Friday, October 22, 2021

Interview with Donis Casey

Alafair Tucker is a strong woman, the core of family life on a farm in Oklahoma where the back-breaking work and daily logistics of caring for her husband Shaw, their nine children, and being neighborly requires hard muscle and a clear head. She’s also a woman of strong opinions, and it is her opinion that her neighbor, Harley Day, is a drunkard and a reprobate. So, when Harley’s body is discovered frozen in a snowdrift one January day in 1912, she isn’t surprised that his long-suffering family isn’t, if not actually celebrating, particularly broken up.

When Alafair helps Harley’s wife prepare the body for burial, she discovers that Harley’s demise was anything but natural…” –Opening of the synopsis for The Old Buzzard Had It Coming, Book One in the Alafair Tucker mystery series.


Among my favorite subjects for Author of the Month are my fellow historical mystery novelists. So it’s with great excitement that I get to profile Donis Casey, author of the Alafair Tucker and Bianca Dangereuse mystery series.


15) Donis, I have to ask you first, what was your inspiration for Alafair Tucker, a very unlikely amateur detective as she’s a turn of the century farmer with a husband and 10 kids. What led you to create her?

I wanted to create an unlikely but highly motivated sleuth, and someone with a peculiar skill set. Someone most people would never think of. Alafair's a combination of some of the traits of my mother, my mother-in-law, my grandmothers (who were both amazingly competent and independent), myself, and a female relative who shall remain nameless. This series is different from anything I have ever written, because it’s about a traditional woman. I’ve always been a feminist, and in my youth I was especially dedicated to the cause. But when I reached a certain age, it began to dawn on me that perhaps things aren’t as black and white as I had always thought. In fact, by so totally rejecting the qualities that have historically been associated with women, I was buying into the idea that there was something inferior about them, As I grew older and wiser I really wanted to correct that notion. What they had to put up with and how they managed in spite of it all is incredible. They were twice as smart and twice as tough as most people have to be today.

I wanted to set the books in the unlikely state of Oklahoma, as well. I am a native Oklahoman, fourth generation, born and raised, but I haven’t lived there for many years. When I first began to travel, I learned pretty quickly that most people on this wide Earth don’t know much about Oklahoma, and what they do know is likely to be wrong. I blame John Steinbeck. Oklahoma was rich with opportunity in the early 20th Century – nothing like Grapes of Wrath!


14) What do you consider Alafair Tucker’s greatest strengths and weaknesses as a mystery detective character? What makes her tick?

Alafair Tucker knows everybody in the county and doesn’t have a second thought about worming information out of anybody who crosses her path. She has a way of knowing things about people, too, almost like a sixth sense, which probably comes from having so many children. People tell Alafair things that they wouldn’t tell the law. Maybe it’s because she’s not very threatening, or maybe she reminds them of their mothers. For every Alafair book, I have to figure out a really compelling reason for her to get involved in a murder investigation. After all, with a farm, a husband, and ten kids to deal with, it's not like she's looking for something to do. So in every book, it's one of the children who is affected in some way, and there is nothing Alafair would not do for her children. Love gives her teeth and claws. It makes her dangerous. It makes her a remarkable sleuth.


13) Let’s switch gears for a moment and glide into the next decade. What led you to create Bianca Dangereuse?

The Bianca Dangereuse series is a spin-off of the earlier Oklahoma-set Alafair Tucker series. When we first met Blanche/Bianca, she was a six year old girl, Alafair's eighth child, living with her very large family on the farm in Oklahoma in the 1910s. We watched through ten novels as she grew up to be a smart, beautiful, but headstrong teen, bored with life on the farm. Each of the Alafair books moves forward one year in time, and by the time the tenth book, Forty Dead Men, was finished, we'd been through World War I and the influenza epidemic, and were about to embark on a new era, the 1920s. I decided it would be fun to fling Blanche into the world and see what happened. I didn't know myself that Blanche was going to end up as Bianca LaBelle, major silent movie star in Hollywood - until she did!


