Beginning at Square One Again

Jeffrey Marks 2Jeffrey 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 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.

About every four or five years, I have to completely start over. I write biographies, and after spending nearly half a decade with someone, there’s a terrible break-up (usually resulting in a book deal) followed by starting the whole process again with someone else. I must be a serial monogamy kind of writer. Being the type of person who doesn’t appreciate change, it’s usually a traumatic experience for me.

Ellery Queen

Ellery Queen

At the moment, I’m saying good-bye to Erle Stanley Gardner with a final edit, and starting on the biography of the two men who wrote as Ellery Queen. I’ve never done a two person biography before, so there are some instant challenges for me in terms of organization and structure of the book as well as two times the work.

And I’m back at square one. The interesting thing about starting a biography is the assumption that quite a bit is known about the subject. In the case of Ellery Queen, we know the broad strokes of their lives, but not the details. For example, Fred Dannay was hospitalized in 1940 after being in a very serious automobile accident. However, when I start to dig, the details are not available. The where, the other driver, the ramifications are all gone, and of course, I’m attempting to locate these details after 70 years have passed. The woman in the records department at the hospital actually laughed when I called and asked her about the records from the accident.

Erle Stanley Gardner

Erle Stanley Gardner

It can be worse than this though. For Craig Rice, I had to locate the information on her husbands, their names and the number. Ironically, the lack of basic information about a 20th century author intrigued me; it would also later frustrate me since I had to answer all of those questions myself.

Don’t get me wrong. I love what I do. The thrill of learning details about my favorite authors, things that have been hidden for decades that I unearth like a literary Howard Carter, makes up some of the best moments of my life. For Erle Stanley Gardner, that moment came in a paper grocery bag, an uncatalogued bag full of letters on a heretofore never known situation, found at the Harry Ransom Center in Austin. Libraries are not great places to squeal with delight, but I did manage a silent happy dance that day.

There have been fun moments with my biographies. I’ve actually held the lie-detector test for Dr. Sam Sheppard, the man who served as the inspiration for The Fugitive. I had the fun of watching Home Sweet Homicide with the kids who served as the inspiration for Craig Rice’s book of the same name.

So I try to remind myself of all of these things as I look back at how far I’d gone with Mr. Erle Stanley Gardner and how far I still have to go with Ellery Queen. Starting back at Square One sounds like a drag, but I know that fun times will lie ahead – and perhaps a squeal and happy dance as well.

Atomic RenaissanceAnthony BoucherWho Was That Lady