It was bound to happen. As Over-the-Rhine morphed into Cincinnati’s hippest, most lively neighborhood, it was just a matter of time before some enterprising writer chose it for the setting of a novel.

Hidden City is a tense, taut story. It would have been called a “page-turner” back in the days when novels still had pages to turn. It has all the elements we’ve come to expect of a good thriller: love and betrayal, conspiracy, unexplained deaths. And at the center of it all is an old-school newspaper reporter, a frustrated guy more devoted to his well-worn notepad and 1973 Dodge Dart than any newfangled digital device.

The action takes him into all manner of places, from the abandoned Cincinnati subway and gritty backstreets of not-yet-gentrified OTR to the eerie tunnels used by bootleggers back in Prohibition. And befitting any good thriller, there are even a couple of stops at the county morgue.

It’s pretty colorful stuff. Lots of intriguing characters and dramatic texture, all adding up to what Publishers Weekly called a “well-plotted whodunit in the Raymond Chandler-Ross Macdonald tradition.”

What’s really fascinating about Hidden City, though, is that it was written in the late 1980s, long before the idea of a gussied-up OTR was on anyone’s horizon.

The author, Jim DeBrosse, was the film critic at The Cincinnati Enquirer at the time. It’s no coincidence that he was feeling some of the same frustrations as Rick Decker, the reporter who served as his alter ego in the book.

DeBrosse had been a medical writer at The Cincinnati Post and the St. Petersburg Times. He took a year off to write his first novel, Serpentine Wall (1988), before taking the Enquirer gig in 1985.

But as the years on the film beat passed, he was tiring of chasing celebrities who came to Cincinnati to make movies. And there were a lot of them. There was Rain Man, Eight Men Out and Fresh Horses in 1988, followed quickly by An Innocent Man in 1989 and A Mom For Christmas in 1990.

One positive thing about star hunting, though, is that it regularly took him into some of the more rough-and-tumble areas of Over-the-Rhine and the East End. Some reporters would see that as a downside of the job. But for DeBrosse, it provided inspiration.

Here was a neighborhood so tough that it had survived more than a century of neglect. No one with any social or political clout cared what happened to the people who lived there. In short, it was the perfect place to set a novel where unspeakable ugliness could unfold.

DeBrosse had found the location for novel No. 2. He quickly set to work.

He already knew about Cincinnati’s abandoned subway tunnels. But he’d never seen them in person.

“There were all kinds of rumors that the homeless were living there or that there were Satanic cults that met in them,” says DeBrosse, who is now a visiting assistant professor of journalism at Miami University. He approached the city’s maintenance department and explained what he was up to.

“I was honest,” says DeBrosse, “and they were happy to give me a tour. It was absolutely pristine. I think that’s what made it so eerie—that there was nobody down there. It’s almost like someone dropped a neutron bomb and wiped out all the people.”

Other elements, most notably the bootleggers’ tunnels, were complete fiction. Years later, we came to learn that such tunnels actually existed. But DeBrosse was just applying a little logic when he wrote about them.

“I just guessed that during Prohibition they would have found some way to move the product,” says DeBrosse. “They weren’t about to stop making money.”

One of the advantages of re-releasing a book that is a quarter-century old is that it is filled with details that paint a meticulous portrait of a long-ago era. He writes of a Cincinnati long-gone and of reporters smoking at their desks. The airwaves are dominated by Johnny Carson and Bud Light’s short-lived spokes-dog Spuds MacKenzie.

But at times, DeBrosse looks downright prescient.

He depicts an OTR that is ripe for development. So ripe, in fact, that a ruthless developer is willing to do anything—even murder —to force a homeless shelter to abandon its property. Murder aside, it’s a scenario that is remarkably similar to what we’ve seen in modern-day OTR as 3CDC and other developers have wheeled and dealed and offered all manner of enticements for property owners—even a homeless shelter or two—to relocate.

Mind you, there were glimmerings of development in OTR when DeBrosse wrote his novel, most of it along Main Street. But the kind of growth we’ve seen in the past five years along Vine Street would have been unfathomable to most people back then.

“I have to be honest,” says DeBrosse. “When I came back to Cincinnati after 20 years, I couldn’t believe all the redevelopment in OTR. I know what I wrote. But I really didn’t see anything like this coming.

“As a reporter, you really see what a thin line there is between fiction and reality. You report things long enough and there shouldn’t be anything that surprises you. Nothing. But the success in OTR? It did surprise me.”

Hidden City by Jim DeBrosse is available at Amazon.com ($13.86 in paper, $9.99 Kindle edition).