Seeing What Writers Write And Why

Jeffrey MarksJeffrey Marks was born in Georgetown, Ohio, the boyhood home of Ulysses S. Grant. Although he moved with his family at an early age, the family frequently told stories about Grant and the people of the small farming community.

At the age of twelve, he was introduced to the works of Agatha Christie via her short story collection, The Underdog and Other Stories. He finished all her books by the age of sixteen and had begun to collect mystery first editions.

After stints on the high school and college newspapers, he began to freelance. After numerous author profiles, he chose to chronicle the short but full life of mystery writer Craig Rice.

That biography (which came out in April 2001 as Who Was That Lady?) encouraged him to write mystery fiction. The Ambush of My Name is the first mystery novel by Marks to be published although he has several mystery short story anthologies on the market. He followed up with Atomic Renaissance: Women Mystery Writers of the 1940s/1950s and Anthony Boucher: A Biobibliography.

His work has won a number of awards including the an Anthony in 2009 for his Anthony Boucher biography, Barnes and Noble Prize, and he has been nominated for an Edgar (MWA), an Agatha (Malice Domestic), a Maxwell award (DWAA), and an Anthony award (Bouchercon). Today, he writes from his home in Cincinnati, which he shares with his dogs.

It’s hard for me to pick up a book these days where I don’t wonder what caused the author to write this book. I wonder why:

  • this book is the third in a row to feature a secret from the past
  • the second in a row to feature a city park
  • the nth book in a row that features a problem father
Craig Rice

Craig Rice

What happened to the author to make them want to write this book with these characters and these trappings? It’s all part of what I ponder when I pick up a book. Why do certain themes resonate with an author to the point that they are used again and again?

Critics often say that Ross Macdonald wrote the same book each time, such were his use of themes and families. Most authors aren’t that obvious about what lies beneath the surface. It’s usually in the smaller corners of the book that you find nuggets you’ve seen before.

Part of this comes from my background in literary criticism. It all started when I started writing about Craig Rice, a wonderful comedic mystery author from the 1940s. As I looked at her life and her works, she constantly proclaimed that the lack of her birth parents in her life had made no impact on her; however, I noticed as I closely read her works that none of her characters EVER had parents. They were orphans and foundlings set adrift in the world without parents.

Jeffrey Marks Erle Stanley Gardner 2So what did I learn about Erle Stanley Gardner from reading 140 of his books? Three things come to mind. First, he used a lot of his own life for fodder for his book. Gardner’s father was a mining engineer, and so were many of the characters in his books. They were men who had discovered mines or hadn’t discovered mines, depending on the plot of the particular story.

I learned Gardner’s philosophy about the desert. Gardner saw the desert as a place to commune with nature. His novels like The Case of the Drowsy Mosquito reflect that with the clients who live outside even though a mansion awaits. He loved the outdoors, and knew that the desert was a harsh mistress. The desert could kill the man who was unprepared,

Earl Stanley Gardner

Earl Stanley Gardner

but could provide a sturdy constitution to those who were prepared to accept what life threw at them in the desert.

Gardner’s love of life comes through as well. He writes about characters who throw their all into things. These are not characters who sit back and watch life go by. They get out there and participate in life, driving actions and reactions as they go. Gardner was not a wallflower. He rode horses, hunted, explored uncharted lands, sailed the seas and still found time to write 4-5 books a year.

So what would biographers say about me? I’ve tried to think about that, but  the only things that I’ve come across are themes related to broken families and alcoholics. And of course, both of those apply to people in my life, but I haven’t found the little gems like I have in other people’s lives. I’ll leave that to my biographer!


Book Review: The Cleveland Creep by Les Roberts

The Cleveland Creep
Les Roberts
Gray & Company Publishers, May 2011
ISBN 9781598510713

Cleveland’s favorite private investigator is back for another riveting case. Milan Jacovich explores the northeast Ohio metropolis and winds up gaining a new friend while losing a few others. Still, he keeps his sense of humor and salute to the city and its personages. Fans of this series should expect and receive another great mystery with a little bit of humor, a little bit of action, and a very good detective story.

