Up Close: RJ McDonnell

Life’s a mystery …
RJ McDonnell’s latest novel, The Classic Rockers Reunion with Death, is the fourth book in the Moscow native’s Rock & Roll Mystery Series. The books are not only whodunit puzzles with twists at every turn, they offer insight into the music industry, touching on everything from band relationships and major label record contracts to internet piracy. The new book finds his protagonist, San Diego PI Jason Duffy, traveling to Scranton after his Uncle Patrick’s best friend is murdered. Although each book of the series can be read as an individual mystery, Jason’s investigative skill level progresses from one novel to the next. McDonnell’s series has appeared on Amazon Kindle’s Top 10 List and have all reached No. 2 in the Hard-Boiled Mystery category. With his love for music and mystery, the author has already begun work on book number five in the series and is conjuring up more scenarios that could possibly take place in northeastern Pennsylvania. Meet mystery writer and rock enthusiast RJ McDonnell…


How and when did you become interested in writing?
It was by far my best subject in school, and it was something that I always enjoyed. When I saw an opportunity to interview for a writing position, I took it. From there, one of the people I worked with was involved with a new television show that was coming out in San Diego with a kind of Saturday Night Live type of format. He asked me if I wanted to write a skit and I ended up getting 34 skits produced over the two seasons of the show. The only thing I didn’t like about writing for television is that producers, directors, actors and the assistants and associates all want to put their spin on things. By the time my skit finally got produced, it was such a collaborative effort. You could see the theme running through it, but a lot of times it was a matter of seeing it getting pulled in a lot of different directions. I knew if I was writing novels, I would have a much better opportunity to control what I was writing and get the story told my way.

What were some of your favorite stories or books when you were younger?
My father was a police detective, and he was into every crime drama on television. The advantage that I had as a mystery writer is that he would critique all of these things and tell me what was real and what wasn’t. There were always complaints about the shows not being realistic. I found that when I started reading mystery novels, there was so much more information in the books than there were in these little hour-long dramas. It filled in a lot of the gaps and a lot of the problems that my father had with realism. Writers like Lawrence Sanders and his Ten Commandments series and Deadly Sins series always had an influence on me. I always enjoyed mysteries.

What is it about the mystery genre that appeals to you?
I think it goes back to my father being a cop and getting interested in mysteries. He was a detective with the Pennsylvania State Police. Two of his cases actually gained national attention in True Detective magazine and The New York Post centerfold, A Justice Story. There were cop friends talking about those types of things relating to murders and mysteries. It piqued my interest.

How has growing up the son of a Pennsylvania State Police Detective influenced your writing?
In my series, I have a 28-year-old private investigator whose father is a retired police detective. I would say that his father, who helps him with his cases, is about 50 percent my father and 50 percent fictional drawn from other characters I’ve met along the way.

Music plays a central key in your books. Talk about the decision to make the music a focal point.
I absolutely love music. I was the manager/booking agent for (local musician) Robbie Walsh’s first band. His drummer lived across the street from me and I ended up being there as he was learning how to mesh with the band. I started playing guitar when I was 9 years old and it was all self-taught and nothing formal. My exposure to seeing what Robbie was doing at that age had a big influence on me wanting to go on and learn more and more and get better. By the time I got to Penn State, I was playing in a little three-man acoustic group and duo in the late ’70s. When I moved to California, my intent was to really expand that and spend a lot of time possibly seeing it work into a full-time gig. Six months after I got there, I was in a bad accident and shattered my left wrist and couldn’t grip the neck of the guitar for more than 15 minutes at a time for over 20 years. I got back into it five or six years ago, and when I went out on a book tour in 2010, I ended up playing six songs at every library appearance and 12 songs at every book store appearance. I was going to a bookstore for a signing and once every half hour someone would walk by and say “who are you?” When I brought the guitar along and I was singing, I had the entire bookstore there for most of the show and an awful lot of those people bought books.

Tell me about Robbie Walsh’s role.
He’s a good friend and serves as an advisor. If I have a question with anything related to lead or rhythm guitar, he’s my go-to guy. Above and beyond that, being friends and chatting with him I come up with little bits of information. I like mysteries that teach me something and not just puzzles to be solved. I like to share insights that your average music fan doesn’t know about and I get a lot of those little inside tidbits just by having conversations with Robbie.

What are your plans for the future?
I have started the fifth novel in the series. The series is based out of San Diego. My detective comes to Scranton in this case, but I am considering the possibility of doing a second series and basing it here in Scranton. That is on the drawing board right now.

Let’s talk about your book  release.
It’s going to be at Library Express at Steamtown Mall on Saturday, Sept. 1, at 1 p.m. There is going to be food and beverages, and I will be signing books at the front of the bookstore and Robbie Walsh will be providing entertainment. There will be people partying and hanging out, so come in, get a signed copy and stay for the show.
tom graham

RJ McDonnell’s The Classic Rockers Reunion with Death book release at Library Express, Steamtown Mall, Scranton, will be held Saturday, Sept. 1, from 1 to 4 p.m. featuring refreshments, a book signing and entertainment provided by Robbie Walsh. Visit www.rjmcdonnell.com for more information.

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