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The Elbert Files: Iowa murder mystery


A Hollywood actress, working on location for a major motion picture in a small Iowa town, is bludgeoned to death with a golf club for no apparent reason.

The trail of clues left by the killer leads to a prominent figure. As the case unfolds, a golf course custodian living 200 miles away also dies mysteriously.

All of the above ultimately leads to a brutal reenactment of the movie’s plot, which had the victim – the character played by the now dead actress – being suffocated in a grain silo.

If that’s not enough to tempt you to read Des Moines author Joseph LeValley’s new novel, “Performing Murder,” I’m guessing you are not the murder mystery type. 

LeValley, a onetime newspaper reporter turned health care executive has written four murder-mystery novels since retiring from Mercy Medical Center in Des Moines in 2018.

He began his first book during the 1980s while working for the Mason City Globe Gazette but didn’t finish it until after he retired from Mercy. 

“It took me 33 years to write my first book and 33 days to write ‘Performing Murder,’” LeValley  said during a recent book signing. “Obviously, I’ve learned something along the way.”

One thing he learned is how to keep his characters straight, because although the books revolve around a central set of individuals, each book brings in new people who may or may not show up in future stories.

LeValley writes with two computer screens. On one, he writes his story, while the other screen contains a list of previous characters and identifying traits.

The protagonist in LeValley’s books is Tony Harrington, a reporter for the Town Crier, a daily newspaper in the fictional Iowa town of Orney, located in the Raccoon River valley south of Fort Dodge, roughly near Dayton, the Webster County community where LeValley grew up. 

But unlike Dayton, a community of just 800 residents, Orney is a county-seat town, more like Boone (population about 12,500), where LeValley began his reporting career in the 1970s.

His first book, “Burying the Lede,” is a political thriller that includes suspenseful action in the basement of Iowa’s governor’s mansion and ends with Harrington winning a Pulitzer Prize.

A small-town newspaper winning a Pulitzer might have seemed like a reach a decade ago, but Art Cullen of the Storm Lake Times in northwest Iowa won a coveted Pulitzer just months before LeValley’s first Tony Harrington novel was published in 2018.

It’s worth noting, however, that reporter Harrington has something Cullen can only dream about: independent wealth.

To make Harrington’s lifestyle believable in small-town Iowa in an industry where wages are notoriously low, LeValley gave him a father, Charles Harrington, who teaches at the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop and whose success as a writer of books and movies provides a trust fund for his son. 

A storyline that runs in the background of all four Tony Harrington novels involves the financial difficulties faced by community newspapers. 

Town Crier owner Ben Smalley, who bought the paper after winning his own Pulitzer Prize for big-city journalism out east, is constantly struggling with economic pressures, which he ameliorates by acquiring a local radio station and offering digital options for advertisers and subscribers. 

The radio purchase is convenient because Doug Tenney, Harrington’s best friend and only local competition, is a reporter for the station. Tenney is Harrington’s sometimes reluctant partner in investigations that, over the course of four books, involve human trafficking, organized crime, political corruption and, now, the entertainment industry.  

Each book has a separate love interest for Harrington, only one of whom is killed. Spoiler: His girlfriend in the first novel, “Burying the Lede,” dies.

Subsequent books also feature family members: Harrington’s sister in the second book, “Cry From an Unknown Grave,” about human trafficking; his mother in the third book, “The Third Side of Murder,” about mafia figures; and his father, Charles Harrington, in “Performing Murder.”

All are fun, quick reads. My favorite is the new book, which is what I’ve said after each book was published.

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