Arresting development: Former cop pens Atlanta-set crime novel

For a rookie novelist, Trudy Nan Boyce has a seasoned veteran’s way of creating irresistible characters.

In “Out of the Blues,” her Atlanta-set murders (and more) mystery, readers will meet a child murderer who calls himself “The Baby, Jesus”; a powerful and potentially nefarious megachurch preacher named Midas Prince; assorted drug dealers, jazz musicians and cops.

Those cops include Sarah “Salt” Alt, a newly promoted Atlanta Police Department homicide detective who’s the main character in the book that kicks off a planned trilogy. In the opening pages, Salt (her close friend and ex-partner on the force is known as, what else, “Pepper”) gets handed a very cold case that probably nobody expects her to solve. They definitely don’t foresee it eventually crossing paths with another ongoing high-profile murder investigation in Buckhead.

And yet the most compelling character in Boyce’s debut crime novel, which she’ll discuss Tuesday night at the Decatur Library, may be Atlanta itself.

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“I don’t seem to be running out of material, especially when it comes to the city,” Boyce said between bites of a black bean burger at 97 Estoria, a Cabbagetown pub located within spitting distance of the colorful Krog Street Tunnel. “I’m constantly learning things about it that are interesting and surprising to me.”

That’s saying a lot, considering what would seem to be her seen-it-all resume up until now: By the time she retired from the Atlanta Police Department in 2008, Boyce, 69, had spent some three decades as a beat cop (including in Carver Homes, once among the city’s toughest public-housing projects), a homicide detective, a senior hostage negotiator and more. In conversation, she’s as likely as anyone else you know to tell the occasional workplace story — that time she dealt with a guy who was holding a gun to his head on the Downtown Connector, the murder she helped crack when a prostitute told her about a “bad encounter” she’d had with a client who turned out to have killed someone else — only hers don’t make your eyes glaze over from boredom.

Indeed, it was a fictionalized version of one of those stories that provided a hint of what was to come: In it, a female police officer memorably encounters a distraught woman in a rundown neighborhood; after Boyce turned it in, the teacher of the fiction writing class she was taking at Callanwolde Fine Arts Center responded, “I hope this is the first chapter in a novel.”

She’d enrolled in the class around the time that “a series of tragedies was piling up in my life,” recalled Boyce, who has a grown son and two grandchildren (they all live near Athens, where her daughter-in-law is a department head at the University of Georgia Libraries). She was supervising detectives working emotionally draining crimes against children cases, her marriage was crumbling (they eventually divorced) and in December 2001, her best friend of 30 years died of breast cancer. The two used to speak every day, but now, Boyce realized, “I was going to need a place to have an outlet.”

“Out of the Blues” is filled with authentic details about police work, from the debate over officers taking on “EJs” — extra jobs — to supplement their civil service salaries, to the fact that Manuel’s Tavern is “the (Police Department)’s bar … every other Thursday, paydays, full of cops drinking a lot.” Nor are Manuel’s or the Krog Tunnel the only quintessential Atlanta spot to get their close-ups, with scenes unspooling everywhere from Criminal Records in Little Five Points and the Beltline to an exam room at “The Gradys” and the hulking old Sears building on Ponce in its pre-Ponce City Market days.

The book has gotten advance raves from such crimewriting masters as Joseph Wambaugh and Lisa Gardner. Meanwhile, Boyce, who lives in Grant Park with Rick Saylor, her husband of eight years, recently finished writing the second volume in the series that sounds like it won’t ever run out of plot twists.

Boyce smiled.

“There are endless mysteries to be uncovered here.”

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