by Kathleen Costa
This week we have a review of Valentino Will Die by Donis Casey and an interesting interview with Donis. Details at the end of this post on how to enter to win a copy of the book, and a link to purchase it from Amazon and an indie bookstore. We featured one of Donis’ books in this series in a past Mysteryrat’s Maze Podcast-you can find it below as well.
Long Hard Road to the Silver Screen
The 1920s are in full swing with people trying to get back to some kind of normal after “the war to end all wars.” Blanche Tucker, one of Alafair Tucker‘s gaggle of daughters, is restless, so she is easily taken in by a man claiming to be a film producer saying she has “IT.” However ill-advised, she jumps at the chance and runs away with the man…destination Hollywood. However, the reality is more a cruel awakening and comment on her naïveté as a fifteen year old than a fortuitous journey to fame and fortune. Circumstances do work in her favor, and she finally makes it to the destination for which she original set out making friends with Alma Bolding, a famous, yet troubled, film star. Six years later, Blanche has transformed herself into Bianca LaBelle, celebrated star of the silent silver screen, famous for the serialized movies titled “The Adventures of Bianca Dangereuse,” a very popular adventure series about an “indomitable world traveler, journalist, and sometimes spy.”
Bianca’s current co-star, and good friend, is Rudolph Valentino with whom she shares a similar story. They both arrived in Hollywood lacking funds and employment and plagued with a troubled past, then a fortuitous set of events facilitates their rise to the incredible heights of fame and fortune. Rudy is ten years older than Bianca, but the two hit it off immediately recognizing a similar adventurous nature, a strong personality, shared love of animals, and a few war wounds from the demands of the studio and the public’s “intense scrutiny.” The two became close friends and confidants, not lovers, and when life gets just a bit too complicated, they’re each other’s safe haven.
Valentino Will Die earns 5/5 Silver Screen Adventures…Engaging Page-Turner!
Bianca is starring in a new film, Grand Obsession, opposite her good friend and ally in Hollywood, Rudy Valentino. However, he hasn’t been himself lately. His sizzling persona, an expectation by the director, has been lackluster. “Cut!” They break early and Bianca suggests Rudy come home with her promising something to ease his stomach ailment. There they can discuss how to handle the studio’s publicity department’s plans to fake an off-screen romance between them in order to boost on-screen dollars. Of course, a bit of subterfuge, common in the industry, is the least of Rudy’s worries; he shares a fan letter he received that goes beyond the fanatic praise and professing of undying love and into disturbing: “Valentino Will Die.” It proves to be prophetic when Rudy collapses, is rushed to the hospital with many worried he won’t survive. Bianca rushes to his side—well, four days later, L.A. to New York by train. He tells her he believes he’s been poisoned and pleads for her to find out who’s trying to kill him. Is she too late? Who would do this? Does she really know her friend?
Lights! Camera! Actually Entertaining! Donis Casey has penned a fascinating literary vision of the life and death of Rudy Valentino through the eyes of a delightful young woman Bianca LeBelle. Her well-written drama describes a realistic Hollywood community, incorporates many historical figures, and devises a unique theory connecting Valentino’s very untimely death to murder. Fascinating and plausible scenarios with suspects well illustrated for the 1920s era and motives swirling about from New York to L.A. Bianca channels her intrepid on-screen character to investigate, but enlists her private detective friend, Ted Oliver, for his professional skills. Oliver, however, has also been hired by a “you’d never guess” crime boss to investigate Rudy’s death which is complicated by his efforts to shield Bianca from another murder he’s been hired to investigate. All the intrigue, misdirection, and compelling details painted with a brush straight of the Golden Era in Hollywood makes this a top surprise for 2021!
It may be insignificant, but the manner by which a novel is organized can add, or detract, from its entertainment value. Here…it’s a million bucks worth! The chapters are not marked with one, two, etc., or a catchy pun or summary title, but instead with a movie script direction followed by descriptions of a scene being filmed or a newspaper headline followed by additional insights. Throughout the chapters, often signaling a break in the drama or the passing of time, she adds a quote or an interesting thought to follow-up as insight or preface to the next bit of drama. It is unique, and I loved it!