12) 1920s Hollywood, part of the setting for my latest novel, Hollywoodland, is a rich mine for a period mystery novelist as it was both a time of great glamor as well as scandalous murder cases. Have you ever been tempted to insert Bianca into a real life case, such as the real-life murder of William Desmond Taylor?

The Taylor murder occurred a few years too early to be a factor in the Bianca Dangereuse mysteries, and the second Bianca mystery,Valentino Will Die, Bianca deals with the circumstances of her dear friend Rudy's actual death in 1926 (which was rumored to be a murder even at the time), so as the series moves forward, he's already gone. However, I have thought about writing a Bianca mystery featuring real life '20s movie star Mabel Normand, who was implicated in Taylor's death and in a bunch of other scandals, as well. She also died early. All kinds of possibilities there.


11) When you were growing up, who were your favorite authors and had any of them gone on to influence your work?

I was a wildly eclectic reader when I was growing up, but I always favored stories with a historical setting, an exotic setting, or science fiction! As a kid I loved the Lucy Fitch Perkins  Twins series, about sets of twins growing up in different countries, such as the Chinese Twins, The Eskimo Twins, the Greek Twins. I read Beau Geste (French Foreign Legion) half a dozen times when I was a teen and The Nun's Story (set in the Belgian Congo) at least a dozen times when I was a young woman. But it was Ellis Peters' Brother Cadfael Mysteries that made me decide to write historical mysteries, and I purposely fashioned the first few Alafair Tucker novels after the Cadfaels – a warmhearted, compassionate, simple yet competent central character, a tremendous feeling of place and time – an invitation to the reader to step into the character's world and live there for a while. Come sit down to dinner with the family!


10) Describe your typical writing day, if such a thing exists. Do you exclusively write in a notebook, a laptop or both? Do you set daily word goals and, if so, what are they?

I write on a laptop with occasional thinking sessions with pen and paper. I live in southern Arizona, so for half the year it's hot (really hot!) in the afternoon. I check my email first thing in the morning, and then the rest of the morning is usually reserved for any trip or outdoor activities. I've developed a routine of sitting down to write at about 2:00 and going until 5:30. I have no word goals. I just try to write as much as I can. On the first draft I go go go without editing myself at all. I end up with a mess of a manuscript, but the magic happens with drafts two through twenty (or however many it takes).


9) I know your two series protagonists are separated by half a country and a full decade. But have you ever been tempted to do a LaBelle/Tucker crossover?

Bianca LaBelle is a spinoff. Bianca is one of Alafair's younger children who runs away from home with a suave stranger who promises to put her in the movies, but has nothing but the worst intentions. Blanche/Bianca manages to escape his clutches, but by her own wits and with a lot of help she does end up in Hollywood. Six years later, she is the star of the silent movie action series The Adventures of Bianca Dangereuse, and the skeleton of the man who abducted her is found buried near the beach in Santa Monica. There is some minor crossover in the first Bianca, and there will be more crossover in both later Bianca and Alafairs.


8) Aside from the obvious difference of Tucker living in a small Oklahoma town and LaBelle working as an action movie star in the rapidly growing city of Hollywood, what are the biggest differences to how each woman approaches a murder investigation?

Both women have plenty of useful connections that law enforcement does not. Because of her wealth and fame, Bianca has a lot of cache. She knows lots of powerful and famous people, and most of them have secrets they want kept and troubles they want vanished. In the first Bianca novel, The Wrong Girl, she meets a scruffy, Chandleresque detective called Ted Oliver, who eventually becomes her partner, her eyes and ears in the seedy underworld of Prohibition-era Southern California.


7) Considering that Alafair Tucker lives in a small Oklahoma town, how do you avoid “Cabot Cove Syndrome” or clustering a series of murders within a small locale?

