- - Wednesday, October 7, 2020

J. Todd Scott is a DEA special agent as well as a fine crime novelist. Reading his first novel, “The Far Empty,” I was reminded of Norman Mailer’s comment about then-Assistant U.S. Attorney George V. Higgins and his novel “The Friends of Eddie Coyle”: “What I can’t get over is that so good a first novel was written by the fuzz.”

Like George V. Higgins and former LAPD detective Sgt. Joseph Wambaugh, J. Todd Scott has mined his experiences in law enforcement to craft some fine crime novels. His most recent, “Lost River,” offers a gritty and realistic story of drug trafficking and the aftermath in Kentucky.

We meet the feared, corrupt and corrupting Glasser crime family, who control the distribution of illicit drugs from their rural compound. As the opioid crisis intensifies in Appalachia, people are dying from drug overdoses, and then the Glasser compound is attacked. The novel also introduces the reader to a troubled EMT, an equally troubled former police chief who loses his wife to a drug overdose, and Duck, a crooked local cop. We are also introduced to Casey Alexander, a dedicated DEA special agent as well as a young woman who bucks local law enforcement and small-town ethos.

I contacted J. Todd Scott and I asked why he wrote the novel.

“I’d always wanted to write about Kentucky, where I was born and raised, and the state had long been on my mind after reading Jesse Donaldson’s wonderful book, ’On Homesickness,’ Mr. Scott replied. “Both in Kentucky and then Arizona, where I was living when I wrote ‘Lost River,’ I was heavily involved in working opioid overdose cases and saw firsthand the ravages of the burgeoning epidemic.

“I knew I wanted to write about those experiences, and once I had ‘Lost River’s’ unusual story structure nailed down — the novel takes place over a single 24-hour period, following a handful of characters throughout that night as they cross paths in the wake of several overdose deaths — the book came together quickly. I’m not much of a ‘message’ writer, but I wouldn’t have written ‘Lost River’ if I didn’t think I had something unique to say about the opioid epidemic.”

Mr. Scott said that DEA Special Agent Casey Alexander’s investigation was a textbook example of how he had put together cases throughout his career, although the events were not from a specific case.

“I was working in Kentucky as an agent from 2001 to 2006, right at the beginning of the ‘pill mill’ problem that later exploded into the opioid epidemic we have now. I was pursuing drug cases in Eastern Kentucky, targeting local drug trafficking organization and families, similar to what Casey does in ‘Lost River,’ and in very much the same area. Almost everything that happens in ‘Lost River’ is based on a true event, case, news story, or drawn from my own experiences.”

I asked Mr. Todd how he balanced being a writer and a DEA special agent.

“It’s not easy! As a practical matter, I write early every morning, long before I go to work and my day overtakes me,” Mr. Todd said. “It’s always a weird transition to be an author before dawn and then strap on a badge and gun and work as an agent the rest of the afternoon. Although I don’t go undercover anymore, I still juggle long hours, travel frequently, and cope with the strains this sort of work puts on your personal/family life. I’ve always believed that federal law enforcement is a calling, and I think that’s true for writing as well.”

I asked who influenced his writing and he replied that there were almost too many writers to name, but Cormac McCarthy, James Carlos Blake, James Ellroy, James Lee Burke and Ed McBain came to mind.

“Growing up, I was a huge Stephen King and William Gibson fan, and still am. More recently, I can point to Dennis Lehane, Gillian Flynn, Michael Connelly, John Connolly, and Megan Abbott,” Mr. Scott said. “There are so many good writers out there, and although I don’t know that I can count myself among them, I’ve learned something from all of them.”

His earlier novels take place in West Texas and “Lost River” takes place in Kentucky. I asked him where his next novel will take place?

“The novel I’m working on right now takes place out West, although not West Texas,” Mr. Todd said. It’s another stand alone novel, like “Lost River,” but far different in tone and subject matter. One of the advantages of starting writing later in life, is “I have plenty of interests and experiences to draw upon.”

“Lost River” and J. Todd Scott’s earlier crime novels are well-written, fast-paced, interesting and illuminating.

• Paul Davis’ On Crime column covers true crime, crime fiction and thrillers.

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