Madison’s Mystery Writer

Novelist Joe Hensley finds inspiration
in real-life crimes, experience as judge

By Ruth Wright

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 “Robak’s Witch,” a novel by Madison, Ind., author Joe L. Hensley.
The book, first published in July 1997 by St. Martin’s 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. Hensley’s latest Robak installment, “Robak in Black,” published in December 2001 by St. Martin’s Minotaur, follows the attorney to the judge’s bench.

Joe Hensley

Photo by Ruth Wright

Joe Hensley

And once again, this time as a judge, Robak finds himself responsible for unraveling the facts from a tangle of deceit.
A veteran writer, Hensley’s 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 his novels.
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 University’s 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 he said.
In 1974, one of Hensley’s 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. “I’ve 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 don’t 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 I’ve 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 Hensley’s 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 it’s always been almost recreation for him. It’s something he enjoys doing,” he said.
Retired since 2000, Hensley continues to write. It’s not unusual, he said, for him to work on two or three books at a time. That doesn’t mean he churns them out quickly.
“It takes me a long time to make these (stories) work,” he said.
That may explain why Hensley was still working in September on his latest novel, “Snowbird’s Walk,” which he said was past deadline and which already appears on Amazon.com. Nearly 20 of Hensley’s book are available from the Internet retailer.



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