Milan Jacovich, Cleveland private investigator, is hired by Savannah Dacey to find her lost son, Earl. Earl is twenty-eight and as Jacovich discovers into taking ‘upskirt’ videos of teens at local malls. The missing person case turns creepier when Jacovich starts speaking with individuals involved with the mob and those dealing in pornography. Also, he’s been persuaded by another PI friend to hire an assistant, a man with temper and fists to back it up. When a dead body turns up dead, Jacovich is hounded not only by the local police (with whom he’s no friend) and an FBI agent (with whom he doesn’t want to be a friend). Missing person to murder, with trouble adding up for Jacovich in every chapter.

This is a very well written book. In depth memorable characters, a little bit of dry wit to soften the edges of deviant subject matter, and sharp descriptions of people and places and Cleveland becomes a not so subtle character, affecting attitudes and action. You’ll drop to look at the city’s bottom feeders and become nostalgic for better times. Roberts comes through with another winner in the Jacovich series.

Reviewed by Stephen L. Brayton, December 2011.

My Favorite Books Of 2011—And We Have A Winner!

Judythe Morgan is the lucky winner of Underdead by Liz Jasper.

Congratulations and happy reading, Judythe!


My 2011 list of books that enticed and tantalized me

wasn’t easy to come up with but here they are with my

great thanks to all these authors and publishers—

1.   Hounded by Kevin Hearne (Del Rey Books)Atticus O’Sullivan, last of the Druids, lives peacefully in Arizona, running an occult bookshop and shape-shifting in his spare time to hunt with his Irish wolfhound. His neighbors and customers think that this handsome, tattooed Irish dude is about twenty-one years old–when in actuality, he’s twenty-one “centuries” old. Not to mention: He draws his power from the earth, possesses a sharp wit, and wields an even sharper magical sword known as Fragarach, the Answerer.  Unfortunately, a very angry Celtic god wants that sword, and he’s hounded Atticus for centuries. Now the determined deity has tracked him down, and Atticus will need all his power–plus the help of a seductive goddess of death, his vampire and werewolf team of attorneys, a sexy bartender possessed by a Hindu witch, and some good old-fashioned luck of the Irish–to kick some Celtic arse and deliver himself from evil.

2.   Ashes by Ilsa J. Bick (Egmont)—An electromagnetic pulse flashes across the sky, destroying every electronic device, wiping out every computerized system, and killing billions. Alex, a resourceful seventeen-year-old running from her incurable brain tumor, hiked into the woods to say good-bye to her dead parents and her personal demons. Now desperate to find out what happened after the pulse crushes her to the ground, Alex meets up with Tom–a young soldier who has left the war in Afghanistan–and Ellie, an angry eight-year-old girl whose grandfather was killed by the EMP.  For this improvised family and the others who are spared, it’s now a question of who can be trusted and who is no longer human.

Review of Ashes

3.   Ashfall by Mike Mullin (Tanglewood Press)—Many visitors to Yellowstone National Park don’t realize that the boiling hot springs and spraying geysers are caused by an underlying supervolcano, so large that the caldera can only be seen by plane or satellite. And by some scientific measurements, it could be overdue for an eruption. For Alex, being left alone for the weekend means having the freedom to play computer games and hang out with his friends without hassle from his mother. Then the Yellowstone supervolcano erupts, plunging his hometown into a nightmare of darkness, ash, and violence. Alex begins a harrowing trek to seach for his family and finds help in Darla, a travel partner he meets along the way. Together they must find the strength and skills to survive and outlast an epic disaster.

