Ex-officer plays it by the book

Writer draws upon law enforcement themes taken from his 25 years in Howard County

July 17, 2008|By Tyeesha Dixon | Tyeesha Dixon,Sun reporter

James H. Lilley wasn't the typical police instructor.

When Howard County recruits were struggling in his defensive tactics class, Lilley sat down and wrote them an inspirational letter. The letter impressed a co-worker, who encouraged Lilley to write a book.

"I'd never thought of writing a book," Lilley said. "The curiosity bug bit me."

That was 1981. And though it took 19 years - and "hundreds of rejection letters" - to get his first book published, Lilley kept writing.

His persistence paid off. Lilley has written six published books, with the latest earning him selection as 2008 Author of the Year by Police-Writers.com.

Lilley's most recent work, The Eyes of the Hunter, is a novel set in the Old West that tells the story of a modern-day detective sergeant and his grandfather, a U.S. marshal. The settings and periods of his stories vary, but most have law enforcement themes that draw upon Lilley's 25 years as a Howard County police officer.

"The old thing I was advised when I first started to write was write what you know," said Lilley, who retired from the department as a sergeant in 1992.

Sheldon Greenberg, the colleague who urged Lilley to write for publication, said Lilley's police background shows in his writing.

"The passion he has for policing and service and the success of his colleagues was coming through in that early stuff that he was writing," said Greenberg, who was a bureau commander in Howard County and is now associate dean of the Police Executive Leadership Program at the Johns Hopkins University. "That willingness to break out of the mold, all for the right cause, comes through in many of his characters."

For Lilley, becoming an author was no easy task.

"Getting a novel published was certainly the old swimming upstream against the tide," he said. "I've never really been a quitter. It's that itch and desire - I just couldn't turn my back and walk away."

Lilley had an edge over most aspiring writers when it comes to patience and persistence: extensive martial arts training. He is an eighth-degree black belt in Shorin Ryu karate, a discipline he began studying when he was a Marine serving in Okinawa in 1963.

"They really put us through ungodly torture to make sure we were serious," Lilley said. "The routine was horrendous."

But the training yielded a valuable lesson, he said.

"If I put my mind to something, I stick with it," Lilley said. "You try your best at whatever you do."

Karate has remained a central part of Lilley's life. He teaches classes at a church in Mount Airy, and some of his students have gone on to become instructors.

Some of Lilley's writing training came long before that, even though it was involuntary. As a student at Mount Saint Joseph High School, Lilley said, he was a regular troublemaker. His punishments included having to write 10,000-word essays on topics such as "Why is fire hot?"

But it was through those intentionally tedious assignments that Lilley began to develop his writing. In his essays, he described baseball games with "smoking hot" pitches and wrote dialogue for commercial breaks.

"That's where I learned to be creative," Lilley said.

After he finished his Marine service and returned to the states, Lilley started applying for jobs with police departments. Many agencies turned him down because he was too short, he said. Eventually he landed a job with Howard County.

He became an officer in 1967, and over the years worked in uniformed patrol, criminal investigations, forensic services, the police academy and drug enforcement. "He has a very vivid imagination," said Howard County Police Sgt. Ricky Lee, who worked under Lilley for several years in the patrol and narcotics units. "He's very innovative and creative."

Lee said he remembers drug stings that Lilley set up in which the officers would use moving trucks and pizza delivery cars to conduct raids.

"He just teaches you to think," Lee said.

Despite all the time and effort Lilley has dedicated to his writing, he said he was surprised and honored to win the award.

"It's also a very humbling experience to look at some of the men and women on that [finalists] list," he said.

Police-Writers.com is a Web site that lists more than 1,000 law enforcement officials who have published more than 2,100 books. The site said Lilley's selection was based "in part on writing ability and in part on career and community service," and commended his latest book for a strong plot, and character and story development.

Lilley is at work on a nonfiction book about the life of his karate instructor, and his next goal is to have one of his books made into a movie. These projects come after he had to slow down for a time last year because he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. But the disease was detected early, and after a 25-treatment radiation regimen that ended in September, the prognosis is good, he said.

"No matter how many times you get knocked down, you've got to get back up," he said.


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