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Pete Earley can’t take credit for the eye-catching title of his first novel. The Fairfax-based journalist had originally planned for The Apocalypse Stone, released last June by Forge Books, to be called The Judgement Stone. Earley’s working title perhaps better describes the novel’s principal plot device—a rock that endows those who touch it with insight into the sins of others. But, to drive book sales, Forge asked for the name change.

To make the story fit its new title, Earley, 54, gave his stone a starring role in the end of all things. But first, the rock finds its way into the hands of a circuit court judge who is presiding over a trial in which a young black man is accused of sexually assaulting and murdering an 11-year-old white girl. At the same time, a Catholic University priest racks up frequent-flyer miles traveling from Rome to Las Vegas to Charlottesville, Va., in an attempt to hunt down the stone, which he believes was once touched by Jesus.

Any resemblance to that other religious murder mystery is purely coincidental, says Robert Gleason, Forge’s executive editor, in an e-mail. “We…bought it long before The Da Vinci Code—which of course has similar undertones—but published [Earley’s] other two books first (The Big Secret in 2004 and Lethal Secrets in 2005) because we thought they were more timely.” Earley’s other novels were rushed to publication because they hit on terrorism, Russian separatism, and other newsy topics, the author says.

Earley says the religious content of The Apocalypse Stone was inspired by the many hours he spent in revival tents as a child. His father, Elmer N. Earley Jr., was a protestant minister who often delivered sermons on judgment and forgiveness in a small-town Colorado church. The minister even kept a small stone in his office, which he would wield while telling the parable that culminates in Jesus saying, “He that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone.”

Other life experiences crept into Earley’s first novel, as well. The book’s female villain bears more than a passing resemblance to the author’s ex-wife, Earley admits. The heroine—a plucky district attorney—shares her first name with the author’s current wife. And every one of Earley’s seven children makes a cameo appearance in the book, in name if not character.

One of the author’s children claimed a little more ink than the rest. At his father’s request, Kevin Earley, 27, wrote a defiant rap that is recited by the novel’s black defendant during a dinner party. Kevin—a local rapper who has released more than a dozen self-produced albums under the moniker “Earleybird”—did this purely as a favor. Being published “is no big deal,” he says. And while Kevin claims to have read a few chapters of The Apocalypse Stone, his dad isn’t buying it. “He’s being nice—he hasn’t read the book.”

—Sadie Dingfelder