Review of Ashfall

4.   Skating Over the Line by Joelle Charbonneau (Minotaur Books)—Rebecca Robbins is desperate to sell her inherited roller-skating rink in small-town Indian Falls, and—finally—she has a buyer. She can’t wait to head back to Chicago, especially now that her long delinquent father has blown back into town, but Lionel, her veterinarian boyfriend, thinks she should stay put. Also, the gang at the Senior Center wants her to track down the thief who’s been hot-wiring rusted-out classic cars. Unable to resist, Rebecca soon has the Sheriff’s Deputy threatening to arrest her for obstruction, and strange but scary men threatening her life. Then cars start exploding, with people in them, and Rebecca’s father goes missing. With the help of Pop, her Elvis-impersonating grandfather, Rebecca must find the pyromaniac car thief and put a stop to him—before he stops her first.

5.   The Dog Who Knew Too Much by Spencer Quinn (Atria Books)—Bernie is invited to give the keynote speech at the Great Western Private Eye Convention, but it’s Chet that the bigshot P.I. in charge has secret plans for. Meanwhile Chet and Bernie are hired to find a kid who has gone missing from a wilderness camp in the high country. The boy’s mother thinks the boy’s father–her ex–has snatched the boy, but Chet makes a find that sends the case in a new and dangerous direction. As if that weren’t enough, matters get complicated at home when a stray puppy that looks suspiciously like Chet shows up. Affairs of the heart collide with a job that’s never been tougher, requiring our two intrepid sleuths to depend on each other as never before.

Review of The Dog Who Knew Too Much

6.   Hard Spell by Justin Gustainis (Angry Robot)—Stan Markowski is a Detective Sergeant on the Scranton PD’s Supernatural Crimes Investigation Unit. Like the rest of America, Scranton’s got an uneasy ‘live and let unlive’ relationship with the supernatural. But when a vamp puts the bite on an unwilling victim, or some witch casts the wrong kind of spell, that’s when they call Markowski. He carries a badge. Also, a crucifix, some wooden stakes, a big vial of holy water, and a 9mm Beretta loaded with silver bullets.

Review of Hard Spell

7.   The Providence of Death by Bronson L. Parker (Self-published)—Joe McKibben refuses to accept the emotional reality that his wife of thirty years was killed in a vehicle crash. Like the good cop he once was, he ignores his feelings of grief, telling himself he’s still married. Eleven months of living alone has him asking why he’s still alive. His ignored feelings of grief explode into anger when he finds the brutally slain body of another retired detective and close friend. Evidence indicates his friend’s death may be linked to an older murder in the city, one that has remained unsolved for three decades. McKibben, now the owner of a historical research firm, begins to dig into the older murder, using computerized data that did not exist in the 1970s. His research unearths a trail of crime and tragedy that leads back a half-century into the city’s history and forward to the wife of the man who will be the city’s next police chief. McKibben’s search, which takes him across three states, also leads to a chance encounter that gives his life a new beginning.

8.   The Shattering by Karen Healey (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers)—Seventeen-year-old Keri likes to plan for every possibility. She knows what to do if you break an arm, or get caught in an earthquake or fire. But she wasn’t prepared for her brother’s suicide, and his death has left her shattered with grief. When her childhood friend Janna tells her it was murder, not suicide, Keri wants to believe her. After all, Janna’s brother died under similar circumstances years ago, and Janna insists a visiting tourist, Sione, who also lost a brother to apparent suicide that year, has helped her find some answers.  As the three dig deeper, disturbing facts begin to pile up: one boy killed every year; all older brothers; all had spent New Year’s Eve in the idyllic town of Summerton. But when their search for the serial killer takes an unexpected turn, suspicion is cast on those they trust the most.  As secrets shatter around them, can they save the next victim? Or will they become victims themselves?

