By Kurt Anthony Krug
Author Jeffrey Marks not only likes writing mysteries; he also likes writing biographies of famous mystery novelists.
“I’ve always loved the mystery genre. When I was younger I had no idea about the life stories of the authors I loved so much. I first read Agatha Christie’s autobiography when it came out, and I was fascinated to learn more about the author – how her life informed her fiction. So I truly enjoyed learning about the authors and their lives. It was this fascination that led me to write my first biography,” explained Marks, 55, an Anthony Award-winning author who was one of the guests at last month’s Kerrytown BookFest in Ann Arbor.
Marks has penned four bios: “Who Was That Lady? – Craig Rice, the Queen of Screwball Mystery,” “Atomic Renaissance: Women Mystery Writers of the 1940s and 1950s” (showcasing novelists Margaret Millar, Patricia Highsmith, Leslie Ford, Charlotte Armstrong, Dorothy B. Hughes, Mignon G. Eberhart, and Phoebe
Atwood Taylor), “A Biobibliography: Anthony Boucher,” and “Pulp Icons: Erle Stanley Gardner and his Pulp Magazine Characters.”
Gardner is the grandfather of the legal mystery/courtroom thriller and creator of defense attorney Perry Mason, the hero of more than 80 novels and short
“Gardner wrote two novels, both with lawyer protagonists (Ed Stark and Sam Keene). An editor suggested that he write one series instead, so Gardner combined the two men into one and that composite became Perry Mason,” said Marks.
From 1934-37, Warner Bros. released six films with Warren William playing Mason in the first four (1934’s “The Case of the Howling Dog,” 1935’s “The Case of the Curious Bride,” 1935’s “The Case of the Lucky Legs,” and 1936’s “The Case of the Velvet Claws”), Ricardo Cortez in 1936’s “The Case of the Black Cat,” and Donald Woods in 1937’s “The Case of the Stuttering Bishop.” The character was adapted as a 15-minute daily serial that aired from 1943–55 on CBS Radio.
The most famous actor to portray Mason is Raymond Burr on the CBS legal drama “Perry Mason,” airing from 1957-66. Barbara Hale played his secretary Della Street and William Hopper played investigator Paul Drake. From 1973-74, a revival series called “The New Perry Mason” – with Monte Markham replacing Burr – aired but did poorly in the ratings and was cancelled halfway through its first season.
In 1985, Burr and Hale reprised their roles in a series of tele-films, starting with “Perry Mason Returns.” In it, Mason resigns as an appellate court judge to defend Della of murder. William Katt (Hale’s son) portrayed investigator Paul Drake Jr. since Hopper died in 1970. Burr played Mason for 26 of 30 tele-films before dying of kidney cancer in 1993 at the age of 76. In fact, 1993’s “Perry Mason: The Case of the Killer Kiss” aired just after Burr died and is dedicated to him.
In the remaining four tele-films that aired from 1993-95, Mason was conveniently “out of town” and two of his lawyer colleagues played by Paul Sorvino and Hal Holbrook filled in for him on high-profile cases. Hale appeared in these four films, her role being a cameo in 1995’s “A Perry Mason Mystery: The Case of the Jealous Jokester,” the final tele-film.
“People are fascinated by the law and its applications. The ways in which Perry fights for his clients and uses every bit of the law to make that happen are fascinating…” explained Marks. “(Gardner’s) works are about the actions of the characters, so it’s fast-paced and easy to read. That, combined with the will-they/won’t-they (aspect) of Della and Perry, makes for a great series.”
Marks cannot stress enough there was more to Gardner than just Perry Mason.
“So little is written about them because most of the focus is on Perry Mason,” said Marks. “Not to slight Perry Mason, but Gardner wrote so many other books about other characters as well.”
According to Marks, Gardner was a prolific author who wrote more than 650 short works, both short stories and novelettes, under his own name, as well as under numerous pseudonyms, including A.A. Fair, Charles M. Green, et al.
“He kept a killer schedule of writing a novelette (20,000-40,000 words) every three days. Sadly, most of these are not available except in the original pulp magazines that they appeared in. I’m working with Crippen and Landru, a fantastic short-story publisher, to get some of those works back into print,” said Marks.
“I really liked the way that Gardner had goals and he set out to achieve them. The fact that he only got three hours of sleep a night and wrote 10,000 words a day didn’t stop him from doing what needed to be done in order to fulfill his dreams. He’s truly a testament to hard work allowing someone to attain what they want in life. Overall, it’s a very uplifting story of how he made his own life on his terms.”
He continued: “Gardner was truly a self-taught man. He graduated late from high school because of his energy level. He had difficulty sitting still, and the lack of focus got him into trouble with school administrators. He left college after a month and taught himself the law while working for a lawyer. He was one of the youngest lawyers in California to ever pass the bar.”
Currently, Marks is working on biographies of novelists Evan Hunter and Ellery Queen. Hunter was born Salvatore Lombino, but is best known by the pseudonym Ed McBain. He wrote the “87th Precinct” series of novels. He also penned the screenplay to 1963’s “The Birds,” the Alfred Hitchcock classic starring Tippi Hedren.
“McBain was an incredibly versatile author. One man wrote ‘The Birds,’ finished a Craig Rice novel after her death, and wrote a popular series of police procedurals,” said Marks. “That’s an amazing set of skills to be able to write for the screen, mimic a well-known and popular author, and then write in your own voice.”
Robin Agnew, co-owner of Aunt Agatha’s bookstore in Ann Arbor who coordinates the Kerrytown Bookfest with her husband Jamie, has high praise for Marks.
“Jeff is an incredibly knowledgeable historian and lover of the genre. I especially like his work on forgotten women crime writers of the 1940s and 1950s, though he is also a huge Perry Mason geek. He’s a complete delight,” said Agnew.
Marks’ fiction includes three mysteries and a collection of short stories featuring Ulysses S. Grant, which occur after the Civil War ended in 1865 and before his presidency in 1869. The latest one in the series is “The Ambush of My Name.”
“I was born in Georgetown, Ohio, where Grant grew up. So they have Grant days. They have historical buildings where he lived, where his father worked.
There’s these entire mythos built up around him in Georgetown that I’ve lived with for my entire life. In doing the research, I learned a lot more about Grant that was never told in Georgetown, so the fascination started there,” explained Marks.
Marks also writes mysteries set in a department store in contemporary Ohio, which is much easier to write than the biographies and the historical mysteries because they don’t involve meticulous research.
“I love writing biographies, but it’s a multi-year process for me. I usually spend 4-5 years writing a biography. I had a revelation a few years ago that I only had a few more biographies in me at the rate I can write them. I can finish a novel in 12-18 months, so I like being able to write fiction for the shorter turnaround and the publication. I like learning about all of the authors I’ve profiled. I could do research forever, but at some point, I start knowing more than the people who are writing the articles, and I know it’s time to finally write the biography,” he explained. “I get to have these wonderful adventures during my research, which have made for just an incredible set of memories. I’ve talked with actors about their roles in works by my subject. I got to watch ‘Home, Sweet Homicide’ (loosely based on Craig’s children) with Craig’s children. I found the lie detector test results for Dr. Sam Sheppard, the man whose case was fictionalized as ‘The Fugitive.’”
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