Private eye pulls from experience in first novel

John Rice's 'The Doll with the Sad Face' released last week

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"There's a tendency for people, when they write their first novel, to make it autobiographical," said John Rice, Review columnist and reporter, who released his first novel last week.

Rice said many of the characters in his book, The Doll with the Sad Face, are based on or inspired by people in his life, including his daughters and individuals he's worked with over the years. And the main character, a private detective named Mike Sullivan, is "loosely based" on Rice himself.

Rice grew up working for the family detective agency that started when he was in third grade. "My dad, my mom, my brothers and sisters, we all worked there," he said.

The book, which pulls from his own experiences, is a detective novel, but what he wanted to do differently from most other books in the genre is show what the business is really like.

"I thought it'd be interesting to combine domestic life with detective work because that's what I've been doing for 40 years," said Rice, who recently retired from his private detective business. "My goal was to show how the job really is because it is never portrayed accurately in movies or on TV."

In real life, most private detectives do work that might seem mundane to the average person.

"I'm not getting hit over the back of the head," he said. "I'm not meeting beautiful women at every turn. I hardly ever get into fights." The work he did as an investigator, and the work he writes about, is locating "people who are very hard to find."

Sometimes the job involved serving people with papers or gaining their cooperation as a witness. Sometimes it was to represent them in a case.

"My basic job is to find people and connect with them. So if there's any gift that I have, it's my ability to connect with strangers," Rice said.

The book's origins go back to the economic crisis of 2008, which hit his detective practice hard. He lost 75 percent of his business and went from getting 15 new assignments a month to 30 the entire year.

"My clients were going out of business, or they couldn't afford to hire me," he recalled. "Also, I had nothing to do."

So he decided to try writing himself out of the recession. That year, he wrote about half the book, but it was really just a skeleton.

"I liked the skeleton, but I didn't have time to flesh it out," he said. Then his business recovered, and the book was put aside — until about a year ago, when a friend in town volunteered to help him edit the book.

They met every two weeks, going over a chapter and planning the next one, using the skeleton structure Rice had already completed as the outline. Working with an editor was important, "valuable in terms of injecting conflict and emotion into the story."

The problem with the skeleton, Rice said, is that it didn't really have a plot. So he and his editor created a story arc, then figured out how to add emotion. Where to slow down the action, where to add depth.

"We tried to raise the stakes, increase the difficulty and, you know, raise the misery level, I guess. And I think that's effective. I like stories that build," he said.

After that, Rice had three or four volunteer test readers who gave him feedback, which helped him firm up the structure.

"You know, when you write a book, it's like you can't see the forest for the trees. I didn't have any objectivity about it." Having beta readers give advice was therefore invaluable.

The next step is marketing the book, and Rice is working with a social media professional to help him develop content for various platforms. He'll also be filming a video at Centuries & Sleuths, reading a portion of the book, which his publisher says is an effective tool to sell books.

Rice says he's very excited, but also nervous about his book being finished and released.

"You know, I'm actually kind of stressed out, like a father of a newborn, basically. And I don't know what anyone's reaction's going to be to it. But my idea was that you can always please yourself and hope that readers will like it."

He's also not sure how people will take the similarities they might see between themselves and some of his characters, which he based on family and people who've worked with him over the years. And there are similarities in location too.

The setting? "It's basically Forest Park," said Rice. "But you know, I don't name the town. I have McGaffer's in there. I wanted to create the feel of this area."

Rice is already the author of one book, The Ghost of Cleopatra, which was released in 2019. But The Doll with the Sad Face is his first novel. And he's starting his second novel, which also borrows from his personal experiences.

This time, he's pulling from his experience as chairman of the English Department at the French Business School in Chicago.

"I didn't go to college. I had no teaching experience. And I was put in charge of hiring and firing, curriculum, everything. I call it a French-out-of-water story, I guess," Rice said.

The experienced ended up being one of the best of his life, he said, and today he still communicates with some of the students he taught.

He didn't speak a word of French, but he learned to find "common ground" with the students.

The school was located in the building that housed the Harrington School of Design at 200 W. Madison. The "glamour factor" of the school was extraordinary, Rice said, "like taking the Blue Line to Paris every day."

He plans to work on this next book the same way he did with The Doll with the Sad Face. A chapter at a time, revising and planning with his editor.

Rice's novel is available on at

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