MADISON, Ind. (October 2003) An herbalist reputed to be a
witch, the attorney responsible for helping clear her of murder charges
and an evangelical minister determined to see her convicted are among
the masterfully developed characters in Robaks Witch,
a novel by Madison, Ind., author Joe L. Hensley.
The book, first published in July 1997 by St. Martins Press,
is one in a series by the author featuring Don Robak, a clever midwestern
attorney with an uncanny knack for being wrapped up in the most curious
of murder mysteries. Hensleys latest Robak installment, Robak
in Black, published in December 2001 by St. Martins Minotaur,
follows the attorney to the judges bench.
by Ruth Wright
And once again, this time as a judge, Robak finds himself responsible
for unraveling the facts from a tangle of deceit.
A veteran writer, Hensleys talent for creating realistic crime
dramas is a reflection of his career in law. A 77-year-old retired
lawyer and former Circuit Court judge, he has argued and tried a variety
of murder cases, many of which have provided background material for
Like most writers, Hensley has extracted from his environment pieces
of information useful in creating character profiles, events and places.
His stories are composites of the real-life crimes and criminals he
has come across, and the settings are carbon copies of the Indiana
towns he has called home.
A Bloomington, Ind., native, Hensley came to Madison fresh out of
Indiana Universitys law school. Prior to earning a law degree,
he served in the U.S. Navy for two years and two months during World
War II and as a journalist for one year after, 1951-1952.
Around that time, Hensley began writing science fiction stories while
continuing to study law. In 1955, on the day he took the bar exam,
Hensley said he received in the mail three acceptance letters for
stories he had submitted.
I thought to myself, why am I bothering to take this exam; then
I remembered that my wife liked to eat, too, he said.
He was admitted that year to the bar on June 15. Hensley served one
year in the Indiana General Assembly, 1961-1962. His foray into politics
coincided with the publication of his first novel, The Color
of Hate, in 1961 by Ace Books. A follow-up novel, Legislative
Body, was inspired by his term in the General Assembly, he said.
Hensley was elected Jefferson County Prosecutor, a position he held
from 1963-1966. He wrote less during this time, due to political obligations
In 1974, one of Hensleys most popular books was published by
Wildside Press: The Poison Summer. Still in print, the
novel has been translated into eight foreign editions and in the 1980s
became a made-for-television movie in Europe. Also published in 1974
by Wildside was Song of Corpus Juris.
Since 1976, Hensley has had 17 books published, including Final
Doors, a collection of short stories and Loose Coins,
a book he co-authored with Guy Townsend.
Despite being a successful writer, Hensley has never relied on writing
as a primary occupation. After more than 20 years of practicing law,
he was appointed judge in Ripley County in 1975 and was later elected
Circuit Court Judge of Jefferson and Switzerland counties, a position
he held from 1977 to 1989.
Madison attorney Spencer J. Schnaitter succeeded Hensley as a state
representative in 1963. Schnaitter said he and Hensley shared many
common interests and, despite being friends, sometimes came head to
head in the courtroom. Ive tried cases with him and against
him, and I always got along with him very well, Schnaitter said.
Known for his solid reputation as an attorney, Hensley later became
recognized as a good, no-nonsense judge, Schnaitter said. He was chosen
as president of the Indiana Judges Association in the 1980s, which
obviously you dont get unless you have the full confidence
of your peers, said Schnaitter.
Ted R. Todd, now judge of the 5th Judicial Circuit, called Hensley
one of the quickest persons Ive been around. Todd,
who worked first as a part-time deputy prosecutor with Hensley and
later as a partner with Hensley and Harold Ford, said he used to occasionally
proof read Hensleys books and considers Hensley a good friend.
In addition to being respected and well liked by his peers in the
legal profession, Hensley has made numerous friends among his writing
peers, including the popular mystery writer Mary Higgins Clark. Hensley
met Clark through Mystery Writers of America, to which they both belong.
Hensley still lives in Madison. His son, Michael J. Hensley, is also
an attorney with Kemper, Collins and Hensley in Madison. Michael Hensley,
48, recalled that his father wrote every day. I think its
always been almost recreation for him. Its something he enjoys
doing, he said.
Retired since 2000, Hensley continues to write. Its not unusual,
he said, for him to work on two or three books at a time. That doesnt
mean he churns them out quickly.
It takes me a long time to make these (stories) work,
That may explain why Hensley was still working in September on his
latest novel, Snowbirds Walk, which he said was
past deadline and which already appears on Amazon.com. Nearly 20 of
Hensleys book are available from the Internet retailer.