DEVENS -- There's a close resemblance between investigative journalism and writing mystery novels. Boston television news veteran Hank Phillippi Ryan has become a double threat, winning praise in both fields.
Talking to a crowd of 60 people at Thursday's Nashoba Chamber of Commerce Breakfast Series sponsored by Fidelity Bank, Ryan asked rhetorically, "What would you attempt to do if you knew you would not fail?"
Ryan, 63, thrilled with stories from her career path that has wound to Boston and her 30-year stint on Channel 7 in Boston. However, television was not Ryan's intended career path.
Following college, Ryan worked on political campaigns around her hometown of Indianapolis. There she learned "how candidates believe they can manipulate you to think something that is untrue," said Ryan.
From 1973 to 1974, Ryan served as a legislative assistant to the Senate Administrative Practices and Procedures Subcommittee. During her tenure, the committee, then chaired by late Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy, was investigating IRS wiretapping procedure and reworking a tool used by many reporters -- the Freedom of Information Act.
But Ryan turned away from politics, though perhaps not willingly. "Sadly, none of the candidates I ever worked for won," laughed Ryan.
Unemployed, Ryan visited a Indianapolis news station looking for a job. She had no journalism experience. "There was no reason for the news director to hire me," said Ryan.
Ryan appealed to the news director that she knew all the streets in the city. But Ryan also made an astute game-changing observation which she believes helped her seal the deal.
"Your station is up for (license) renewal with the FCC and you don't have any women working here," Ryan recalled telling the news director. "The next day, I had my first job in broadcasting."
"Using the gender card doesn't work anymore," noted Ryan. "My boss is a woman and her boss is a woman." Like other pioneering women broadcast journalists of her day, Ryan said, "We really broke the gender barrier then. We had to be good and we had to work hard." She had no contract and earned $8,000 a year.
"If there was anyone who needed help or a mentor, it was me," said Ryan. "The depth of my inexperience was plumbable."
Salvation came in 1975, when she was teamed with a seasoned videographer named "Walt" for a story about health care. Ryan said Walt taught her the ropes, "'Stand here, say this', and 'Here's how you ask people questions' ... He shepherded me at every moment."
After getting her chops, Ryan recalled, "I promised myself that I'd pay it forward." Ryan has earned 28 Emmy awards and 12 Edward R. Murrow Awards for investigative and consumer reporting.
Payment day came 15 years ago, when a college student wearing sneakers, ripped jeans and Hello Kitty barrettes visited her office at WHDH TV for an internship. Under Ryan's tutelage, Marianne Mancusi later showed up wearing little black dresses, pearls and pumps.
Mancusi eventually left to work in television in California but would return to Channel 7 to become Ryan's segment producer. Mancusi asked Ryan to edit one of Mancusi's first books -- a romance novel.
"As I was reading her book, I said 'I always wanted to write a book, too," said Ryan. "So I asked her if she could mentor me in the book world."
Mancusi eventually penned a series of novels for teens and adults, including The Blood Coven Vampire franchise. A childhood fan of Nancy Drew and Sherlock Holmes books, Ryan ventured into mystery writing.
"Prime Time" was the title of Ryan's first book, which was published in 2009. The book won an Agatha Award (named for celebrated mystery writer Agatha Cristie) for best first mystery.
"Prime Time" was followed by "Face Time" later in 2009. "Air Time" (2009) and "Drive Time" (2010) each earned Anthony and Agatha nominations. Ryan's 2009 short story "On the House" won the Anthony, Agatha and Macavity mystery awards.
Ryan's most recent book, "The Other Woman," was published in 2012. The book, hailed by the Boston Globe, Suspense magazine and Deadly Pleasures magazine, has been nominated for the Mary Higgins Clark Award and for an Agatha Award for Best Novel.
Ryan says that investigative journalism is like mystery writing in that they both follow a trail of clues. The goal is "telling a wonderful story with compelling characters and a great plot," said Ryan. "It's all about the bad guys getting what's coming to them and justice."
"Whether it's in novels or TV, I want to make a difference in your lives," said Ryan. "All those Emmys on my shelves represent secrets that somebody didn't want you to know and that I got to find, discover and reveal. Journalism and fiction are all about secret."
The story line for "The Other Woman" came to Ryan while reading a People magazine article about former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford and his Argentinean mistress. "Then I started thinking -- is it corruption, lust, love, power, revenge?" said Ryan. "What would be the reason for someone to be the other woman?"
In the article, someone was quoted as saying "'You can choose your sin but you cannot choose your consequences.' I got goose bumps," said Ryan. The quote appears on the cover of her book.
In "The Other Woman," heroine Jane Ryland is a 33-year-old Boston television news reporter who refuses to reveal the source of a story as the station defends itself against a defamation suit. The station loses and pays a $1 million judgment. Ryland loses her job.
"Jane is thrown under a bus," said Ryan. "As a reporter, all we have is our reputation."
Relegated to working for a local newspaper, Ryland comes across images of a mysterious woman wearing a red coat who repeatedly appears in campaign photos for a senate candidate. As Election Day draws near, the campaign denies knowing the woman's identity.
Ryland is cautious but persistent in trying to determine the woman's identity. Ryland does not want to misstep and wrongly labels the woman as the married candidate's paramour.
Jake Rogan is a Boston detective who lives in the shadow of his grandfather's legacy as a former Boston Police Commissioner. Rogan is looking for whoever killed two women under similar but separate circumstances.
Both victims were killed on Sundays, and were found wearing no shoes and having no identification on their bodies. One victim is dumped under the Longfellow Bridge and another body is dumped under the Zakim Bridge.
The media has hyped the murders as the work of a serial killer, but Jake feels otherwise. "He can't afford to make a mistake," said Ryan. "With the third death, they believe and find they're on the same path."
Like the book's two main characters, Ryan said she's also pushed herself to "be daring. Take risks. You get this one life to do what you love."
Ryan said her writing has become an obsession. She said her husband, lawyer Jonathan Shapiro, could attest. "I haven't taken a vacation in years because I use all my free time to write."
When asked what it takes to write a great book, Ryan said, "Most of all you have to have a great idea, but the main secret is that there are no secrets -- just do it."
"The Other Woman" is available online through several retailers including Barnes & Noble and Amazon. This fall Ryan is due to release her follow up mystery titled "The Wrong Girl."
Follow Mary Arata at twitter.com/maryearata.