Review of The Shattering

9.   I Shall Wear Midnight by Terry Pratchett (HarperCollins)—It starts with whispers. Then someone picks up a stone. Finally, the fires begin. When people turn on witches, the innocents suffer. . . . Tiffany Aching has spent years studying with senior witches, and now she is on her own. As the witch of the Chalk, she performs the bits of witchcraft that aren’t sparkly, aren’t fun, don’t involve any kind of wand, and that people seldom ever hear about: She does the unglamorous work of caring for the needy. But someone–or something–is igniting fear, inculcating dark thoughts and angry murmurs against witches. Aided by her tiny blue allies, the Wee Free Men, Tiffany must find the source of this unrest and defeat the evil at its root–before it takes her life. Because if Tiffany falls, the whole Chalk falls with her.

10. Ranchero by Rick Gavin (Minotaur Books)—Repo man Nick Reid had a seemingly simple job to do: talk to Percy Dwayne Dubois– pronounced “Dew-boys,” front-loaded and hick specific–about the payments he’s behind on for a flat screen TV, or repossess it. But Percy Dwayne wouldn’t give in. Nope, instead he saw fit to go all white-trash philosophical and decided that since the world was stacked against him anyway, he might as well fight it. He hit Nick over the head with a fireplace shovel, tied him up with a length of lamp cord, and stole the mint-condition calypso coral-colored 1969 Ranchero that Nick had borrowed from his landlady. And he took the TV with him on a rowdy ride across the Mississippi Delta.  Nick and his best friend Desmond, fellow repo man in Indianola, Mississippi, have no choice but to go after him. The fact that the trail eventually leads to Guy, a meth cooker recently set up in the Delta after the Feds ran him out of New Orleans, is of no consequence–Nick will do anything to get the Ranchero back. And it turns out he might have to.

Do Books Make You Hungry Or Is It Just Me?

Liz Jasper always enjoyed writing, but in college and graduate school dutifully studied things that would make her “marketable.” Fortunately, she loved her stint as a middle school science teacher (most of the time), her time working as a business analyst and still really enjoys her most recent career switch into financial planning.

And yet…while teaching, doing five-page math problems in graduate school, and doing some serious bonding with Excel, she kept haunting bookstores and compulsively read her way through the library system’s fiction sections in three counties. She took unreasonable joy in fact that, while she very properly interned for a bank during business school, part of what she did for them was write magazine articles. The award she’s secretly most proud of? Her high school English department award.

Being a clever analyst, she eventually admitted she’d always wanted to write novels. And then she went ahead and wrote one. She shoved that in a drawer, took some classes and started again.

Why does she always end up writing paranormals? After five years teaching middle school followed by way too much crunching numbers, writing about blood-sucking demons is only natural.

Liz is the award-winning author of the humorous vampire mysteries Underdead and Underdead in Denial. Look for her next book, Crimson in the Very Wrong Fairy Tale, coming soon!

Is it just me or do other people get terrible food cravings when they read about a character eating something?

British novels are the worst for me. I cannot make it through one without ending up in the kitchen mid-way through making pots of tea and snarfing down tiny sandwiches with the crusts cut off. And I’m a coffee drinker and a crust eater. The worst is when they eat bread and butter. I have no idea why I must have it when I read about someone in Britain eating bread and butter but I cannot control myself. It’s so bad that just thinking about it as I write this, I’ve had to stop no fewer than two times for bread with butter.

I don’t always feel this way when I read (thank goodness or I’d never make it out of the kitchen). Not once, for instance, have I felt the need to stand over the sink and eat a peanut butter and olive sandwich when I read a Janet Evanovich novel. But then I will never want a PB&O sandwich so perhaps that’s not so surprising.

The funny thing is that I don’t really get food cravings when I read her novels and it isn’t because of the PB&O sandwiches. Her heroine,  Stephanie Plum, eats just about every junk food on the planet (God love her).

Why is it that I can’t get through Martha Grimes without having a high tea emergency and yet Stephanie can eat birthday cake in front of me and I’m not shoving people aside to get down to the local bakery?  And I really, really, really like birthday cake.

I figured this was just one of those odd little things until the day after Christmas when I overheard this:

Liz’s Dad: (Calling from the kitchen, late at night, sounding confused): Do you want jam on it? Or ham or something?

