Joe LeValley has written a compelling crime novel, “Burying the Lede,” about a small-town Iowa newspaper reporter named Tony Harrington, who works for the Town Crier in fictitious Orney, Iowa.

For many journalists the desire to write a newsroom novel looms larger than dreams of winning a Pulitzer Prize. And while I’ve known several Pulitzer winners, and more than a few reporters who write books, LeValley is the first to produce a satisfying murder mystery set in a small-town newsroom. 

The plot centers on a double murder that consumes Tony, who follows leads that wind from his small Raccoon River valley town through Iowa’s political culture and across a tantalizing race for governor.

Tony, it should be noted, is the son of a famous writer who teaches at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and who supports his son’s journalism with a trust fund. How else, LeValley explained, could a reporter live comfortably in a small town on the piddling wages of modern journalism?

For me, LeValley’s own backstory is at least as interesting as Tony’s.

The author is a member of the Iowa Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and has played drums throughout his life after growing up in Dayton, a small community south of Fort Dodge in roughly the same location as the fictional Orney.

After receiving a public relations degree from Drake University in 1976, LeValley worked as a reporter at newspapers in Boone, which served as the model for Orney, and Mason City, where Globe Gazette editor Bill Brissee encouraged him to write columns for a weekend edition. 

LeValley mastered that task to the point that one reader described him in a 1982 letter to the editor as a young Donald Kaul.

But unlike Tony, LeValley had no trust fund. After he married the cute girl from the clerk of court’s office who had steered him toward several scoops, LeValley realized he couldn’t raise a family working nights on reporters’ pay.

So, he went into public relations, got an MBA and a career in healthcare. He retired last summer as a senior vice president for Mercy Medical Center after more than 30 years at hospitals in Mason City and Des Moines.

But back in the 1980s, before LeValley left the newsroom, he began writing a novel that was loosely based on a couple of sensational murder trials he’d covered. He wrote six chapters while still at the Globe Gazette, and put them in a folder, where they remained until a couple years ago when he challenged himself to finish it by writing small chunks every day.

Four months later, after writing every day except Christmas, LeValley had 29 chapters, which he shared with a handful of people, including Des Moines native and best-selling author John Shors, who returned the manuscript “with notes all over” about what scenes to expand and what to cut. “John was very helpful,” LeValley said.

LeValley’s descriptions include such Iowa touchstones as our presidential caucuses, bicycle trails and Bill Bryson’s “The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid.”

I particularly enjoyed the courtroom scenes that brought to mind trials I’d covered as a young reporter in eastern Iowa four decades ago.

In a postscript, LeValley says, “All of the characters and facts and places in this book are fiction.”

That may be true, but I have to say that as a reporter who covered courts, police and politics in Iowa, I know several of his characters, including the defense lawyer, courtroom judge, Tony’s Division of Criminal Investigation source and his radio reporter friend.

If you’d like to meet them, too, you can find them locally at Beaverdale Books and Barnes & Noble, or online at Amazon.com and 
www.josephlevalley.com.