The Highly Effective Novelist

Suddenly prolific author Richard Yancey talks about his creation, Knoxville-based would-be detective Teddy Ruzak

Richard Yancey is the creator of Teddy Ruzak, the Highly Effective Detective. The first book, The Highly Effective Detective, came out in 2006; the second, The Highly Effective Detective Goes To the Dogs, is due out next month. Though the tone of most of the books is light-hearted, the novels have earned critical praise for the Gainesville, Fla., author. When we read the books, we can't help but notice the setting, a complicated city of reckless college students, eccentric beggars, stubborn cops, obsessive old ladies, and tattooed bohemians called Knoxville, Tennessee.

A reporter who researches Richard Yancey in the library before an interview might want to ask if he was aware there was another Richard Yancey who shows up in the catalog search: a longtime Internal Revenue agent who wrote a memoir called Confessions of a Tax Collector, an intimate expose of the insides of the IRS; one critic called it "curiously disturbing." Or still another Richard Yancey who wrote the hefty, serious, and "grittily convincing" novel A Burning in Homeland, about family tragedy in small-town Florida. Or another, a Rick Yancey who writes young-adult fantasy novels based on a character named Alfred Kropp, an awkwardly large teenager who gets involved in Arthurian time-travel; that series has developed an enthusiastic following, and may soon be the subject of a major motion picture.

It turns out they're all the same Yancey. And he published his first book just five years ago, when he was a 40-ish IRS agent in West Knoxville. It turns out he's at work on still another young-adult series, tentatively called The Monstrumologist, due out in late 2009.

"I've always been a late bloomer," admits Yancey, who turns 46 this year. "But I always wanted to be a writer, since middle school." Originally from Florida, he was involved in drama early on, both as actor and playwright, in various community and college theaters. "I had a script optioned, but nothing came of it." He also worked as a drama critic for a Florida journal. But at 28, anxious to get the sort of job that might have health insurance attached, he applied for a position with the federal government that he didn't realize at first was in tax collections. "I was always telling myself I'd write in my spare time," he says, though it was a while before he actually began doing it in earnest. It was the IRS that transferred him to Knoxville, in 1995.

"I'm a flatlander," he says. "It took me a few months to get used to the hills and curves. I wore out a set of brakes right away. But I really enjoyed the four seasons." July in Knoxville was hotter than he expected it to be. But then, his first winter in Knoxville brought several inches of snow. "It was pretty, but I had to get to work. I was trying to use a blow-dryer to melt my driveway." He and his wife, a fellow agent he met at the IRS, lived off Ebenezer Road.

They eventually moved to Farragut, near Anchor Park. "That's why I chose that for a setting" in the first of his detective series, he says. Ruzak's first case starts out with some mysteriously murdered geese at Anchor Park. "I know that area pretty well," he says.

Frustrated with his job, Yancey tried again to turn to writing, but found no success with it. His wife, Sandy, suggested he try to turn one of his old screenplay ideas into a novel. "But I'm not a novelist," he protested, until he discovered that maybe he was. "That first book was unique," he says. "A story I came up with, the bare bones of which was always in the back of my mind."

Eight years ago this summer, Yancey started writing his first book, in longhand. A Burning In Homeland.

It came out in 2003; it didn't make him rich—serious novels are rarely bestsellers—but got him some attention as an author. Kirkus compared the West Knoxville tax collector to Dumas and Bronte: "with shades of Monte-Cristo and Wuthering Heights, a beguiling, old-fashioned tale of desperate love and cruelty."

His entire unusual career as an author, of seven books, now, has emerged in the five years since then.

He followed in 2004 with his book about the IRS, Confessions of a Tax Collector, which was kind of an anomaly in his career as a novelist. "The IRS book, I had lived the experience," he says. "I didn't need a plot." Critics say it reads like a novel.

It's not the standard pattern for an author to produce a couple of serious books and move into fun genre fiction: murder mysteries and books for kids. Mystery novelists have traditionally insisted they were really working on a "serious" novel of greater depth and earnest intent. Yancey got that one out of the way first.

After 2004, his lot was cast. "The IRS doesn't take too kindly to employees talking about their inner workings," he says. "When I wrote the book, I had to make the choice to leave the IRS.