Liz’s Mom: (Answering back from the bedroom): No! Just bread and butter. And tea. Don’t forget the tea!

Liz: (Races into her mothers room): You! You’re reading a British book, aren’t you?

Liz’s Mom: (Holding book protectively to her chest and regarding Liz with alarm as she snarfs  down a piece of bread slathered with butter.) Yes, why?

Quite possibly I suffer from a terrible genetic anomaly. So I must know. Does anyone else crave food when they read about it? What’s the worst for you? What’s the weirdest? What’s the most you’ve done to get something you’ve read about?

Everyone who leaves a comment gets a chance to win an ebook of Underdead. If you

send me to the kitchen, I’ll throw your name in the hat twice! If I have to get in the car

and go to the store on an emergency run, you’ll be entered three times.

Winner to be announced Sunday, January 29th.

Book Review: Adrien English Mysteries by Josh Lanyon

Adrien English Mysteries
Josh Lanyon
Loose ID, May 2007
ISBN 978-1-59632-465-7

This edition contains the first two novels in the series, Fatal Shadows and A Dangerous Thing.

Fatal Shadows introduces us to Adrien English, who lives above his Old Pasadena bookstore and is rudely awakened one morning by a pair of detectives, Chan and Riordan, The pair have come to give him the bad news that his employee and long-time friend has been murdered. Not only do they want to know Adrien’s whereabouts at the time of the crime but also whether Adrien was sleeping with Robert. It becomes obvious that the detectives think Robert’s homosexuality had something to do with his death and Riordan in particular seems to have a need to show his manliness. It soon strikes Adrien that he himself may be a target of the murderer but Riordan doesn’t take him seriously. In the meantime, small facts here and there lead Adrien to suspect a connection to his and Robert’s high school days and the body count begins to grow. That’s not all that’s growing though—Adrien can’t help an increasing attraction to Jake Riordan who may or may not be interested in return.

In A Dangerous Thing, Adrien takes a brief vacation to a ranch he inherited near Sonora, leaving his rather strange employee, Angus, in charge of the bookstore. He hopes the peace and solitude will help him break the writer’s block he’s having with his second novel but, just before arriving, he discovers a body lying in the road. Not being a stupid man, Adrien races back down the road and finally reaches someone in the Sheriff’s office. Unfortunately, by the time the sheriff and his deputy arrive, the dead man is gone. A long-lost gold mine, a trespassing team of archaeologists who think Adrien is the trespasser, a field of nicely-growing pot, an 1857 stagecoach robbery and more missing bodies (alive or not) ramp up the tension that Adrien was hoping to escape for a few days. Will Detective Jake Riordan come to the rescue or will perhaps Adrien be the one who rescues Jake after a fashion?

In case it isn’t obvious the two main characters (and some others) are gay but this really is no surprise if the reader does a minimum of research first. The mysteries are light but intriguing puzzles and, although there is some romance (and just plain sex), it’s a pretty good blend. I don’t particularly like to read sex scenes but, in this case, it’s not because the characters are gay—I don’t like it with hetero couples either. So, how did I deal with it? Simple. I used my trusty finger and the touch screen to move on down the road. On the other hand, as a former bookseller, I really enjoyed the details about Adrien’s bookstore, especially the squirrelly writing group and the peculiarities of Angus.

The author has an extensive body of work, plenty to keep a reader going for quite some time, and these are the first two of five installments of the Adrien English Mysteries. I’ll be looking for the next three which, unfortunately, will take me to the end of the series and then I’ll just have to try a lot of Lanyon‘s other books. I expect they’ll be every bit as entertaining as Fatal Shadows and A Dangerous Thing.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, January 2012.

Book Review: Naked Heat by Richard Castle

Naked Heat
Richard Castle
Hyperion, April 2011
ISBN 9780786891368
Mass Market Paperback

“All right, fellas, I’ve got my first odd sock.” The detective’s approach to a crime scene, even one in this much disarray, was to simplify her field of view. She pared everything down to getting inside the logic of the life that was lived in that space and using that empathy to spot inconsistencies, the small thing that didn’t fit the pattern. The odd sock.