Back to the Beginning! Several references, but no spoilers, are made about Blanche’s journey from Oklahoma to her transformation into Bianca in Hollywood. To get the complete story and more details into a murder in which Bianca is entangled, the first book in the series, The Wrong Girl (2019], is a “can’t miss” experience.
Be a Big Donis Casey Fan!
After years as a teacher, academic librarian, and an entrepreneur, Donis Casey joined the ranks of a published writer with her first book, The Old Buzzard Had It Coming in her now ten-book Alafair Tucker Mystery series. She follows this with a series starring the eighth daughter of Alafair Tucker whose transformation gives fans an exciting two-book The Adventures of Bianca Dangereues—“dangereues” is French for dangerous.
Interview with author Donis Casey:
KRL: How long have you been writing?
Donis: I’ve written stories since I could hold a pencil in my fist. Perhaps it’s because my parents read to me from the cradle, or because I come from such a long line of tale-tellers. One of my grandmothers used to keep us fascinated for hours on end with her stories of life in the Kentucky mountains. Toward the end of my grandmother’s life, one of my sisters asked her how much of what she had told us was true and she replied, “Well…some of it.” So, the truth is I didn’t consciously decide to become a writer. I’ll quote the Achilles character in the movie Troy: “I didn’t choose this life. I was born and this is what I am.”
KRL: When did your first novel come out, what was the title, and would you tell us a little about it?
Donis: My first published novel, The Old Buzzard Had It Coming, came out in 2005. It’s the beginning of a ten-book historical mystery series featuring Alafair Tucker, the core of family life on a farm in Oklahoma where the backbreaking work of caring for her husband Shaw and their ten children required 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 a bullet lodged behind Harley’s ear. Alafair is concerned when she hears that Harley’s son, John Lee, is the prime suspect in his father’s murder, for Alafair’s seventeen-year-old daughter Phoebe is in love with the boy. At first, Alafair’s only fear is that Phoebe is in for a broken heart, but as she begins to unravel the events that led to Harley’s death, she discovers that Phoebe might be more than just John Lee’s sweetheart: she may be his accomplice in murder.
KRL: Have you always written mysteries/suspense and if not what else have you written?
Donis: I spent most of my adult working life as an academic librarian, which gave me a strong foundation in academic writing, but even then, I wrote fiction privately for fun. I wanted to write the Great American Novel, be like F. Scott Fitzgerald or James Joyce, writing literary stories about existential angst. I’d really only been reading mysteries for four or five years prior to trying my hand at my own, but once I began, I felt I’d found my true voice. I decided that, just for once, I was going to write from the heart. It was an infinitely more satisfying experience.
KRL: What brought you to choose the setting and characters in your latest book/series?
Donis: I had spent a dozen years writing a series about Alafair Tucker, raising ten rambunctious children with her on a farm in Oklahoma during the booming 1910s. The tenth book in that series was set in 1919, and as I began to ponder ideas for my next novel, I realized that her kids were mostly raised now. I began to wonder what was going to happen to each of them in the future. The world underwent a radical change after World War I, and the influenza pandemic of 1918 devastated the planet. The United States emerged as a great global power and center of popular culture.
I’d settled Alafair’s older offspring with spouses and children of their own, but the younger ones were coming of age in a new era, and of course, children don’t necessarily grow into the people you wish they would. What would happen to someone who was raised in a secure, loving environment, but grew to lust after adventure and excitement?
So, in order to satisfy my own curiosity and shake things up a bit, I decided to follow one of the children into the Roaring Twenties and see what became of her. As it turns out, she left Oklahoma altogether and had a really exciting life. She became a silent movie star!
KRL: Do you write to entertain or is there something more you want the readers to take away from your work?
Donis: No matter what I think I’m saying, I’m often surprised by what readers actually take away from my work. I didn’t realize I was so smart, or deep, or annoying, or wrong! So, I have to write to satisfy myself. I started the Alafair Tucker series about a farm wife and mother as a tribute to my own mother and grandmothers.
