Larry McCann, Senior Special Agent
Virginia State Police - Bureau of Criminal Investigation (Retired)
Author of "Inhuman Nature" - Published December 2022
As a longtime homicide investigator who worked on cases around the world, Larry McCann half-jokes that when it came time to write a novel, he felt compelled to follow the philosophy of “write what you know … and I knew murder, mayhem, sex and violence.
“So, hey, it was natural for me to come up with a book on those four corners of my world,” McCann said of his newly published mystery thriller, “Inhuman Nature,” which took him a dozen years to finish, in part, because of something else he has come to know all too well: primary lateral sclerosis (PLS), a rare neuromuscular disorder that affects the central motor neurons and is characterized by progressive weakness and stiffness of the muscles of the legs and can eventually spread to the arms. It is similar to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), often called Lou Gehrig’s disease, though progresses more slowly.
“I’ve had it long enough, and I’ve been around enough ALS patients, that I realize it’s the same disease,” said McCann, who lives in Montpelier. “[PLS] just stretches the timeline longer. You go through the same thing; the same muscle groups start to fail you.”
The first sign something was not quite right came in 2006 while vacationing in Maine. As he was crossing a road to get to a lobster pound, he suddenly realized a vehicle was bearing down on him. He started to run — and couldn’t.
“My legs wouldn’t run,” he said. “I’d been a runner for 30 or 40 years, so that was kind of a shock.”
He managed to avoid the vehicle — he and the driver “traded one-finger salutes,” he says with his trademark humor — and got his lobster, but then he had to figure out what was going on with his legs. It took about five years and many visits to doctors to come up with as close to a definitive diagnosis as you get with PLS (or ALS), as there is no simple test to tell you what you’ve got. The process of diagnosis is a matter of elimination.
“So what remains is what it is,” McCann said.
Over recent years, the debilitating disease has, among things, severely limited McCann’s mobility — he must use a rollator or wheelchair to get around — and weakened his voice to the point that sometimes late in the day “I have to stop talking” because his speech becomes unintelligible. (Or, as he puts it, “I’ve used all my words for the day.”)
But he has continued to write and endeavor to get his book published. It has been a long road, starting out in a collaboration with his son, Nathan, and continuing with veteran writer and editor Lisa Antonelli Bacon when Nathan moved to the West Coast for school and work, all the while trying to find a literary agent and finally ending up publishing the book himself.
Sounds like an experience fraught with frustration and disappointment, and it has been, except …
“Barbara says it’s kept me going,” McCann says of his wife of 52 years, and he doesn’t disagree.
Instead of focusing on PLS and his declining physical condition and the things he can’t do, he’s given attention to the things he can: writing — and rewriting — and editing and pursuing his goal of becoming a published author. Composing a manuscript has given him a purpose and a lovely distraction.
“I never concentrated on [PLS], and I never let it define me,” he said. “I’m Larry. I’m not the guy with [PLS].”
McCann began his career in law enforcement with the Arlington County police department before going to work with Virginia State Police, first as a trooper in the Richmond area and then with the governor’s executive protection unit, serving in the last year of Mills Godwin’s second term and the first two-and-a-half years of John Dalton’s term, and later as a senior special agent in the bureau of criminal investigation. He worked as a crime-scene technician, bloodstain pattern analyst, crisis negotiator and criminal investigator, responding to crimes of violence throughout central Virginia.
He spent a year studying the psychology and pathology of violent criminal behavior at the FBI Academy in Quantico and also at the University of Virginia School of Law, Blue Ridge Hospital and the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology. Before he retired in 2017 following a career of 47 years, first with the state police and later as a violent-crime consultant, McCann was involved in thousands of homicide investigations.
Basically, he’s seen and heard a lot of bad stuff.
For someone with that sort of familiarity with the dark underside of humanity, you might rightly expect McCann to have become “a little crusty and a little hard,” Bacon said, “but he never did. He’s the nicest guy you’d ever want to meet. He’s so easy to work with and such a kind-hearted person … hysterically funny and sharp-witted.”
How did he maintain that sort of equilibrium?
For one thing, McCann said, he tried not to bring his work home. “A bright line,” he called it, that he endeavored never to cross between work life and family life.
There also was this when it came to how he viewed his work:
“I was working for that person on the autopsy table. My job was to find out who killed them.”
Then there is this:
“There are some dirty, rotten, evil people out there, but they are the minority. There are so many nice people out there that I don’t worry so much about the nasty ones.”
He told me about riding a bicycle across the country some years ago — 4,000 miles on a piece of aluminum weighting about 10 pounds, wearing skin-tight clothing, completely vulnerable to anyone with a bad thought about him. And what happened? Nothing. He had a great trip and countless strangers who were friendly and helpful and, like the man in the Midwest who invited him on a tour of a gigantic grain silo, simply nice.
“There are way more nice people out there than there are people who want to hurt your or kill you,” McCann said. “Bottom line is, I got through all of this because I realized most people are nice, that most people are good … and most people like pie.”
Years ago, Bacon and McCann’s paths crossed when he was still working as a homicide investigator and profiler and was “a great resource to me when I was reporting on murder and mayhem,” she said. “I learned so much from him.”
They hit it off to the point they contemplated writing a book together decades ago, but the project never got off the ground. When school and work took Nathan to the other side of the country while the book was still in progress, McCann turned to Bacon.
He had collaborated with Nathan to begin with because he felt his son was a gifted writer best equipped to tackle a work of fiction, and he wanted someone to help him spin the “millions” of anecdotes and stories from his police years into literary gold.
Early in the process, they encountered a few bumps in the road, trying to fashion a story into a publishable book. A detour to consult local writing coach Greg Smith, who leads a group called Agile Writers, helped put McCann on the right track as far as how to approach the story. McCann followed the advice from Smith, and “Inhuman Nature” is the result.
McCann sought out Bacon when school and work took Nathan to the other side of the country. At the time, she was undergoing chemotherapy treatment for a cancer diagnosis. I mentioned to her that McCann had said the purposefulness of the project had kept him going as he dealt with his physical decline. Her reply? “It kept me going. My participation got me through the chemo years.”
They traded the manuscript back and forth, computer to computer, rounding the manuscript into shape. When navigating the world of literary agents did not attract sufficient interest, McCann decided to self-publish, figuring it was better to have his book out there than not. It came out in mid-December.
The PLS presents a challenge as far as getting out and marketing the book, McCann said, but he’ll make it work. He’s just glad to finally have the book out there.
“You think you’re going to get nice comments from your friends, and those are coming in,” he said, “but when you get nice comments from strangers, hey, that really feels good.”