As I told my editor once, if you know anything about early 20th century Oklahoma history, having too many murders is not a problem I have to deal with. Just by reading the  newspapers of the time and place, I could find enough real murders that happened in the area to last me through an encyclopedia-sized series. Don't confuse 1910s East Coast civilization with life in Indian Territory Oklahoma.  Frontier justice was a real thing!


6) From reading your introduction in the first Tucker mystery, your series actually began as a genealogy project for your family. Yet the Bianca LaBelle series can’t claim the same inspiration. So, on an abstract level, what attraction does writing period mystery fiction hold for you?

Actually, we met Alafair Tucker's daughter Blanche as a very ill child in

The Wrong Hill to Die On, an illness that caused Alafair to take the child to visit her sister in Tempe, Arizona, considered a healing place for lung complaints in 1916. The Blanche/Bianca character was originally based on my real-life great aunt Blanche, who ran away from home as a teen. She didn't end up a movie star like her fictional counterpart, though.

            Fictional Blanche's aunt flirted with running off to Hollywood and the movies but in the end stayed with her husband and law practice. This is the groundwork for Bianca Dangereuse's adventures. They begin when the now 16-year-old Blanche seizes her chance to escape drop-dead dull Boynton, Oklahoma, by running away with dashing Graham Peyton who talks of movies. He turns out to be a seducer and sex-trafficker and Blanche bolts in Northern Arizona. Her luck turns when those who take her in enable her to finally make it to Hollywood. Six years later Bianca Dangereuse is a hot, hot star. And the bones of Graham Peyton are uncovered buried on a Santa Monica beach....


5) Pantser, plotter or plantser?

Pantser, no question. I usually know who the principle characters will be and have an idea for a murder. Sometimes I think I know who the murderer is before I start. I'm often wrong. That's the fun of it.


4) After a dozen novels across 16 years, it’s obvious you’ve had a successful partnership with Barbara Peters at Poisoned Pen Press. But if you were offered a Big Five deal, would you take it?

You betcha. I loved being at Poisoned Pen Press and having Barbara as my editor for all the Alafair Tucker Mysteries. But in 2019, just as I was preparing to launch the first Bianca Dangereuse novel, The Wrong Girl, PPP was sold to a much bigger outfit called Sourcebooks. There is a lot more potential with Sourcebooks, but not so much of the warm family feel I had with Barbara. So if I'm going to be a smaller fish in a bigger pond anyway, why not swim in the biggest pond that will have me?


3) What you count as among your greatest strengths and weaknesses as a novelist?

I think I have a unique vision. I love celebrating the unsung people who really make the world go round. Since the pandemic, they've been calling these folks “essential workers”, and who's more essential to every living person than her/his mother? I also love world-building


2) Are there any plans to begin another historical mystery series?

Yes. A novelist is like a shark. You've got to keep moving forward or die. I've done some preliminary work on a possible new series set in Europe in the late 1960s and early 1970s.


1) What’s next for Donis Casey?

I've just submitted the third Bianca Dangereuse Mystery, The Beasts of Hollywood, to my publisher. Beasts features Bianca and Dashiell Hammett, just as he's becoming famous for his Continental Op stories but before he writes his first novel. I've yet to learn when and if it'll be published. I've also begun work on the eleventh Alafair Tucker Mystery, which overlaps the Wrong Girl in time but is not quite a crossover.


If you’re interested in Ms. Casey’s work and wish to learn more, then use the handy links below.

Facebook author page 


(Multi-author multi-national mystery author blog to which I contribute twice a month)


Publisher's author page Pinterest  

Amazon author page

B&N link for Valentino Must Die \

Bianca Dangereuse series, all retail buy links.

Podcast, Dark and Stormy Bookclub

Interview on The Big Thrill, magazine of International Thriller Writers

Valentino Bianca Dangereuse Hollywood Mystery series page



At October 23, 2021 at 9:42 AM, Anonymous Jane Risdon said...

Fab interview, thanks for sharing this with us Robert. Good luck and much success Donis Casey.

At October 23, 2021 at 4:05 PM, Blogger Donis Casey said...

Thanks, Jane!


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