I grew up in the 1950s and ‘60s, watching my smart, talented mother being under-appreciated and under-utilized, and I was desperate not to be a housewife and taken for granted like that, and I wasn’t. I had a career and was fairly successful at it. But guess what? After a few decades I discovered basing your life on your career isn’t that satisfying either.
I created Alafair so I could explore the life of a woman who is queen of her domain and perfectly suited to her situation. I admire her greatly, but I could never fit into the kind of life she lives. In the new series, The Adventures of Bianca Dangereuse, I live the life of a girl who gets everything she wanted but is filled with regret about how she got it. It’s a feeling I know well.
KRL: Do you have a schedule for your writing or just write whenever you can?
Donis: I live in southern Arizona and it’s hot here much of the year. I’ve developed a schedule of running errands in the morning, when it’s cooler and spending the afternoons writing in my air-conditioned office.
KRL: Do you outline? If not, do you have some other interesting way that you keep track of what’s going on, or what needs to happen in your book when you are writing it?
Donis: I’ve written thirteen books over the past fifteen years, and every single one of them came into being in a different way from the others. I don’t normally outline to begin with. Since I write historical series, I start out with research on my time period and jot down ideas. When I begin writing, I usually know what the murder or crime is and have an idea of whodunnit and why, so I have an end in mind and am pointed in the right direction. But by the time I reach the middle, or even the end of the beginning, characters have taken their own path and I end up simply following them to see where they go. It’s more exciting that way, especially when they come up with ideas I’d never thought of. As for how I keep track – as the tale unfolds, I jot notes about each scene on a 3X5 card. I can then lay the cards out and arrange them to see how the story flows.
KRL: If you had your ideal, what time of day would you prefer to write?
Donis: I’d have the situation – and the discipline – to enable me to keep a schedule like Ernest Hemingway’s – rise early, write until noon, then go fishing for the rest of the day.
KRL: Did you find it difficult to get published in the beginning, and do you have a great rejection/critique or acceptance story you’d like to share?
Donis: Aside from academic papers – I’m sure you remember my “Tax Publications of the U.S. Government” – early on I found it impossible to get my fiction published. I kept trying, though. I received lots of encouragement from editors and agents all through the 1970s, ‘80s, and ‘90s, but no bites. Until I did! That didn’t happen until I gave up trying to write great literature and started writing stories that made me happy. In fact, after I finished The Old Buzzard Had It Coming, something unlike anything I’d ever done before, it was accepted by the first publisher I sent it to, over the transom. I didn’t even have an agent. It was some kind of magic.
KRL: Most interesting book signing story-in a bookstore or other venue?
Donis: I’ve had a few funny incidents at my own signings over the years, but my most instructive signing was one I attended at a library for another author, the incredible Louise Penny. The moment she came into the room, she personally introduced herself to every attendee, shook hands, gave out many (pre-pandemic) hugs. She was so warm and seemed so interested in everyone that by the end of her talk I would have bought anything she wrote. She’s still one of my favorite authors. Besides, I learned a great deal from her about how to make your audience love you.
KRL: Future writing goals?
Donis: I’d like to continue on with the Adventures of Bianca Dangereuse Hollywood Mysteries. It’s a fun series to write and a fun place and era in which to spend time. I have ideas for at least three stand-alone novels, one contemporary, one set in the 1950s, and one set in Europe in the 1970s.
KRL: Writing heroes?
Donis: There are so many it’s hard to single out a few. I greatly admire the late authors Edith Pargeter and Colleen McCullough, as well as the very much alive Rhys Bowen and Vicki Delany, who are not just prolific and disciplined, they are so, so good at their craft. Mark Twain for the language and the wit. I love Walter Mosely, too. His books are quite different from my usual fare, but wow! The Easy Rawlins books are great, and Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned is incredibly impressive.
KRL: What kind of research do you do?
Donis: I’m able to find out a lot on the internet, but it’s surprising how difficult it sometimes is to find simple facts that would be readily available if I was on the scene. So, I often end up on the phone, explaining what I need to a librarian or historian in whatever area I am interested in.
