The Old Buzzard Had It Coming by Donis Casey is the first of now ten mysteries in which Alafair Tucker, farm wife of Shaw Tucker and mother of nine (soon to be ten), becomes an amateur sleuth. The story begins in January of 1912 in southeast Oklahoma, near Boynton and Muskogee. The mystery unfolds when Harley Day, near neighbor to the Tuckers, is found dead, assumed frozen in the January snow.
Alafair, always willing to help a neighbor, goes to the Day farm to help Miz. Day prepare Harley’s body for burial. In washing the body, Alafair discovers a bullet hole under Harley’s left ear. Obviously, Harley has not died of exposure alone; the bullet hole suggests another scenario.
Harley Day, a particularly unlikable fellow, has plenty of enemies who might have wished him dead. He’s a mean drunk and frequently mistreats his wife Nona and sometimes his children. As a farmer, Day leaves much to be desired. If not for his oldest son John Lee, now nineteen, the farm would be in complete ruin. To supplement his income and supply his own needs, Day has a moonshine still hidden on his property.
Harley and Nona Day have seven children living at home. Three have died as infants, and their oldest daughter Maggie Ellen has run away to Sands Springs or Okmulgee and married a bricklayer, according to the family. She had promised her sister Naomi she would return and take Naomi away too, but the family has never seen Maggie Ellen again.
Alastair becomes more involved in the mystery of Harley’s death when she realizes her seventeen-year-old daughter Phoebe is in love with John Lee Day. Upon discovering that a ladies’ pistol Alafair’s father has given her is missing, Alafair becomes worried that Phoebe knows more about Harley’s death than she is letting on. Alafair fears John Lee has shot his father and that Phoebe is complicit in the murder.
These fears prompt Alafair to question everyone despite the fact that her husband’s first cousin, Scott Tucker, is the sheriff. Alafair determines that she will find out the truth. Knowing that Phoebe is in love with John Lee, Alafair worries that John Lee will be found guilty of the murder. When John Lee runs away, Alafair becomes even more concerned. By watching Phoebe closely, Alafair discovers John Lee’s hiding place and waits until Phoebe is in school so she can question John Lee and assure him that she is working to find the real killer. Alafair does not believe John Lee has murdered his father, but she needs more information to prove his innocence and along the way protect her daughter as well.
Casey has written a first-rate mystery and peppered the story with colloquialisms of the time and place. She also includes a number of references to food since Alafair and Nona both have large families to fee. At the end of the book, Casey has included recipes for Josie’s Peach Cobbler, buttermilk biscuits, several variations on cornbread, and molasses pie. The picture below is of molasses pie. On her Web site, Casey has included a number of other recipes: http://www.doniscasey.com/.
At the Web site, Casey also includes information on her other books along with a blog about her writing and her book tours. Casey provides background on how she began writing the Alafair mysteries. After doing genealogy research on her family in order to give the information to her siblings for Christmas, Casey began remembering stories her grandparents had told. In sharing those stories with her husband, he told Casey stories about his own ancestors in Oklahoma. With all the stories she collected from both families, Casey said to herself, “Donis, you have enough material here for ten books.” Thus Alafair was born.
Casey goes on to tell readers that she wanted “to take the opportunity to try and evoke not just the events of the time, but the smells, the tastes, the sound, the hot and cold of it — the daily one-foot-in-front-of-the-other life of a farm wife with nine children. I love the language, too. One of my uncles walked into our house one day and said, ‘What in the cat hair is going on?’ How could I let that fade into oblivion?”
That’s what readers will find in The Old Buzzard Had it Coming and the other Alafair mysteries, a taste of Oklahoma from 1912 and on into WWI.
Tony Hillerman, native Oklahoman and well-known author, praised Casey and Alafair. He said, ““As an Okie farm boy of the dust bowl depression days, I can testify that Donis Casey sounds like she’s been there and done that. She gives us a tale full of wit, humor, sorrow and, more important, the truth. Her Alafair Tucker deserves to stand beside Ma Joad in Literature’s gallery of heroic ladies.”
Carolyn Hart, another Oklahoma writer, describes The Old Buzzard Had it Coming as “vivid and unforgettable as a crimson Oklahoma sunset.” Hart goes on to say The Old Buzzard Had it Coming “is a book to savor, lyrical, authentic, and heartwarming.”
Casey’s stories receive praise from Library Journal. Roundup Magazine, the Historical Novel Society, The Daily Oklahoman, Booklist, Chicago Tribune, and others.
A recipe from Donis Casey’s Web site is War Cake found below:
1 cup molasses
1 cup corn syrup
1-1/2 cup water
1 package raisins (exact quantity according to preference)
2 TB fat (vegetable oil)
1 tsp salt
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp cloves
1/2 tsp nutmeg
3 cups rye flour
1/2 tsp soda
2 tsp baking powder
Boil together for 5 minutes the first nine ingredients. Cool, add the sifted dry ingredients and bake in two loaves for 45 minutes in a moderate oven. (I baked it at 350º F. – Donis)
I like to use golden raisins because they are tender and look nice. I use a 1/2 pound package from Trader Joe’s. The corn syrup I’ve used is plain old white Karo, but I’ve also used maple syrup (which is delicious), agave syrup, honey, and a combination thereof. It’s all good.
The recipe for Fruit Cocktail Cake below is from Donis Casey’s family. Alafair would not have made this cake in quite the same way since she would have used fruit she canned herself. Still, I thought this recipe worth including.
Fruit Cocktail Cake
1 ½ cups sugar 1 #303 can fruit cocktail
2 cups flour 2 eggs
2 teaspoons soda 1 teaspoon vanilla
½ teaspoon salt
Mix ingredients in order and pour into a 12X9 pan. Bake 45 minutes in moderate oven
Before baking, sprinkle top with ½ cup brown sugar and ½ cup nuts.