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Every day David Sentelle dons the shiny black robes of a federal judge. Lawyers tremble before him as they defend against a barrage of judicial bullets like shots fired rat-a-tat-tat from a cheap .38 glancing off walls in a back alley. If you think Judge Sentelle is hard-boiled, meet his alter ego: Clyde Haywood, crime fiction author. Since the early 1990s, unbeknownst to nearly all of legal Washington, the conservative judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit has very quietly pursued crime fiction as a sideline. It has brought him just a few hundred extra dollars a year, but a great deal of pleasure. “It’s an interesting undertaking,” says Sentelle. “Although I’d never compare myself to [William Makepeace] Thackeray, I’ve found that Thackeray was right when he said that no matter where you were originally going with your characters, they end up taking you where they want to go.” Clearly, Sentelle’s imagination has taken him places where few appeals judges ever venture. Here’s Clyde Haywood in “Of Death and Dogs,” a detective story that appeared in the September 1996 issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine:
Near the back wall, past a pretty little living room suite and a Formica dining table, lay the naked body of a young woman. There was shiny red blood around her — too dried to be a pool any longer but not yet dry enough to be just a stain. She had been dead for some hours but not yet twenty-four, I’d say.

And here’s a sampling of Sentelle’s judicial writing from the same time, taken from his majority opinion in Independent Petroleum Association of America v. Babbitt, decided on Aug. 27, 1996:

We must decide whether it was arbitrary and capricious for DOI to conclude that take-or-pay settlement payments are royalty bearing in light of its determination . . . that take-or-pay payments themselves are not royalty bearing until those payments are specifically allocated to gas that is physically severed from the ground.

The bar can be forgiven for not recognizing Sentelle’s hand in the noir styling of Clyde Haywood. “Of Death and Dogs” is one of five stories that Sentelle published in the pulp-fiction magazine under the pseudonym in the 1990s. There is also an unpublished novel along the same lines, entitled Whelp of the She-Bear, which Sentelle says has been turned down by a few publishers. Sentelle, 59, has never previously revealed publicly that he is Clyde Haywood, a pen name taken from the North Carolina town and county that are his family’s ancestral home. Only family members and a few close friends on the appeals court have known his secret, one that he now feels comfortable telling. Sentelle says he used the pseudonym because he originally feared criticism from people who might think he was “taking advantage of my position as a federal judge to sell the stories.” Anyone looking for a clue in Sentelle’s stories about his views on the due process clause or the nondelegation doctrine will come away disappointed. The tales all take place along the rural routes and in the forests, towns, and fast-growing suburbs of Sentelle’s native state. They are populated by clever grifters, corruptible cops, portly sheriffs, and barmaids of easy virtue. The stories are much closer to Raymond Chandler’s noir tales than to Agatha Christie’s cerebral puzzles, although one of them quite explicitly pays homage to a famous dictum of Sherlock Holmes about the dog that didn’t bark. Sentelle says the stories were inspired by a life that he largely left behind when he took the appellate bench here in 1987. After Sentelle graduated from the University of North Carolina School of Law in 1968, he spent 17 years in his home state as a prosecutor, defense attorney, and local judge. All the stories “draw on my experience as a criminal lawyer and assistant U.S. attorney in North Carolina,” Sentelle says in an accent still tinged with the rhythms of his native state. “I did some white-collar defense and defended five capital murder cases. And I always hung out with cops.” Although the classic detective tale tends toward the murder mystery, two of the five Haywood stories are about petty confidence men and moonshiners, characters based on backwoods types Sentelle defended or prosecuted. “I think con artists are more interesting than murderers in some ways,” Sentelle says. The judge got started in the crime-writing business in the summer of 1992, when he was teaching a law course at his alma mater. (Since the appeals court doesn’t hear cases regularly in the summer months, judges frequently use the time to teach or lecture out of town.) Sentelle was using the office of a Chapel Hill professor that summer and found several copies of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine on her shelves. He picked up a few, read them, and quickly concluded that he “could write better stories than many of those writers, who really didn’t know how prosecutions go down.” Though he had never written a work of fiction before, Sentelle rapidly dashed off his first story, “The Fourth Man.” It is an unusual murder mystery told entirely in dialogue, using a series of flashbacks to explain how the detective work had been done and who the killer was. The Ellery Queen magazine rejected it (Sentelle later realized that the story was too long for the magazine’s format), so he sent it to Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, which published it without changing a word. In introducing Clyde Haywood as the Hitchcock magazine’s newest writer in March 1993, editor Cathleen Jordan wrote in a brief note that it was “a pseudonym for a U.S. judge (U.S. Court of Appeals).” Four Haywood stories soon followed: “Gambler’s Luck,” “Why the Breadman Died,” “Of Death and Dogs,” and “Feasting With Foxes.” “Feasting,” in the February 1997 issue, is the last Haywood story to be published. For all this time, Sentelle has been hiding in plain sight. Each year, he duly reported the modest windfall from the stories as “non-investment income” on his federal financial disclosure statement. He listed it as “Dell Direct Publishing (royalties) (fiction).” Dell is the parent company of the Hitchcock magazine. In 1995, a typical year, he earned $720. As long as he was receiving royalties, Sentelle placed Dell on his “recusal list,” a roster of companies and potential litigants whose cases he would not hear as an appeals judge. Sentelle recently revealed his writing skill in a nonfiction book, Judge Dave and the Rainbow People, about his adventures as a federal trial judge mediating a dispute between a hippie gathering and the North Carolina Health Department. The manuscript sat in a drawer for more than a decade until it was published this year by the Green Bag Press. Sentelle’s experience in having that book published and discussing it made him more amenable to revealing his life as a crime writer under an assumed name. The Hitchcock short stories themselves are smoothly written and neatly plotted, with some deft characterization and no loose ends. “The Fourth Man,” the first one Sentelle wrote, does have some clunky, trite sentences: “He loved the mountain vistas and the plain, traditional ways of the people,” for example. But “Haywood” can turn some memorable phrases for a man who has spent 15 years parsing texts like the Federal Power Act and the Telecommunications Act of 1996. In “Why the Breadman Died,” an agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation tries to figure out “how he would offer his help without sounding like the S.O.B. from the FBI who thinks he knows more than the locals, even though he knew that’s exactly what he was.” In “Of Death and Dogs,” Haywood refers to yellow police tape as something that is “supposed to tell everybody to stay away but usually causes everybody to crowd around.” And in “Gambler’s Luck,” a young law firm associate, mired in insurance litigation, says, “I was as sure of the future as you can only be when you haven’t had a very long past.” That lawyer, incidentally, appears to be modeled in part on the young David Sentelle. Sentelle says the writing life has had noticeable effects on him. “It causes you to think about things in ways you haven’t thought about them before,” he reflects, “and to remember things that you otherwise would have forgotten.”

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