I love to do first person interviews, when I can get them. I had wonderful resources in my own family for the Oklahoma series. My new series is set in 1920s California, a new location and era, meaning lots of research. One great resource for learning about the world of 1920s America is silent movies. Besides reading old newspapers and doing the usual historical research, I watched dozens of silent movies. Until … eureka! I realized the new books should be fashioned like silent movies, with inter-title cards rather than chapter headings, full of peril and ending on a cliffhanger.
My new time and place necessitated a new voice, as well. I went from the leisurely twang of rural Oklahoma to the gum-popping rat-a-tat of the East Coasters who populated Hollywood in the Jazz Age. When I write the Alafairs, I hear the gentle cadence of my grandmother’s voice. When I write the Biancas, I hear Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade.
The very best fun thing about doing research, if I may coin a phrase, is even if you’re looking for the most mundane piece of information, you often discover amazing stories and connections you could not possibly have made up on your own.
KRL: What do you read?
Donis: Historical novels, of course, and biographies are particular love of mine. I often read best-sellers strictly as a forensic exercise. Why is this book so popular? Do I like it? If not, why not? What did the author do that made it special? I don’t know if this habit is a good thing or not. It does take me out of my comfort zone and get me to read books I wouldn’t ordinarily pick up. I’ve learned a lot, but what about the simple joy of reading just to enjoy sinking into another time and place? If a book is good enough to make me forget all about the how and why of its construction and lose myself in the story, then I know I’ve found a gem and a treasure.
KRL: Favorite TV or movies?
Donis: I’m very geeky. I enjoy Jane Austin movies, sword and sandal epics, sweeping historical sagas. I love magical realism, too. I find I’m fairly forgiving of anachronism in movies even when the anachronism hits me in the face. For instance, I loved Gladiator with Russell Crowe because of the cinematography and the beautifully written central character. I even loved Troy, which (I mean, really) had little to do with the Iliad. But when Brad Pitt’s Achilles stripped down after a battle, I forgave the writers everything. As for television, you guessed it: Game of Thrones, Downton Abbey, Sherlock, all the various Star Trek series, old and new.
KRL: Any advice for aspiring or beginning writers?
Donis: You can study the craft of writing until your eyes fall out, but you’ll never be a writer unless you write, write, write. It’s like learning to play the violin. You can study theory until you have a PhD in music, but you’ll never be a virtuoso unless you practice till your fingers bleed.
Oh, and if you have agreed to deliver an acceptable manuscript by a certain date, you will undergo a period of hair-raising terror and desperation as the deadline approaches, mark my words. You will offer your first born to the muses if you can just get the requisite number of words on the page by the deadline. You will pray that your manuscript is at least good enough that your editor won’t throw it back in your face and tell you that you’ll never write in this town again.
Once the MS has been read and approved, and even praised, you will be relieved beyond measure while at the same time swearing that you’ll never put yourself through this again. Until another good idea pops into your head! I promise you that Toni Morrison, Steven King, and William Shakespeare have all had this experience.
KRL: Anything you would like to add?
Donis: Find your community. I love my fellow mystery authors. Writing is a lonely and thankless job for most of us. I could never have found what success I’ve had without the support and generosity of people like my long-time editor Barbara Peters, authors like Carolyn Hart, reviewers like Lesa Holstine, and so many others.
KRL: What is something people would be surprised to know about you?
Donis: A few years ago, I appeared on a television program to talk about an upcoming book and was able to catch the program when it aired later. This was before podcasting was a thing. I hardly recognized myself. I seemed sweet and gentle and laughed a lot. I’ve known for years that I have that genteel Southern veneer of manners whether I like it or not, but I never knew until then how I must come across to others. I’m really much fiercer. Inside, I am the Goddess Kali, Destroyer of Worlds.
To enter to win a copy of Valentino Will Die, simply email KRL at krlcontests@gmail[dot]com by replacing the [dot] with a period, and with the subject line “valentino,” or comment on this article. A winner will be chosen March 6, 2021. U.S. residents only and you must be 18 or older to enter. If you are entering via email please include you mailing address in case you win, it will be deleted after the contest. You can read our privacy statement here if you like. BE AWARE THAT IT WILL TAKE LONGER THAN USUAL FOR WINNERS TO GET THEIR BOOKS DUE TO THE CURRENT CRISIS.
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