The first time Nancy Allen landed on the New York Times Best Sellers list in 2018, she was totally unprepared.
At the time, she was a senior instructor in the College of Business and had just co-authored a book with James Patterson, the world’s best-selling author.
Their collaboration, Juror #3, didn’t just make the prestigious literary list, it scurried to the number one spot.
It was overwhelming.
But in September 2021, when another collaboration with Patterson came in No. 2 on the New York Times Best Sellers list, Allen celebrated in style: Dinner at Flame Steakhouse with French champagne.
The funny thing is, unlike many other authors, Allen never dreamed she’d see her name on that list.
In 1978, she graduated from what was then-Southwest Missouri State University with a bachelor’s degree in English education and speech.
The plan was to teach. But Missouri was just opening up to female lawyers.
Allen loved her student teaching, but there was something she loved more: equality.
“As long as I can remember, I’ve been a feminist,” she said. “I was a feminist way back before it was cool. And I thought I should take advantage of this. I should be a pioneer.”
She traded the classroom for the courtroom and graduated with her JD from University of Missouri School of Law in 1980.
Allen joined the Greene County prosecutor’s office and was the only female attorney.
“Since I was the only woman, I was assigned a lot of sex cases. It’s no secret that in our county we have a great many crimes involving children. Greene County has the highest rate of sex crimes involving children of any place in Missouri. That was true in the 1980s, and it’s still true today,” she said.
Only in her mid-twenties, Allen was staring at the underbelly of this community — her community.
“For the first time, I am looking at it through a magnifying glass. So, when I was in my twenties handling these terrible cases, I thought, ‘Wow, I ought to write a book about this.’”
Thirty years later, she picked up a pen and did just that.
Back to the classroom
Allen had a successful law career.
She tried more than 30 jury cases and went on to become assistant prosecuting attorney in Greene County and Missouri’s assistant attorney general.
In the fall of 2004, she received a call from a professor at Missouri State. They wanted to know if she would teach LAW 231, a required class in the College of Business.
It was a last-minute fill-in and she accepted.
“I thought, ‘I’m going to go see if I’d like that.’ And oh my gosh! Match made in heaven. I loved it. I loved the campus. I loved the classroom. I loved turning that light bulb on to help the students grasp what our legal system is about. But most of all, I absolutely adored the students. It was a gift,” Allen said.
And the students loved her back, said Dr. Jeff Jones, department head of finance and general business.
“Nancy was a storyteller of the law, and was beloved by her students. If you wanted to get an 8 a.m. class to fill to capacity, you would list Nancy as the instructor,” Jones said.
Allen started as a per course instructor in 2005 and accepted a position as instructor in 2006.
She was promoted to senior instructor in 2012.
In her class, Allen had a seating chart because she wanted to learn students’ names to build relationships.
And those relationships have endured.
“She was awesome,” said Sam Vargas, a former student and 2015 graduate. “She is one of the most passionate, most excitable professors I’ve ever had. She definitely had a passion for what she was teaching, which helped me as a student learn the material.”
Allen was also the advisor for Alpha Kappa Psi, a business fraternity. Vargas and his then-girlfriend, Suzy Feakes, were members of the fraternity.
In 2020, they decided to get married and asked Allen to officiate.
“We were talking about what a great influence and role model that Nancy had been throughout our time at Missouri State and through Alpha Kappa Psi. When we had the idea of her officiating our wedding, there was really no going back,” he said.
Allen accepted, got her credentials online and flew to Montana in 2021 to officiate the ceremony.
“You always hear about people having a good professor that they’ll meet after they graduate and have lunch with, have a coffee with and things like that,” said Vargas. “Going into college, going into the fraternity, never would I have thought that I would literally be meeting the person who would eventually one day officiate my wedding. It’s bizarre thinking about it, but we could not be happier with the decision.”
Writing a new life
A few years into her teaching career, Allen thought, “If I don’t write a book now, when am I going to do it? So, I decided, in my fifties, today is the day. And that was the day that I started Code of the Hills. I wrote that in my free time when I was teaching about 900 students a year,” she said.
The first book was published in 2014 by Harper Collins and was the first in a four-book series.
It is set in a fictional community in the Ozarks and features Elsie Arnold, a tenacious prosecutor. Code of the Hills is a courtroom drama that focuses on the terrible crimes involving children and the challenges that a prosecutor faces trying to seek conviction in such cases.
The rest of the series followed quickly: A Killing at the Creek (2015), The Wages of Sin (2016) and A Wolf in the Woods (2018).
Not bad for a woman who took her one and only creative writing class at Missouri State in 1977.
“Got my money’s worth out of that class,” Allen chuckled.
In 2015, James Patterson, who has sold more than 300 million books, decided he wanted to write a legal thriller set in the South. At an editorial meeting Patterson was talking about who he might work with on that project and Allen’s name came up.
And while Missouri is in the Midwest, Allen says the Ozarks is much more akin to the South. She landed the job.
At first, Juror #3 was supposed to be a paperback but in the writing process, Patterson and his publisher said they felt like they had something special and expanded the book.
When the book was released, Allen received a handwritten letter from Bill Clinton telling her how much he enjoyed the novel. Patterson also called and said he wanted to get to work on the next project.
Allen is not allowed to discuss details of their collaboration, comparing it to the secret ingredient in Coca-Cola, but she is delighted to work with Patterson.
“I think he’s a creative genius,” Allen said. “He’s proven that. But in addition, the secret to his success is this: He is the hardest-working guy in the business. It’s incredible the work ethic he has. When you’ve sold as many books as Patterson has, he doesn’t have to work at all. If he wanted to, he could sit by his swimming pool all day and sip champagne. But he works. Not nine to five. He works all days, all hours, weekends, and he does it because he loves to work. And boy am I glad because I really like working with him.”
The two are working on their fourth novel together and Allen has a solo novel, Renegade, coming out in 2022. Renegade was created in partnership with a film production company, so an Allen movie may be on the horizon.
At the pace she writes, it’s hard to believe Allen actually writes her manuscripts by hand, then pecks away at the keyboard with two fingers to transcribe them. Afterwards, she reads the manuscript to her husband Randy, a COB graduate. They have been married for 36 years.
Allen retired from full-time teaching in 2016 but continued to teach per course until 2020 when COVID forced her to fully retire.
While writing is her third career, she will always be passionate about her time at Missouri State.
“All this kind of makes me cry because when COVID came, COVID knocked me out,” Allen said. “I’m 65, I’ve got a heart condition, and I have no gift for online instruction. I’m a technological dinosaur. So COVID knocked me out of the classroom. But I miss that classroom to this very day.”
Story by Juliana Goodwin.