Sarasota author Don Bruns's writing career had an inauspicious start. “I sent my first story to Alfred Hitchcock Magazine when I was 11,” he says, “and they sent it right back.” So when he won a critique from bestselling author Sue Grafton at a charity auction in 2000, it was déjà vu. “I submitted my manuscript and got back eight pages of criticism,” he recalls. “She even asked me if I’d ever actually read a book.” Bruns was understandably discouraged until Grafton called two days later explaining that she’d been so hard on him because he had the makings of a good writer. She suggested that he attempt a new book. So, with her criticisms in mind, he got to work on a mystery novel titled Jamaica Blue. Grafton liked the manuscript so much that she mentioned it at a national mystery convention, garnering Bruns a contract with St. Martin’s Press. Twelve years and several novels later, Bruns has established himself as one of Florida’s award-winning mystery writers.
Jamaica Blue was the first in Bruns’ “Caribbean Series,” five novels featuring protagonist Mick Sever, an entertainment journalist who explores the seamy underbelly of the music business. Bruns drew from his experience as a singer/songwriter to give the series a gritty realism. “Every book was ripped from the headlines,” Bruns explains. For example, St. Barts Breakdown, the sequel to Jamaica Blue, was based on music producer Phil Spector, while book three, South Beach Shakedown, was inspired by the career of singer Jackie Wilson.
In 2007, Bruns decided to change course with Stuff to Die For, a comic mystery about two wisecracking underachievers (James Lessor and Skip Moore) who decide to start a moving company and stumble upon a murder. Book List said the novel “…will remind the reader of Tim Dorsey's cast of whacked-out characters but with the narrative voice and feel of Mark Twain's Huck Finn." Again, Bruns pulled his inspiration from real life. “After graduation, a college buddy and I did a stint as stand-up comics,” he recalls. “Zinging each other was part of the act.” He describes James and Skip as “wannabe millionaires, full of bravado, who stumble along but always come out on top.” The enthusiastic response to Lessor and Moore led Bruns to pen a “Stuff” series.In Stuff Dreams Are Made Of, the boys reinvent themselves as holy rollers when they meet tent revival preacher Reverend Preston Cashdollar. The third book in the series Stuff to Spy For, has James and Skip playing the spy game when they are hired to do surveillance on the president of a security systems company suspected of cheating on his wife. In Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff, the boys finally become licensed private investigators. To get their fledgling agency, More or Less Investigations, off the ground, they go undercover as carnies to investigate a series of murders in a traveling carnival show.
Too Much Stuff finds the boys in the Florida Keys searching for gold lost in the 1935 hurricane. The book was scheduled for release to coincide with the 100th anniversary of Henry Flagler’s railroad connection to Key West, something Bruns calls “a defining moment in Florida history.” Inspired by Last Train to Paradise, Les Standiford’s chronicle of Flagler’s railroad, Bruns wanted Too Much Stuff to be historically accurate. But there are enough bungles and missteps to keep readers laughing (and guessing) right to the end.
Book number six, Hot Stuff, is a story about the murder of a sous chef in a trendy Miami restaurant. Bruns researched professional kitchens, actually visiting about 35 all across the country. One of the characters was a pastry chef named Kelley Fields. Bruns later learned that Chef John Besh in New Orleans has an executive pastry chef named Kelley Fields. According to Bruns, “I met her and we had a good laugh about her being a murder suspect in the book. I also got a free meal at one of Besh’s restaurants. Not bad!”
The latest book in the series, Reel Stuff, was launched on December 4th.“This is the seventh “Stuff” novel, and the team of James Lessor and Skip Moore still manage to crack me up,” he says. In the story, an A list movie actor dies in a stunt gone wrong on a Miami movie set. Is it suicide or murder? Skip Moore goes cross country, learning more about the movie industry than he wants to when his girlfriend, Emily, goes undercover as a fledgling actress and is offered a major role. “I was reminded of Elmore Leonard’s Get Shorty, about Chili Palmer, a loan shark who goes to Hollywood and within a couple of hours finds himself deep in the movie business,” Bruns says. Bruns was also able to incorporate into the plot some material from a movie pitch he made to Henson Studios several years ago. Book List calls Reel Stuff “A lean, thoroughly entertaining mystery...clues, laughs, and shenanigans abound. The Stuff novels aren’t quite comedy-mysteries, but they’re about as close as you can get, effectively mixing serious crime with plenty of humor.”
Bruns has also penned a stand-alone thriller that is awaiting publication. Peter's Gate is the tale of a nefarious organization that controls the Vatican and makes an attempt on the Pope's life. Bruns calls the book, his longest yet, "non-stop tension that was fun to write." There are also plans for another "Stuff" book. Meanwhile, Bruns will continue to be on the lookout for some strange-but-true inspiration because, as he puts it, "The real stuff is even better than what I can imagine."