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Kentucky by Heart: Lifelong musician Frank Messina finds new path as writer of murder/mystery novels

By Steve Flairty
KyForward Columnist

Until recently, Frank “Doc” Messina’s choice of performing arts pretty much focused in one area.  He considered himself a “music guy,” and he mostly made his livelihood either performing music or as a music educator.

Today, the 71-year-old Messina has embraced another art, writing, and has cranked out two popular murder/mystery novels, with another on the way. But, his path to becoming an author was a bit circuitous.   

“I came to Lexington from New York in 1978 to play country music fulltime,” he noted. He played keyboard in a trio, which included his first wife, and the group called itself Richardson/Messina. “We were on the road nine months a year at places all around the southeastern region of the country.” The group played, he said, “the only thing that would sell in the ‘70s: Waylon and Willie; early Hank Williams, Dolly Parton and bands like Alabama. We played what people wanted to hear. We made a good living.”

Frank Messina at his piano (Photo provided)

In time, however, the music performing wave he was riding subsided and he could no longer make a good living doing it. He received direction from his religious faith in taking the next step.

“The Lord said: ‘All right, we’re done with this,’” he explained. That necessitated other work to pay the bills. He tried several options, but the employment area that seemed to stick best was in in music education, both as a private music tutor and as part of the Fayette County Public School System, in Lexington. He taught choral music for nine years at Henry Clay High School, then stepped away for a year to do a fulltime music ministry as an independent evangelist. During that time, he met the woman who would become his second wife, Denise.

The number of church invitations came slowly and was too limited to make the ministry viable. Consequently, he signed up to be a substitute music teacher, again working for the local school system. Doc stayed busy and particularly liked teaching elementary students. He got noticed, too, and soon was hired to teach music full-time at Lexington’s Garden Springs Elementary School. There, he spent four and a half happy years, then moved to the school system’s central office to oversee the integration of arts and humanities into classrooms.

After retiring from working in public schools, Frank was open to developing new and gratifying interests to supplement his focus on teaching private music lessons. An idea came to him in a surprising way. While he and his wife, Denise, were driving back from a leisurely trip to Ashville, North Carolina, a few years ago, he started a conversation that would bend the trajectory of his life path. Being a person of faith, he thinks it was likely providential. The topic had to do with his interest in Denise’s favorite reading choices, murder/mystery novels.

Playfully, he asked her questions about a fictional scenario she might create. From her responses, he developed a general structure for a novel. “The next morning, I started to write,” he recalled. “I believe from the bottom of my heart (that) God wanted me to do that.”

(Photo provided)

It was the initial step that led to pen name: fj messina, author.

Since then, hard work, talent, and a fascination with his new art form have produced two published novels for Frank, the first in a planned series: The Bluegrass Files: Down the Rabbit Hole (Book 1); and The Bluegrass Files: Twisted Dreams (Book 2). And, he said, “I have already written the third one.”

As one might surmise from seeing “Bluegrass” in the book titles, central Kentuckians will easily recognize the local setting in the stories. There are the Versailles Castle and the Pisgah Pike, restaurants such as Joe Bologna’s and Papi’s,  Magee’s Bakery, Keeneland, and many other area locales.

The main characters in The Bluegrass Files are private investigators Sonia Vitale and Joyce Ellen Thomas (called “Jet”).  Frank referred to Sonia as a “Sandra Bullock” match who moved to Lexington after being “left at the altar in Cincinnati.” Sonia, he confides, has his daughter’s Italian heritage and also looks like her. He compares Jet to a Reese Witherspoon type; she is a former track star at Woodford County High School and is cast as a strong protector of her colleague Sonia. The chemistry between the two is unmistakable.

An odd twist is the two’s competition across the street, called Semper Fi Investigations, a one-person private investigating outfit directed by a former U.S. Marine by the name of Brad Denham. He’s sharp, experienced, and is physically attractive. “Sonia’s a high-quality person, no question about it,” noted Frank, “but she’s not an experienced professional investigator. She does things like run out of gas and is not always prepared. Brad Denham would never do it.”

Frank Messina (Photo provided)

Amazingly, both PI teams agree to work together on some individual cases and not surprisingly, sparks of romance between Brad and Sonia develop, albeit with definite complications ensuing. Frank’s engaging characters become driving forces in both books. They are generally likable but definitely flawed, too.

I was curious about Frank and his writing process style. “People ask: ‘How do you write?,’” he said. “I tell them: ‘I just watch the movie (in his mind). Whatever is in the movie, I write. Once you develop the character, they become real people.” He writes early in the morning, and he often is thinking intensely about “solving problems” in his narratives while in bed.

He’s received nice feedback on his books and the sales are good, starting with a book launch at Magee’s Bakery, where he sold 50. His social media presence has been helpful with his website, www.fjmessina-mysteries.com, and his Facebook page, and he was interviewed on local television. He also appears regularly at Papi’s Restaurant in Lexington, where he entertains musically and has books available for sale at the gig.

He’s picking up new readers along with the ones already hooked, and clearly is having fun as it happens. “I’ve already got it (the storyline) through book five,” he said.

These days, both Frank “Doc” Messina and fj messina appear to be happily on note — musically and literarily.

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Steve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of six books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and five in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. Steve’s “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #4,” was released in 2015. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, a weekly KyForward and NKyTribune columnist and a member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Contact him at sflairty2001@yahoo.com or visit his Facebook page, “Kentucky in Common: Word Sketches in Tribute.” (Steve’s photo by Connie McDonald)    

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