Skip to main content

Author Talk: February 16, 2018

Having now reached the 10th installment in her series of historical mysteries featuring full-time mother and part-time sleuth Alafair Tucker, Donis Casey is showing no signs of slowing down. Here, this prolific author talks about the potential longevity of the series, as well as familial, historical and authorial inspirations that have (and still do) influence her writing. Read the interview, and then be sure to pick up a copy of FORTY DEAD MEN for yourself!

Question: FORTY DEAD MEN is your 10th Alafair Tucker novel. When you wrote the first book in the series, THE OLD BUZZARD HAD IT COMING, did you ever foresee that you would reach 10 books, and counting?

Donis Casey: When I created Alafair and her family, it seemed natural that each book in the series be based around one of Alafair’s nine (and later, 10) children, so I started out with the idea of writing 10 novels. I'm lucky that I've had the opportunity to carry on with the series as long as I have. I love historical novels and novels set in exotic locations, because when I read, I like to go to a place and live there for a while. I wanted to write a series of historical mysteries that contained all the things I love to read myself. I wanted the books to have a great deal of humanity, a warm central character, a detailed evocation of the time and place. But in order to make the world as real as I could, I “wrote what I know” --- my own family background. Many of the details of farm life, such as using kerosene-soaked corn cobs to start a fire, I learned from my mother, who grew up on a subsistence farm in Oklahoma during the Depression. The characters began as composites of family members, but they have become their own people.

FORTY DEAD MEN is the 10th book in the series, and now we've reached the end of the 1910s. But I can see that there is more of the Tuckers' story to be told. All kinds of wild things happened in the 1920s that I could use as a basis for a rollicking mystery, so there will be more Alafair Tucker novels in the offing.

Q: The story opens in Boynton, Oklahoma in December of 1918, soon after the end of World War I. How did you come to choose that setting for the series? And why pick the teens for the timeframe, exactly 100 years ago?

DC: I am a native Oklahoman myself. Both my parents grew up in Boynton, and I spent many an idyllic summer with my grandparents there. But I learned long ago that most people don't know anything about Oklahoma other than the brief period of the Dust Bowl and the Depression in the 1930s. Oklahoma was a place like no other in the world in the 1910s. It was incredibly rich --- there was oil and cattle and land almost for the taking. It was poor and lawless at the same time, because people were coming from all over the world with nothing to make their fortunes however they could. It was still the Wild West, and yet the cities were brand-new, wealthy and modern.

It was an amazing racial mixture for the era. It had been the Indian Territory, and the Oklahoma Indians were not like the Indians in other parts of the country at that time. They had run their own country for 75 years, and had their own Tribal congresses, newspapers, colleges and schools, and some large plantations. They were used to being in charge of themselves, and they didn’t much appreciate all these Whites flooding in from other parts of the country with their insulting ideas about the native people. From the beginning, Oklahoma Indians have been much more integrated with the general society and much more self-determining than anywhere else in the U.S.

Oklahoma also had (and still has) many traditional Black towns, as well, founded and run by slaves who had escaped into the Nations before the Civil War, or by freed slaves leaving the South after the war. Right after statehood, Oklahoma was the most socialist state in the Union. A larger portion of the electorate in Oklahoma voted for Socialist presidential candidate Eugene Debs in 1916 than any other state. The labor movement was very big, and Socialists didn’t cotton to the U.S. getting involved in the “rich man’s war” in 1917. There were several draft riots around the state in 1917, which I wrote about in ALL MEN FEAR ME.

Still, when the U.S. entered World War I, there was just as much rabid patriotism in Oklahoma as there was in the rest of the country. It’s a great place to set a mystery series. Lots of opportunity for murder. All of this gives me the chance to involve Alafair in the scary enterprise of shepherding her family through an uncertain future. In fact, the beginning of the 20th century was just about as frightening as the beginning of the 21st century is turning out to be. Things were changing fast, and nobody knew what was going to happen.

Q: The theme of PTSD affecting a returning soldier that permeates this story could hardly be timelier. What sort of research did you do on this affliction in preparation for telling Gee Dub's story?

DC: There is a lot of material on PTSD being written these days, which gave me a solid basis for describing some of the symptoms that overtook Gee Dub. It took a bit more digging to discover the early 20th-century attitude toward battlefield trauma, known at the time as "shell shock," and to learn how the returning veterans dealt with it. There is more information about returning British vets than about the Americans, since the Europeans suffered more from the aftereffects of the war than we did. I always do a lot of research by reading the newspapers of the time and place, and I learn a lot about what people were thinking about events as they happened.

For FORTY DEAD MEN, one of my other primary sources for the American experience in France was THE LAST OF THE DOUGHBOYS by Richard Rubin (Houghton Mifflin, 2013). In the early 21st century, Rubin traveled all over the country to interview the last remaining veterans of World War I, and their narratives were a gold mine of information on contemporary attitudes, beliefs about the war, and the soldiers' actual experiences on the front. In FORTY DEAD MEN, I wanted to show that it was not just the veterans who were traumatized by the war, but their families and loved ones were as well.

Q: Before you began the Alafair Tucker series, had you tried your hand at any other kind of mystery novel? Do you have any interest in writing a contemporary crime series at some juncture?

DC: I’ve written stories since I could hold a pencil in my fist. I’ll quote the Achilles character from the movie Troy: “I didn’t choose this life. I was born and this is what I am.” I will write in any genre if I get an idea that strikes my fancy. But before I began the Alafair Tucker series, I had never really considered writing a mystery of any sort. I was an eclectic reader in my youth, and I am an eclectic writer as well. Historical fiction is my first love, though, so I patterned my series after Ellis Peters’ The Cadfael Chronicles (see below), which contain everything I love about historical novels plus very clever and twisty mysteries and a lot of moral ambiguity.

I'd happily write a contemporary mystery if a brilliant and original idea were to grab me.

Q: Over the years, which mystery writers have you been most fond of? And is there one who has most influenced your own writing approach?

DC: One writer I really loved was Edith Pargeter, a prolific 20th-century English novelist. She wrote several historical novels set in England and Wales in the Middle Ages, and her poetic language, style and evocation of the times really spoke to me. When I finally ran out of Pargeter historicals to read, I was very sad. But a little research showed that she also wrote a historical mystery series under the name Ellis Peters, and that is how I ended up reading all 20 of her Cadfael novels. That was the first mystery series that really captured me.

Since then, there have been many other mystery writers whose work I admire. I like Louise Penny, Lee Child, Sara Paretsky, Sandra Dallas, Sharyn McCrumb, Deborah Crombie, Tim Hallinan, Naomi Hirahara, Laura Jo Rowland, Rhys Bowen, Jeffrey Siger, and many more. But all those I mentioned have a strong sense of place and well-developed, engaging main characters.

Q: Do you have an end-point planned for the Alafair series? Or might you just let it march on through the years until it reaches 2018?

DC: I did have an end-point planned when I began the series. I don't want to slog on after I run out of intriguing ideas. But lately I really, really want to know what happens to those children as they become adults and go out into the world. So my series may very well go off in all kinds of fascinating directions in the 1920s and beyond.