"I didn't have a trust fund, didn't have the luxury of taking a year or two to write another novel, didn't have a lot of cash to fall back on. It's much easier if you're writing in a specific genre, where rules are clearer and readers have certain expectations, certain conventions." For him it wasn't just one genre, but two: the young-adult fantasy market appealed, in part, because he had three sons, a couple of them teenagers. His novel, The Extraordinary Adventures of Alfred Kropp came out in 2005. Encouraged by the critical raves, he tried another popular genre, detective fiction.

"But I do think you can express big themes in popular literature. Ruzak gets quite existential."

The second in the series about the bumbling detective Teddy Ruzak—who lives in the Sterchi Building on Gay and whose office is in the Ely Building on Church—is called The Highly Effective Detective Goes to the Dogs. It's due out in stores on August 19.

Based on reviews and sales of the first book (its first printing sold out), it's considered a success; Yancey's now working on the third, and knows there will be at least four. The text is probably a little lighter than most murder mysteries, with mostly realistic situations but a good measure of humor; it seems to be a challenge for illustrators who aren't quite sure what tone to go for.

Though the new book is a murder mystery about a homeless guy bludgeoned to death in an alley, and the detective, facing looming middle age and existential loneliness, questions the meaning of life and the existence of God, the bright cover illustration shows a couple of cute pooches, one of them a beagle wearing a fedora askew and holding a magnifying glass in his mouth. It could pass for a poster for a Disney movie starring Dean Jones. The image has little to do with the plot, though in the course of the book lonely Ruzak does acquire a mutt from the pound on Bearden Hill.

"When I saw the cover, I thought, Oh, man, is this too cutesy?" Yancey admits. "But unless you're a writer with a lot of clout, you don't have a lot to say about cover art," he says. "You don't even have much to say about titles. But it's one of those situations where you can be expecting a mystery and have a chuckle, or you can be expecting humor and find some bigger themes."

"Everybody loves this guy," Yancey says of his character Teddy Ruzak. Publisher's Weekly compared Ruzak to Columbo and Ignatius J. Reilly, the ungainly protagonist of the iconic New Orleans novel, A Confederacy of Dunces. "I love him, too." He has some empathy for the character. "All the navel-gazing, all the self-reflection, the questioning of assumptions and presumptions, that's me. Socially I'm not quite as retarded as he is. But in the back of my mind, I'm a frustrated P.I."

Teddy Ruzak is an overlarge, underachieving police-academy dropout and former security guard from Fountain City who comes into an unexpected inheritance when his mother dies. He always wanted to be a private eye, and sets himself up with an office in the Ely before he knows what he's doing. The Ely Building is real, a handsome, century-old townhouse-style brick building renovated a few years ago for use as a compact office building, but Ruzak's Ely is a slightly taller, slightly seedier version of it, with a German dry-cleaner on the ground floor.

The Knoxville he describes is slightly off-register. Though several businesses, like the Bistro, the Fresh Market, and Ruzak's favorite destination, the Bearden Krispy Kreme, appear by their real names and real locations, in Teddy Ruzak's Knoxville, the Sterchi has hardwood floors, there's still a CVS on Gay Street, still a Java in Homberg Place, and, in the new book, it still snows.

Though he also uses real-life Knoxville as a setting for his Alfred Kropp fantasy series, he set the first draft of his Ruzak series in New York. His editor didn't like the idea. The bumbling New York detective had been done, for one thing, and Yancey's lack of knowledge of Manhattan was sometimes too obvious. "Why don't you set it in Knoxville?" the editor suggested.

He thinks the suggestion worked perfectly. "One of the things that appeals is its size," Yancey says. "All the opportunities. Knoxville has a whole wide range of characters. It's hard for me to set a mystery in a small town, and Knoxville's big enough." Ruzak ranges pretty widely around the area, from Oak Ridge to Johnson City; suburbanites and UT academics play roles in his cases. But he always circles back to downtown.

"I love downtown Knoxville," Yancey says. "It's got so much character, so much material. It's unique." He visits regularly; he was here for a wedding in May, and was impressed with the progress of Market Square. "And all the people living on Gay Street," he says. "I was telling my wife, we ought to just bite the bullet and get a condo or loft in downtown Knoxville," perhaps as a place to spend the summers. "But what do they do for groceries?"

You get the impression it may be a question of immediate relevance; What they do is what Ruzak does, and Ruzak's creator needs to know. He's past deadline on his third Ruzak mystery. m