By Marie Fricker
Hank Phillippi Ryan is used to confronting danger—both in her 38 years as a hard-hitting investigative reporter for WHDH TV, and in the pages of her 13 nail-biting mystery novels.
Ryan started a new chapter in her life at age 55 when she wrote her first book, Prime Time, featuring a main character named Charlotte McNally, who, coincidentally, is a Boston television reporter. Three more thrillers in the McNally series—Face Time, Air Time, and Drive Time—swiftly followed, and launched the Emmy Award winning Channel 7 reporter into a second career that has become her life’s passion.
A USA Today bestselling author, Ryan’s suspense novels have earned numerous literary awards in her genre, including five Agathas (named for the great Agatha Christie), four Anthonys and the coveted Mary Higgins Clark award.
The desire to become a mystery writer or a detective started in a hayloft in rural Indiana. Young Ryan (then Harriet Ann Sablosky) and her sister would ride their ponies from their secluded farmhouse to and from the town library. “I would climb the ladder to the loft of our 100-year-old red barn and dive into the amazing worlds of Sherlock Holmes, Nancy Drew, and Hercule Perot,” said Ryan. “I was nerdish and unpopular in school, but, in the hayloft, I could escape into my books, surrounded by the comforting smells of horses, grass and saddle leather.”
Ryan was given the dubious title of “Most Individual” in her high school yearbook and her photo was run upside down in the school newspaper, which humiliated her.
“I ran home crying and told my mother that life wasn’t fair,” said Ryan. “My Mom hugged me and said, ‘Listen kiddo, this world isn’t fair, and you’re going to have to get used to it.’ But at that moment, at 14 years old, I knew I would never get used to a world that was unfair. I would do everything in my power to change it.”
Ryan’s broadcast career began with a stint as a political reporter at WIBC, a local radio station in Indianapolis. “I applied for the job admitting that I had majored in Shakespeare in college, and had no journalism knowledge or experience,” she said. “At the end of the interview, the news director asked me to give him one good reason why I should get the job. That’s when I reminded him that his station’s FCC license was about to come up for renewal and he didn’t have a single female reporter on his staff. I was hired on the spot.”
Before moving to Boston, Ryan held posts as a legislative aide for the Senate Judiciary Committee in Washington, D.C. and as an assistant editor for Rolling Stone Magazine covering Washington Politics right after Watergate. After refusing a job as the gossip columnist for the Washington Post, she moved to Boston and began her career as a general assignment reporter at WHDH TV. In 1989, she was appointed principal reporter for Channel 7’s investigative unit.
In the course of her nearly 40 years at the station, Ryan’s work has earned 37 Emmy Awards, and 14 Arthur R. Murrow awards for consumer advocacy and exposing injustices. Her team has chased felons and corrupt politicians, and shone the public spotlight on such problems as a 911 system that was sending emergency responders to the wrong addresses, a failing jury selection system, unfair practices by powerful contractors, and corruption in the mortgage industry.
“Changing the world is pretty difficult, but one investigative reporter can make a difference,” said Ryan. “My stories have caused new laws to be passed and secured millions of dollars in restitution for victims. Banking laws were changed and we got houses out of foreclosure.”
Her experience as a journalist may not mirror the plots of her novels, but it certainly influences them. “Naturally, I draw on my own field of knowledge for my crime stories,” said Ryan. “As a reporter, I’ve been chased, pushed, threatened, and followed home. I’ve worn a wire, used hidden cameras, and made some powerful enemies for the greater good. That background helps me with some of the details of my writing, but each book begins as a completely blank page, and I’m not quite sure what I’m going to put on it. I start out with just one little gem of an idea—one unique problem to be solved. It’s like tossing a pebble into a pond. You see the ripples coming out from it and the story gets bigger and bigger. I make those little elements into puzzle pieces, move them, change them, rearrange them, and they become a whole new world.”
Ryan recently published her 13th mystery novel, Her Perfect Life, a fast-paced psychological thriller about Lily Atwood, a famous TV reporter, who is harboring a deep, career-ending secret from her childhood. The book has already received critical acclaim and glowing peer reviews.
Promoting her books has become a favorite part of Ryan’s new career. “There’s nothing I enjoy more than doing book tours around the country,” she said. “I love it when people tell me they missed their train stop because they were so engrossed in my story. A woman at the post office the other day came up to me and said, ‘Are you Hank Phillippi Ryan?’ I fully expected her to say she had seen me on TV, but, instead, she pulled one of my books out of her tote bag and asked if I would autograph it for her. She said she couldn’t put it down. I had to fight back tears; I was so thrilled.”
The little girl in the hayloft who wanted to be a mystery writer or a detective went on to achieve both of those goals as an author and an investigative reporter.
“I guess I’m the poster girl for chasing mid-life dreams,” said Ryan, 71, who urges other seniors to make their own dreams a reality. “If you’ve always wanted to write a memoir, play the piano or learn a new language, just go for it,” she said. “Use your knowledge, your passion, and your drive to make it happen. The only thing stopping you is you.”
Hank Phillippi Ryan lives in the Boston area with her husband, Jonathan Shapiro, a nationally known civil rights and criminal defense attorney. For more information on Her Perfect Life and Ryan’s other award-winning mystery novels, visit hankphillippiryan.com.