Retired director of KU’s Public Management Center honored for his debut mystery novel

photo by: Josie Heimsoth/Journal-World

Charles Jones sits in his office at his home on Wednesday, June 12, 2024.

It’s not surprising that a retired university faculty member who’s written a lot about water issues might write a book that starts in a dry riverbed.

What might be surprising: the human hand a couple of girls find in the riverbed.

That mystery, and a western Kansas county sheriff’s quest to crack it, are the premise of “The Illusion of Simple” by Charles Jones, the retired director of KU’s Public Management Center. Jones’ novel got some special recognition this spring when it won the KU Hall Center for the Humanities’ Byron Caldwell Smith Book Award.

Jones, who retired in 2014, said his mystery story had been lying dormant for decades before it was published in 2022.

“I wrote a first draft in the early ’90s,” Jones said. “And then I went back to work and had other things to do. I just kind of tossed the book into my laundry basket, and it sat there for 30 years.”

When Jones finally revisited the novel, he said he kept the opening scene but rewrote 90% of the book. He said it’s an honor to receive the book award, which is given biennially to one fiction writer, one nonfiction writer and one poet residing in Kansas.

“I know several people who have won the award for academic writing, including (historians) Jonathan Earle and Leslie Tuttle,” Jones said. “I’m very honored to be in their company having won this award.”

Writing and communicating well have always been important to Jones, who spent 10 years on the Douglas County Commission and joined KU’s public administration program in 2003. During his time at KU, he used his talents to explain complex water issues to Kansans, and he said he always emphasized the importance of communication skills to his public administration students.

“Somebody who writes well, it’s just got a huge leg up in terms of getting attention,” Jones said. “The ability to explain things in ways that people understand is almost priceless.”

Now, as he pursues fiction, he said he appreciates how therapeutic it is to create stories from his own imagination. And he said he doesn’t plan to stop anytime soon, and another book – or two – are in the works.

“There’s a blank piece of paper and then there’s you,” Jones said. “And whatever the characters do is what you imagine them to be doing. And where that imagination comes from is a part of your psyche and a part of yourself. It’s ultimately an exploration into your own state of mind.”

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