in the vicinity of the Bijou, he puts a Central Baptist Church Cemetery on Central Avenue, and there are a few other errors here and there. But overall, it's our hometown.

The strange incident that sets off the mystery is the slaying by SUV of some baby geese at Anchor Park near Farragut. There's a lot about Fountain City, Ruzak's family home, a scene in Halls, a meal at the IHOP on Lovell Road, and a climactic scene at the Krispy Kreme in Bearden.

Author Yancey now lives in Florida, and has a couple of other successful books to his credit, but he apparently lived in Knoxville for about about a decade when he was working as an IRS agent. His memoir, Confessions of a Tax Collector , got impressive reviews. Fiction writing is a safer vocation.

The novel reminds us that Knoxville is, for either a reporter or a fiction writer, a usefully complicated setting. Mountains, atomic labs, modern sprawl, a university, lakes, parks, and in the middle, an old-fashioned downtown.

Much of the book's action takes place in one particular downtown spot, the Ely Building. Ruzak's mysterious secretary, the former waitress Felicia, on whom he has a muddled crush, parks at the Hilton garage nearby. Here Ruzak encounters corrupt cops, sexy clients, batty old ladies, shifty killers, and disgruntled state licensing authorities.

The real Ely Building is the compact, offbeat ca. 1900 townhouse on Church Street between the bigger Cherokee Building, currently under renovation, and a parking lot. Constructed of red brick and marble, it has an elaborately square front stoop supporting a second-floor balcony where, lately, sit a couple of rocking chairs.

It looks like it could have hosted a credible private eye's office. In the book, the Ely is a multiple-tenant building, as, at one time, it was. Ruzak has his office on the second floor, above a dry cleaner.  

For the last couple of decades, though, the Ely's been a single-firm address, with space for one big office. In the '80s and '90s, it was home to Ross/Fowler, architects, who renovated it.

One of the most recent occupants, a firm that moved in after the Ely had suffered a long spell of vacancy, is the firm of Doublejay Creative, which makes websites and films. I called my friend Larson Jay, half the firm monicker. His own office is upstairs, too, but he hadn't yet heard about the novel that has dramatic scenes based in his building. Larson's as interested in local history as I am, and he has done some interesting research into the place.

A century ago, this stretch of Church Avenue was kind of a physicians' district, and the first occupant was apparently Dr. S.R. Miller, who had both his residence and office here. Despite the fanciful lettering on the marble outside, it probably wasn't called the Ely Building until the law firm of Ely & Ely moved in, around 1950, and stayed for about a quarter century. Before that, it had been for a few years the home of an upstart AM radio station called WBIR. Named for then-owner J.W. Birdwell, it grew up in wartime and featured news and big-band music. When WBIR moved to bigger quarters, radio station WIBK, started by rebellious evangelist J. Harold Smith, moved in.

In the lobby of the Ely today is a framed photograph of a bright-eyed country quartet singing into a WIBK mike, maybe in this building. In the early '50s, WIBK was shut down by an FCC lawsuit in federal court, apparently over Smith's shady business dealings. The joint was quieter after that.

The Ely was home to lots of things over the years, doctors, opticians, insurance agents, collection agents, lawyers, the Knoxville Musicians Association Local #546, but nothing more consistently than its basement tenant, the Letter Shop, an old-fashioned print shop run by a couple of well-remembered ladies. No detectives in the records, but the good ones fly under the radar.

Believe it or not, this is not the little building's first appearance in a nationally received novel. The Letter Shop has a cameo in David Madden's autobiographical 1974 novel, Bijou . The aspiring young writer gets his first work printed there.

Anyway, it just goes to show. Our best and our worst sometimes combine to make the place an ideal setting. Maybe a fun novel can help us appreciate that.