Raley and Ochoa came across the room to her. Rook adjusted his position at the perimeter to follow quietly from a distance. “Whatcha got?” asked Ochoa.

“Work space. Busy work space, right? Big newspaper columnist. Pens everywhere, pencils, custom notepads and stationery. Box of Kleenex. Look at this beside her here.” She stepped carefully around the body, still cast backward in the office chair. “A typewriter, for God’s sake. Magazines and newspapers with clippings snipped out of them, right? All that stuff makes lots of what?”

“Work,” said Raley.

“Trash,” said Rook, and Heat’s two detectives turned slightly his way and then back to Heat, unwilling to acknowledge him as part of this exchange. Like his season pass had expired.

Capsule summary: NYPD homicide detective Nikki Heat’s investigation into the murder of a prominent gossip columnist reunites her with investigative journalist Jameson Rook.

Capsule review: I’ll be honest: I wouldn’t have read this if I weren’t a fan of the TV show Castle. As your standard mystery-thriller, Naked Heat is neither exceptionally good nor exceptionally bad. It was an enjoyable read, a weekend well spent. The real fun in reading it, though, comes from spotting echoes of the previous season (for example: yes, “Schlemming” makes an out-of-the-blue appearance) and, if you ship Castle and Beckett like I do, reading the dedication and acknowledgements for hints to where their relationship is headed. So while someone who’s never seen Castle can easily enjoy Naked Heat and the other Nikki Heat novels, familiarity with the show adds an extra layer of meaning and pleasure to reading them.

Reviewed by Laura Taylor, December 2011, on Beyond the Blurb; reprinted here with permission.

You've Changed—Has Your Website?

Returning guest blogger Sunny Frazier, whose first novel in the Christy Bristol Astrology Mysteries, Fools Rush In, received the Best Novel Award from Public Safety Writers Association, is here to remind us all that freshness is not just important for food.


Websites are now as important for establishing identity as a birth certificate or a driver’s license. Yet, I’ve noticed that once an author puts one up, the site is often forgotten and neglected.

I research authors when they send me query letters in my capacity as acquisitions editor for Oak Tree Press. I like to know who I’m dealing with and, short of doing a background check, websites are all I have to give me an inkling of their accomplishments up to this stage in their careers.

When all of us tentatively dipped our toes in the Internet waters, websites had to be done by techy people who knew the bells and whistles. Their expertise came with a price tag. The evolution of do-it-yourself sites taught us all what a domain name was and put self-made websites within reach. They became the way we reached out to the world.

What prompted me to blog about this is the realization that my own website construction didn’t in any way reflect who I am today. I had evolved but my website was stagnant.

Of course, the bio info hadn’t changed. The past is what it is, I can’t recreate it. The second page was updated to show the covers of both my Christy Bristol mysteries. But, where was any indication of my current status of scouting for authors and creating careers? There was nothing showing this progression.

What I saw were pages that no longer had any use. My links page didn’t attract any attention; in fact, other authors were doing it better with a line-up on the perimeters of their sites. I was more interested in their links and using them for my benefit. I scrapped Links and substituted a page showing off covers of books I’d midwifed into print. I included a video of publisher Billie Johnson and I giving our mission statement for Oak Tree Press. I titled the page “Mission: Acquisitions.” Catchy, right?

“On the Road” wasn’t relevant now because kidney failure curtails future public appearances. The nifty idea I had called “The Murder Circle” to promote authors had given away to another nifty idea: “Posse Posts.” The Posse is a marketing group I lead by sending them to websites that expand their knowledge of promotion. Why not make the links available to everyone?

I encourage everyone to examine what your website says about you to the world and try to keep it current with your growth. After all, the idea is to reflect not just who you are but where you’re going in your career.