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In officer/author's world, it's the art that imitates life

Johnny Barnes divides his days between fact and fiction.

At work, he is a Rochester Police officer who needs cold facts to do his job. At home, he writes fictional detective stories, as well as blues-rock music and lyrics.

Barnes's second crime novel, "Sleep When I'm Dead," will soon be published, and two new CDs, "Lost and Found" and "Known Offenders," will be released this summer. He's hoping the book and the music attract the attention of an agent and lead to the fame and fortune that has so far been elusive.

The CDs feature original songs that Barnes describes as a cross between Stevie Ray Vaughan and the Rolling Stones. In the 1980s, Barnes, 49, produced two albums as well as other recordings on his own Nightcrawler Productions label. A single, "Steel Rail Blues," was a hit in England in the late 1970s, he said. Another Barnes record was produced by Jimmy Miller, who also produced for the Rolling Stones.

Barnes doesn't want to be a Mick Jagger, but he would love to turn into a Dennis Lehane. The Dorchester-born Lehane wrote "Mystic River," which was made into a critically acclaimed movie directed by Clint Eastwood. (Barnes has at least one fan on the same page. In a website review of Barnes' first novel, "Dead Men Talk," an Amazon.com customer gave it five stars and said it has the same "quality characters and real life setting" of a Lehane book.)

"I'd love to see one of my books made into a film. And I'd like to be free to pursue my artistic endeavors. I'd like to see it pay off financially," said Barnes. "I can't imagine having more fun than going to a movie that I wrote and they are using my music as a soundtrack."

In the Rochester home Barnes shares with his father, his passion is in plain view. His computer is covered with yellow Post-Its chronicling random thoughts. An American slang dictionary is there to supply words for his gritty characters. A leather chair with its stuffing hanging out bears witness to how much time he spends writing.

Nearby, a plastic box overflows with newspaper clippings offering potential ideas for novels. Dressed in his patrolman's uniform on a break from work recently, Barnes produced a headline from the box: Skull in Florida May be Man Beheaded in Boston. "When I get stuck, I just start pulling these things out," he said.

Because real life can be so bizarre, Barnes said, he gets plenty of inspiration from his police work. His novels incorporate the elements of his life. For example, the investigation of homicides in his first novel leads a detective through the kinds of Boston nightclubs where his bands, such as Johnny and the Zodiac Killers, used to perform.

He even includes family members and friends in his writing -- he likes to throw in a body if he feels the story is dragging, and "a lot of them are friends of mine."

Barnes, who was born in New Bedford and grew up in Rochester, said he fell in love with writing and music as a child. He began playing drums at age 12, picked up the harmonica at 17, and the guitar at 19.

His writing skills helped lead him into law enforcement. While playing clubs around the Boston area, he began working for his brother's law firm as an investigator. Although he had no training, "I was a good report writer," Barnes said.

His first police job was with the Sanford, Maine, department, where he worked for 11 years. That's where he was trained to be a hostage negotiator. He has worked for the Rochester force for three years.

Barnes said he doesn't know how he balances his police, writing, and musical careers, or if he even does. "It's nearly impossible," he said. "Writing novels alone is more than a full-time job. I've been known to correct a few pages in a patrol car late at night if I have a deadline."

His books are being produced through a "publish on demand" company (AuthorHouse), which prints book as readers request copies, said Barnes. Orders can be placed through Amazon.com and Borders.com. The book also will be available at Baker Books in Dartmouth and Bev Loves Books in Rochester.

Bev Loves Books owner Bev Pierce says she has sold about a dozen copies of "Dead Men Talk" in two years. "He has a good play on words. I laughed out loud in many cases. It was very entertaining," she said. "He sort of writes like Robert B. Parker and it's in Boston, so you recognize some of the places he's talking about."

Barnes said he has sold only about 600 copies of "Dead Men Talk." But he isn't discouraged. Not only is he optimistic about the new book, he's already roughing out a plot for a third one. "I'm thinking it will have to do with the Internet," he said.

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