Local author releases debut mystery novel

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WATSONVILLE—Author Tony Di Leonardo was visiting the Watsonville Square shopping center when he first noticed Kelly’s Books. Walking into the small independent bookstore, he started chatting with owner Kelly Pleskunas about his debut novel, “Death by Drive-By,” which had just been released in December 2020.

Di Leonardo, who is originally from Sunnyvale and now lives in Capitola, was looking for ways to sell the book. The small publisher he had signed a contract with had a very limited advertising budget, leaving Di Leonardo to deal with most of the promotion.

He saw Kelly’s Books as an opportunity.

“Kelly was really encouraging,” Di Leonardo said. “I’m so new at this—I asked, how can I publicize without advertising? But Kelly knew what she was talking about. I was impressed. I feel really fortunate.”

The book is now for sale at Kelly’s Books, and Di Leonardo said he’s looking into other local bookstores. In addition, the book is for sale at larger retailers such as Barnes & Noble, Walmart and Amazon. 

Di Leonardo began writing “Death by Drive-By” in 2009. He had been working as a defense contractor for the military when he had a sudden stroke, and during recovery was prompted to write as part of therapy.

“A lady working with me said I should write… at first I thought, ‘OK, I’ll just write something about the military, about what I know,’” Di Leonardo said. “But she said ‘No, do something different.’ She told me to write something funny, or adventurous.”

A longtime mystery and thriller buff, Di Leonardo decided to jump headfirst into the genre—though with a healthy dose of humor. “Death by Drive-By” follows the character of Vinny Oliveto, a San Francisco detective whose life turns upside down after suffering a stroke and landing in a retirement home in Kansas. After the drive-by shooting of a beloved, long-resident resident of the facility, Vinny launches investigations and kickstarts a chase across several state lines to find the murderer.

“It’s a thriller, but not your normal thriller,” Di Leonardo said. “I call it a ‘humorous-thriller-murder-mystery.’ I’m hoping I can get people interested in the mystery, but I also want people to laugh.”

Di Leonardo said he used his own experiences of living in a retirement home to write the story.

“I had fun poking fun at all the interesting characters I’d seen and watched over the years,” he said. “There are all kinds of people, of all ages, who come into a home like that for different reasons.”

“Death by Drive-By” is selling relatively well, Di Leonardo said, and readers seem to be enjoying it tremendously. But promotion is still an issue, especially during the pandemic, when most people are shopping online.

“On the internet… no one finds my book by accident,” he said. “You have to know to look for it, search exactly my name and the title. Getting this book into people’s hands has been very hard.”

“Death by Drive-By” is Di Leonardo’s first book, but he doesn’t think it will be his last. Taking sections that were cut from the final version of the book, he hopes to write a follow-up.

“I never thought I’d be a novelist,” Di Leonardo said. “And I don’t really intend to get rich as a writer. I just hope people will read my book. I think people will find it really enjoyable.”

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Reporter Johanna Miller grew up in Watsonville, attending local public schools and Cabrillo College before transferring to Pacific University Oregon to study Literature. She covers arts and culture, business and agriculture.